Gray Hair, Black Prospects

By: Jeff Altman

If you're reading this article, I'm sure I don't have to tell you that discrimination has become much more sneaky than in the past. No one comes out and say, "We're not hiring you because you're too old." Instead, discrimination is subtle and equally damaging.

"She seems set in her ways."

"I'm not sure he can work for a 37 year old."

"What would she have in common with a group of 20 somethings."

"Why would we want someone who would be taking a step backward in their career? When the market picks up won't they be looking for greener pastures?"

And, I know the speech about how federal law requires that firm's use bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ) as their criteria for evaluating people, yet, in the trenches of the interview, how can you actually ever prove that you were discriminated against? After all, who is your competition and who's to say that their skills and experience don't better fit an employer's needs?

The four examples I've offered are actually pretty easy to defuse if you remember that no one is ever going to ask you, "So I'm 37 and you're 58 is it? How do you feel about working for a younger manager?" You just have to pace yourself in their seat for a moment and think like they do.

Did you submit a resume that shows you as a Director or manager of a function when they were looking for a staff person? Why would you accept a lesser job is left unanswered unless you do so in the email you send with the resume (or cover letter if you use another submittal medium)? For example, a director has not been asked to execute the functionality of one of his managers for many years. How do you actually meet the needs of the employer? Why are you qualified? Answer that with the resume; don't expect to get that opportunity at the interview--you may not get that far.

Can you work for someone (much) younger than you? The question implied in the question is whether you would have authority issues with a younger manager. Answer: After you've had an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of the role being interviewed for, proactively, comment something along the lines of, "This may not be a question in your mind, but I would like to dispel it if it is. You may look at me and wonder whether I can take direction from someone who is younger than me. Let me say that I've worked in organizations where younger workers had trouble taking direction from their manager who was older so I understand how destructive a bad attitude can be. I want to assure you that if I ever have a question about a decision you make that I'll ask you about it personally.

Are you flexible or rigid in your thinking? Some workers, young or old, are inflexible. Yet older workers carry that label because we associate older people with inflexibility in the culture at large. Again, being proactive is the key to diffusing the bias. "Joining a new company is like moving to a new country. Everyone is different; the ways things are done or responded to are often different. There's a new language to learn. I've stepped into new jobs and new roles on several previous occasions and been able to learn the lay of the land and meet or surpass objectives."

What would you have in common with a bunch of 20-somethings? They are suggesting to you that they are afraid that there might be a cultural mismatch between you, the mother or father figure and the rebellious children. "What is the group like? (your eyes light up as they tell you about the team). "Wow, sounds terrific! Who are the natural leaders of the group? Are you concerned that I'm going to act like a no-it-all, act like they're father (or mother) and try to put out their creativity or just not be willing to go for drinks with them?" By putting everything on the table for discussion in a non-confrontational way you have an opportunity to get the interviewer to share concerns and respond to them with a smile and an answer.

Success on any interview involves placing yourself in the employer's chair and addressing the tangible and intangible concerns they might have about you and your experience better than anyone else. If you take the time to prepare for questions related to your age and your ability to fit as well as you do questions about your experience I am confident that you will get better results on your interviews.

About the Author:

Jeff Altman has successfully assisted many corporations identify management leaders and staff in technology, accounting, finance, sales, marketing and other disciplines since 1971. He is also co-founder of Your Next Job, a networking group focused on assisting technology professionals with their job search, a certified leader of the ManKind Project, a not for profit organization that assists men with life issues, and a practicing psychotherapist. For additional job hunting or hiring tips, go to If you would like Jeff and his firm to assist you with hiring staff, or if you would like help with a strategic job change, send an email to him at (If you're looking for a new position, include your resume).

Check out these other articles in the Careers category:

Questions to Ask At Interview
Overcome Interview Nerves: Be Better Prepared Than Your Interviewer
Does Your Management Style Remind People Of Something They Read In Dilbert?
Avoid Mistakes And Gaffes In Your Job Resume
Working From Home During School Holidays