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8 Ways to Overcome Age Discrimination In Careers

by Nolan Catherine on May 1, 2015

I have a problem with the stance that the employment landscape is ageist. I think the key to overcoming age discrimination is to stop making experienced workers believe that they are at a disadvantage.

I don’t disagree that there are some individuals, perhaps even some organisations who are reluctant to hire anyone other than ‘bright shiny young things’. However, I believe that implying it’s the norm is a sensationalist misnomer. In my experience, more organisations are inclined to avoid the too-young than the too-old. Global youth unemployment rates are supportive. The UK’s unemployment to youth unemployment rates are currently 5.7% to 15.6%, in the USA it’s 5.5% to 12.3% while Australia’s unemployment stands at 6.2% compared to a youth unemployment rate more than double that at 14.21% – the highest since 1998.

The other reason I’m opposed to the mass accusations of age discrimination, is that I believe it disempowers people. We cannot control our age.

I have found very few organisations who have wanted to restrict their talent pool by ignoring the most experienced end of the market – but I have found that most organisations are determined to hire those whose skills will propel them forward, as opposed to those who are ’out of date’. Let me be clear: your skills can appear to be out-dated regardless of your age. This is not an age issue: it’s a communication issue. Working Australia in 2015 is highly sensitive to economic and social trends. It’s the age of the effective self-marketer.

I have found very few organisations who’ve wanted to restrict their talent pool by ignoring the most experienced end of the market – but I have found that most organisations are determined to hire those whose skills will propel them forward

The Human Rights Commission this week announced that 25% of older Australians believe that they have experienced age discrimination and that it is most prevalent in job hunting. At 50 + you are considered an older worker. I have worked in the careers space since 1999. I have personally assisted hundreds of older Australians through career transition and witnessed thousands more through the same. Some do choose to retire altogether or to scale back their paid employment, increasing time spent on volunteer work and personal pursuits. To focus on those who have chosen to continue in paid professional employment, specific advice has ensured that they’ve successfully secured the types of roles they wanted.

Pick up Dolly Magazine and the working wardrobe essentials pictured will only be appropriate for Millennials working in media. The point is that not all advice is one size fits all. The resume format of 10 years ago is vastly different to the stand out resumes of today. Let’s face it, SEEK has made it incredibly easy for people to apply for jobs, regardless of their commitment levels. The spin off is that with competition high, your presentation needs to be savvy enough to cut through.

When speaking with Uni Graduates I need to be explicit: it’s generally not appropriate to address a job application to ‘M8’ and sign off with ‘Cheers’ (yes, some grads really do apply this way). When speaking with older professionals the focus of my advice is quite different. Here are the highlights.

Tips for older professionals to overcome age discrimination

1. Use language your audience understands

Here you need to strike a balance between the market norm and your true voice. I advocate that you never compromise on authenticity, but that you need to speak conversationally rather than formally. Formal language, outside the government and legal sectors, is antiquated. Using overly formal language in the job application process is a sure fire way to appear a fuddy duddy. I’ve given this same advice to grads where appropriate. The only difference is that while their frustration was common, they didn’t believe it to be age discrimination.

 I advocate that you never compromise on authenticity, but that you need to speak conversationally rather than formally.

The more different you are from your audience, the more attention you need to pay to your language. Consultants I work with collectively note that decision makers are getting younger. This inevitability, combined with the rapid pace of technology ensures that the language of job search is continually evolving. All Australians need to recalibrate in order to be competitive.

2. Don’t shoot for the moon if you really want to hit the barn

You have heard the cacophony “They said I was overqualified: it’s code for too old”. Perhaps sometimes it might mean they think you are. That has been my experience once in over 15 years. The rest of the time it means is they believed that you would be bored quickly.

In interview you talked about managing projects that seemed far more interesting than they can offer. You spoke of managing incredibly complex projects and your eyes lit up when listing ‘loving new challenges’ as part of your core strengths. When asked why you want this role, you said you want to step back. You sounded tired and desperate to take anything.

Try these alternatives:

In describing your past successes, talk about projects of a similar scale to their offering. In telling them why you want the role: “while I can see a number of areas where I can add immediate value, I’m really excited by being able to be more hands on in X OR about applying this expertise in an area that’s been a personal passion for some years OR to be more exposed to ABC”.

