Age discrimination is neither legal nor fair. Nevertheless, it is prevalent in a variety of forms, job seekers, career coaches and recruiters agree.
Most often the discrimination isn't overt; it's more a function of who does the initial filtering of resumes and job candidates and the likelihood that those relatively junior staffers don't understand the real requirements of the job they're filling or what an experienced executive would bring to it.
"I've found age discrimination pretty prevalent," said John, an OpsLadder member who is an expert in sourcing and supply-chain management. Working through TheLadders, John was recently hired by a leading medical equipment company, six months after he was laid off as director of materials management, supply chain, purchasing and inventory at telecommunications equipment maker JDS Uniface.
"It's not overwhelming, but it is disheartening. You talk to a lot of recruiters who weed you out before you get to the manager to explain the value you can bring," says John, who is 59. "And there are two parts to it: age, certainly in my case, but with 28 years of experience, your comp package is pretty high."
It's almost impossible for job candidates to tell whether they're being judged or passed over based on their age or their salary, according to Diane Grimard Wilson, a career coach who is president of Grimard Wilson Consulting Inc. and author of Back in Control: How to Stay Sane, Productive, and Inspired in Your Career Transition.
The sticking point could be just that the interviewer is surprised to see gray hair on a candidate he or she assumed was younger.
"If you're an executive in your mid-50s who made it through the first screenings because you didn't put your first couple of jobs on your resume or excluded the year you graduated, you could walk into that interview and be talking to an HR person who's the age of your child," said Sally Haver, senior vice president of business development at The Ayers Group/Career Partners International, a recruiting company that specializes in career transitions and outplacement.
Those relatively inexperienced screeners have usually been told that their responsibility is to say 'no' as often and quickly as possible to candidates who don't fit the pattern, according to Jim Villwock, president of expense-management service IEM Group Inc. and author of the forthcoming Whacked Again! Secrets to Getting Back on the Executive Saddle.
"You're at the mercy of low-level people with a slate of profiles to match," he said. "You can address that by talking about the value you bring, but you have to be at the top of your game to do it. The subject matter you're presenting is difficult for people at that level."
The goal, Haver said, is to satisfy the interviewer that your qualifications fit the profile and that there are no other issues – such as age, health problems or unusually high salary requirements – that would disqualify you.
"You want to convince them you're pass-on-able. If you are in this screening interview with HR, you want it to be as transparent as possible," she said.
Prepare to Overcome Objections
The key to being successful isn't hiding your age or salary but being prepared with explanations or propositions designed to overcome the objections screeners of different types will bring up, according to Cheryl Palmer, a certified career coach and president of CallToCareer.com.
"Think like a salesperson, even if you're not," Palmer said. "A salesperson practices to deal with any objections you might bring up because they know what the potential objections will be."
For a screener it might be enough to demonstrate that you're still energetic, focused and vital despite a few gray hairs.
"You can get a lot of questions settled before they're even asked," Palmer said. "Usually the first few minutes of the interview are, 'Did you have trouble finding the place' or, 'How was your weekend?' Instead of the usual, you can go out of your way to say, 'I went hiking with some buddies of mine over the weekend, and I feel great!' Right at the outset you paint this picture of someone who's energetic and raring to go. You've painted over those misgivings without even knowing if age would be an issue."
Questions about compensation and authority are stickier but can be dealt with a lot more directly with the hiring manager than issues as potentially liable as age, Haver said.
"If you're talking to the hiring manager, you can cut to the chase and say, 'I can do everything you need done and more, and you're going to be thrilled,’" Haver said. "‘You will not find anybody who can do this job better than I can do it, so let's talk about how you can bring me on board in a way that's comfortable for you.’"
If compensation is the sticking point, you can suggest that the hiring manager bring you in near the top of the scale that would have been appropriate for the more-junior person that was originally expected in the role, with the understanding that your compensation will be reviewed in six months based on the amount of value you bring to the job.
"You can start on a consulting basis to get your foot in the door and say you're comfortable with that arrangement because you know the kind of value you can bring to the organization," Haver said. "Make the entry point as comfortable as possible for them.
According to Villwock, the key to making the compensation talk work is demonstrating not that you can do elegantly the kinds of things a less experienced person might not know to do at all but to show that your experience makes you uniquely valuable compared to other candidates for the job.
"Most executives I talk to are strictly a commodity," Villwock said. "They say they have 20 years experience, but it's one year of experience 20 times.
“If you do your research – and I'm talking about doing as much as 40 hours of research including talking to people inside and outside the company before a final slate of interviews – you can show that you know the company, know what problems it's really facing, and can offer ways to address those problems.
"If I'm the CEO or CFO or COO, I care about return on investment, cost savings, how you're going to help me increase revenue, not how you're going to train people in your department," Villwock said. "That says to me you're not a commodity and, to me as the CEO, that you can do things to solve the problems I'm worried about."