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Age Bias: Alive In Today’s Workplace…But You Can Overcome It

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On Larry King Live, Bo Derek, the woman who once – it seems like yesterday – represented beauty and youth for a generation of middle-aged men, in the movie ‘10’ told her host of a harrowing experience. It took place on the set of the Chris Farley’s flick Tommy Boy. Nervous because it was her first day of filming, the 43-year-old actress became doubly self-conscious when she noticed a group of college-aged kids hovering on the edge of the set. When she asked if they could move out of her line of sight, she was told, “But those are the Paramount executives.” How does that make you feel? asked King intensely. Said Bo, “Like a dinosaur.”

If you suspect you’ve been a victim of age discrimination, you are not alone. Age discrimination is alive in today’s workplace, but you can overcome it. So, if you are 40 or older, or will be in the near future, read on. The following strategies may prove helpful in overcoming age bias.

Pay attention to hiring practices and code words - Most employers, or at least the shrewd ones, will not admit outright that they do not intend to hire older workers. Instead, they will use “code words” in their help-wanted ads or Internet listings that call for “rising stars,” “upward mobility,” “recent college grads,” or someone on the “fast track.” Staffing firms, executive recruiters and savvy job seekers quickly pick up the clues that the company’s culture favors youth over experience. Unfortunately, the use of code words indicates that there are employers out there who still work on the false assumption that older workers have reduced capabilities. Therefore, devote the bulk of your time focusing on companies that are more likely to pay off. Additionally, register with an agency that specializes in placing experienced professionals into contract or temporary assignments. A large number of firms utilize this approach as a way to gauge an individual’s performance. Not only will this approach keep you in play, but it also will keep your spirits up and allow you to keep your skill levels current while helping to pay the bills.

Handle the issue of overqualified effectively - According to the U.S. Department of Labor; age-bias claims have been climbing, from 12,962 in 1993 to 23,796 last year. Some older workers say that “overqualified” is the most common response they hear from recruiters and hiring managers. For instance, during a phone screening or initial face-to-face meeting, if the issue that you are overqualified comes up, what do you say?

I would suggest that you feed the concept by agreeing with them. An answer along the following lines could go a long way to improving your candidacy: “I understand your concern; however, I am confident that you will find me a valuable asset in this position. In addition, should you want to promote internal talent in the future, I’ll have proven myself and have the years of experience to assume more responsibilities successfully. My sole objective is to prove myself over time.”

Paul Jenkins (a pseudonym) lost his job as a treasury bill and bond trader because he was redundant, they said. Then they hired a younger guy and had Jenkins, 52, train him. “They figure you’re slower, your reaction time is not as good as it use to be,” says Jenkins, who swallowed it because the investment house gave him a decent package.

Think about creating your next position - A time-tested method of gaining entrance to a targeted company is to research its problems well enough for you to create a position that would meet its pressing needs. You may have to start as an independent contractor, focusing your discussion on a current problem the company is encountering and how you are especially well qualified to assist them. This approach may not be easy, but it does work well for older job candidates since they have excellent credibility in this type of situation. It also lets age and experience work for you and not against you, while giving the potential full-time employer a chance to eliminate any reservations about your age and ability.

Fight the stereotype - At every opportunity, show your employer (or would-be employer) that you are physically and mentally fit for new challenges. This does not mean you have to register for the Eco-Challenge, but in a job interview you might casually mention that you run, or recently re-landscaped your front yard by yourself, or maybe you just completed computer-training classes. Reminding you that appearance is a critical hiring element may seem presumptuous but far too many older job seekers reinforce the stereotypes, which produce hiring prejudices. They do not pay attention to their personal appearance and general presentation. It is astonishing to see the number of job seekers needing a haircut and wearing shirts with frayed collars and cuffs. Their entire appearance -- lack of general grooming, poor posture, and low energy level – screams these people are a poor risk; do not consider hiring them. They appear defeated and reinforce this impression when they speak. Their voices are weak, shaky or monotone. They completely fail to sell themselves and to present a positive image.

Keep networking. Older workers have at least one advantage over younger job seekers -- they know more people to put a career move in action. Do not feel embarrassed or reticent about contacting former employers, friends and alumni associations in your job search. Remember, the purpose of networking is not to hit up contacts for jobs, but to create a loop in which the right people, at the right time, with the right opportunity finally converge. Networking also will keep you from spending too much time at home and alone where you might develop a “bunker mentality” that leads to feelings of isolation.

Do not focus exclusively on large Fortune 500 companies. Experienced job seekers are likely to receive a better return on their job-hunting efforts by looking at companies and organizations with fewer than 500 employees. This type of company size tends to value mature individuals who need little or no training and can hit the ground floor running. Recent statistics show that over 90 percent of all companies and organizations in the United States employ fewer than 500 people, and two-thirds of all hiring activity in the last several years occurred in companies with revenues ranging from $10 million to $500 million in volume.

Fortunately, there are companies that still value mature, experienced individuals. Focus your search by gravitating toward companies that want a mature professional who has proved himself or herself in the marketplace, who can bring a calming presence to the company and perhaps be a mentor to others.

Become a perpetual learning machine. The one competitive advantage you have is your ability to learn. If you accept the premise “there is no loyalty any longer, that jobs are no longer for life,” then you need to develop skills that employers will pay for. One of the best ways to do this is to develop relationships with the people and organizations that eventually will buy those skills from you.

We have been conditioned from birth to view age for its constraints, not for its possibilities. The age conditioning is reinforced everywhere, from the advertising industry, which glorifies youth, to typical corporate management, which constantly offers early-retirement packages. Sure, age bias is alive in today’s workplace; however, older workers have considerable talents and expertise to offer.



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