‘How Old Are You?’: Readers Tell Job Interview Tales

Readers ask, experts answer age-based interview questions
artInterviewing-1Editors’ Note: A story that ran in Ladders’ Sept. 16 newsletter, “Don’t Answer That Interview Question,” elicited a nearly unprecedented volume of reader responses. Many recounted their own experiences with interviewers who asked inappropriate questions, and others asked how to respond, whether the questions come from hiring managers or online forms.

Ladders took some of those questions to recruiters, lawyers and hiring professionals, asking them about the appropriateness of the questions and the best responses candidates can offer.

Question: Do I need to date myself?

Karl Lohrmann prefers not to answer questions about his age. But it’s hard to avoid revealing it, sometimes indirectly.

“I’m filling out a lot of applications online. I don’t know anyone who fills out an application on paper anymore,” said Lohrmann, 62, of Chicago. “Most of these forms ask for my college-graduation date. You can’t leave the question blank; you can’t submit an incomplete form. How can I fill out this form without dating myself?

Answer: There are ways to get around the question, but almost all of them draw attention to the issue, said Janine Yancey, president of emTRAiN of Sacramento, Calif., an employment law training company that educates managers on do’s and don’ts of workplace. “By not answering, you are calling attention to the matter,” she said. “You can put in vague date ranges; for example, you can write, ‘Graduated in the 1980s.’ ”

If the inquiry comes up during an interview, “the best thing you can do is reframe the question,” Yancey advised. “Tell the interviewer how many years you’ve been in the workforce. As a candidate, you could say, ‘If you are asking me how many years I’ve spent in this particular industry, I’ve been working for X years.’ You’re talking about relevant years of experience: it’s smooth, seamless, not confrontational.”

You want to avoid confrontation, which is a challenge. “You don’t want to point out that they are being inappropriate, even though it may be true. You need to redirect the conversation along appropriate lines.”

If an online form won’t allow you to submit the application without answering a question about your age or dates associated with your career or education, you have the option of bypassing the computer, said Matthew Arrigale, vice president for Human Resources Americas at Schott North America of Elmsford, N.Y.

“Try to get hold of someone at that company and tell them the site is not letting you submit the application,” he said. “Tell that person there is one question on the application that is asking for information you don’t think you should provide. It’s possible they are not aware of it.”

Your age or dates are not relevant information, and you shouldn’t feel compelled to answer it, Arrigale said. The danger, he said, is that many interviewers will ask seemingly innocuous questions but are digging for more information. It’s good to be aware of these questions.

“No matter how innocently they ask some of these questions, you can start revealing more information,” he said. “It’s legal to ask, ‘Are you at least 18 years of age?’ and you might make a joke that reveals more than you want. Or they will ask you to describe long-term career plans. Don’t say you are looking for a place to retire from.”

If a company presses for information on graduation dates and your attempts to avoid the issue aren’t working, you might reconsider whether you want to work for the company, Arrigale said. “If you feel they are trying to get age-related information and it seems they are looking for ways to skirt employment regulations, I would consider opting out and finding a company with integrity.”

Question: “License and registration, please?”

Brian Haley of New York, who is looking for a facilities-management position, has interviewed with several hospitals and corporations. “The application form was generally straightforward, but in a few places, they asked me for a social-security number or a picture ID, both of which would reveal my date of birth,” he said. “Can they ask for this sort of information?”

Answer: Asking for a photo ID is not appropriate, Yancey said. If you’re uncomfortable presenting it, the best response is to submit the application without it, she said.

“I would take the passive route and not include the photo ID,” she said. “And if they kick it back to you, I would say, in a non-confrontational way, ‘I would check your hiring guidelines, it’s not appropriate.’ Of course, that might put them on the defensive, and you might not get the job. But the goal is to get beyond the gatekeeper – this first contact. I do think that 90 percent of this type of thing is ignorance on the HR person’s part; they aren’t trained, and they aren’t informed. So it’s worth standing your ground and saying something.”

Not only is the information unnecessary at the start of the interview process, it raises concerns about identity theft, said Ellen B. Vance, senior consultant and advisory services practice leader at Titan Group, an HR consultancy in Richmond, Va.

“It’s OK to leave that blank and say you’d be happy to provide that at time of hire,” Vance told Lisa Vaas for a story Ladders ran on data security. “I think the candidate is perfectly OK to say, ‘I’m very cautious, based (on) what I see in the media, about identity theft.’ You can do it in a way that’s not confrontational.”

Question: How much professional history can interviewers request?

Certified professional resume writers advise clients that only the last 15 years of your resume is relevant, and most recommend using no more than that to cloak your age. But what happens when the company wants to see your full employment history? What happens when the company is the government and it’s part of a security check?

One member of Ladders from the Washington, D.C., area, who asked to remain anonymous, ran into the situation when applying to jobs as a sales manager position in IT and federal sales. “What do I say when an interviewer wants my entire employment record?” he asked. “Is this something the government is allowed to ask? Should I submit my entire employment history if it will date me?”

Answer: It’s not, said Kathryn Troutman, author of 10 Steps to a Federal Job and president of The Resume Place. She counsels people to give no more than 20 years of job history. “There’s no need for more,” she said. “And you should emphasize the past 10 years over the previous 10; make your most recent job the most important and the previous 10 less of a focus.”

There are a few government agencies, such as the Border Patrol and the Federal Aviation Administration, that won’t hire anyone over the age of 37. And you should be aware of those restrictions going in. But if anyone is trying to find out your age by insisting you provide a work history, you should stick to your most recent employment and emphasize that this is what is most relevant to the position for which you are applying.

“People also think that because they are applying for a government job, that birth dates and high-school and graduation dates are mandatory,” she said. “They are not, and you can leave them open. Most interviewers will know better than to push. And you shouldn’t let them push.”

If the job requires security clearance, Troutman said, there may be no way around providing the information, but such a request usually comes after the initial application and interview process.

Patty Orsini is a general assignment reporter for Ladders.