Age Discrimination Not Always to Blame

Age Discrimination Not Always to Blame

Taunee Besson, CMF, Senior Columnist

Q: I was part of a reduction-in-force at a well-known engineering firm. It employed about 44,000 people; now it has about 14,000. My background includes a B.S. in chemical engineering and an M.B.A., and I am 59 years old.

Since getting laid off, I've been dedicating all my time to my job search. I've followed all the advice I can find to make myself a better candidate, but my results have been discouraging. Even after following up about open positions, I never receive any kind of communication – not even a rejection email. My impression is that when organizations get the idea you are over 45, nothing happens. If age discrimination isn't the cause, what is?

A: While I will answer your question about age discrimination, your letter broaches other issues that need to be addressed as well. The unfortunate fact is, regardless of expertise, in today's economy only a small percentage of those using looking for work succeed in finding a job. Consequently, your age probably had little bearing on your disappointing record.

However, that is not to say that all hope is lost. On the contrary, for most job seekers using and expanding a contact network consistently produces good results, even when the job market is especially competitive. This is particularly true for older job hunters. Most find it easier to tailor discussions of their backgrounds to an employer's needs once they've talked to people at the company face-to-face.

With regard to age discrimination, some companies refuse to hire people of a certain age for a variety of logical or silly reasons, regardless of what they claim. In fact, in working with clients for the past 30 years, I've found every age has its detractors. Your over-50 age group has overcome the "lack of experience" and "too many family responsibilities" stigmas only to replace them with:

  • Fewer years to work before retirement
  • Higher salary and benefit costs
  • An employer perception of the older worker's inflexible attitude and inability to learn anything new (this one is a myth, but many people still believe it.)

For every interviewer who avoids 50+ workers, however, there's one who recognizes the advantages of this age group. Mature professionals will:

  • Bring expertise ready for immediate application. Their training time is usually much shorter than younger people's
  • Offer a seasoned perspective developed through years of handling similar situations
  • Provide stable, mellowed personalities without being driven to prove their worth at the expense of their colleagues
  • Come equipped with a strong work ethic and the desire to build loyal, long-term relationships with their new company
  • Often exhibit more flexibility, enthusiasm, and willingness to learn than some of their younger co-workers who "think they know everything."
  • Give clients the comfortable feeling that their firm is run by mature, experienced, reliable people

The trick is discovering companies that appreciate what you bring to the table. To do this successfully, networking is going to be your most direct route. The best prospects include companies for whom your age is perceived as a plus. They are:

  • Large firms committed to affirmative action
  • Organizations that need a stable, "old pro" image because their customers demand it
  • Consulting firms that are building departments in areas where they have no in-house expertise

Recently, one of my clients, a 55+ engineer, decided to take early retirement when his high-tech company cut back its staff. Through some judicious networking he joined a management consulting firm that was expanding into health care IT systems. He is rapidly becoming a trusted consultant in this area both because it's a field requiring fresh thinking, and because he has years of experience working with the type of technical people he now advises.

If even after adjusting your methods, your job search still isn't productive, try looking at the positions you're pursuing. With your engineering degree, M.B.A. and years of experience, you have much to offer potential employers. Are you replying to job listings below your level, assuming people your age may have to settle for less? While this line of thinking is common, it's deadly. Employers don't want to hire overqualified people. Perhaps interviewers have told you, "You're overqualified," and you thought they really meant, "You're too old." They probably aren't hiring because:

  • They know you'll resent taking a pay cut
  • They think you'll find little challenge in the position
  • They worry you'll leave for the next enticing job that comes along

While being rejected is tough, they're probably doing you a favor by not allowing you to take a position below your capability. Of course, if you're tired of the performance rat race and welcome a low stress job, then apply for the lower-level positions – but in person, if possible. Telling an employer face-to-face that you want to do a good day's work but not compete for a higher-level slot may convince them that you're the best person for the job after all.

Senior Columnist Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979 that works with individual and corporate clients in career transition, job search, executive coaching, talent management and small business issues. She is an award-winning columnist for and a best-selling author of the Wall Street Journal's books on resumes and cover letters. Her articles on a variety of career issues have appeared on numerous career/job websites and trade and business journals. Ms. Besson has been quoted numerous times in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money, and a number of other websites and publications.

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