3. Keep 2 distinct resumes

There is a résumé you show the market, highlighting the skills they’re looking to see. This is your targeted, snappy résumé. Then there is another résumé that’s your Trophy Cabinet. That one is just for you and it contains ALL the things you’re good at. The Trophy Cabinet is the one you write for confidence… and as a database of detail you may need to draw on for specific roles down the track. Along with career assessments and a career coach, your Trophy Cabinet is a great confidence booster. A well crafted, targeted and snappy résumé is in my experience second to none in impacting how you feel and therefore perform in the job search process.

4. Training is an ineffective crutch

Understand what you’re doing it for. Most I’ve worked with who are looking at training during a transition are purely seeking a confidence boost. They fear that their skills are out-dated and sign up for a course in a particular technical competency to give them an edge. If you have researched your end market and know that this new skill is a guaranteed ticket to specific employment, then sign up today. If it’s for confidence though, a mentor or coach are likely to be more cost effective and more broadly beneficial.

If [training is] for confidence… a mentor or coach are likely to be more cost effective and more broadly beneficial.

5. You can’t sell what you don’t understand

Hardly any of us are much good at selling ourselves. The key is understanding the common ground between what’s great about you and what’s important to your ideal employer. Career assessments and an experienced coach are the top pick here, but a mentor and guided self reflection might be a good start.

6. If you haven’t called you haven’t applied

This is a paradigm shift for many. It is also the most prevalent quoted indicator of age discrimination from job seekers I meet. One job seeker sent out 150 applications and had less than 15 replies. That’s not good, but it’s not about age, it’s just bad manners. It’s not only the experienced end of the workforce that is met with this poor job application process. Hiring managers are often doing their own role, plus half the role of the person leaving, plus the admin involved in finding a new hire. They are time poor. Often they will focus on the applications that are easiest: if those come to nothing, they’ll look harder at the less obvious applicants.

Those who call are far more likely to be interviewed.

Don’t leave multiple messages and don’t anticipate a returned call, but do try diligently and creatively to speak with the person managing the process. Those who call are far more likely to be interviewed. This of course is not the case for most government roles that still adhere to policies which consider all applications.

7. Practice with someone honest

Those with greatest experience are often the least practiced at interviews. With an impressive résumé you may wow interviewers with your impressive accomplishments, but you may be missing the mark they’re aiming for. They’ll like you a lot, but they won’t hire you. Alternatively you may be using examples that are just not relevant to the jobs you’re applying for. Is there disparity between what you’re saying and what they’re hearing? It’s good to correct that before an interview that really matters.

The job seekers that I have coached and have seen coached by colleagues implement these processes. They secure ideal roles in normal time frames. The process takes no longer for older workers. Most job seekers approach the job search process with some degree of trepidation. You can choose to take on information that adds to your fear, or the information that helps you move forward.

You can choose to take on information that adds to your fear, or the information that helps you move forward.

Number Eight

I believe that the best thing we can do to help older employees to avoid ageism is not for the employees themselves: it’s for well-meaning older-worker-advocates. Stop berating businesses with a notion of pity-hiring. There is no need for pity: as a collective older professionals are the most experienced, most diversely life experienced section of the workforce.

The adage ‘perception is reality’ is an excellent warning here: what reality are we creating by spreading the perception that wide-scale prejudice exists toward employees over 50? Indeed, most decision makers in business today ARE employees over 50. The best thing we can do to help older employees to secure meaningful work in their chosen fields is to spell out the real job search processes of the current market and to stop telling them that people don’t want to hire them.

Stop berating businesses with a notion of pity-hiring. There is no need for pity: as a collective older professionals are the most experienced, most diversely life experienced section of the workforce.

What’s more, I believe that the age discrimination tale affects women more than it affects men. Lack of confidence is more action inhibiting to women than to men: women are more likely to apply for roles once they’re sure they fit the brief entirely. Men are more inclined to ‘back themselves’ and apply on the off chance. So adding to the confidence burden of over 50’s in career transition is more likely to adversely effect women than men. What does that look like? I see 4 women to every man choosing to leave the corporate world for retirement / volunteer work / retraining in aged care. Do we really need to add to the Gender Pay Gap?

Is there a responsibility for employers to encourage participation by all demographics? Largely not. Diversity is smart but not legally required. There is a legal obligation not to discriminate against, but not to proactively hire. Businesses do have an obligation to other employees, to shareholders and financiers to be fiscally responsible. That means that the strongest applicant on the day is the one who best convinces the hiring manager of their ability to bring capability and passion to the table.

Dear job seekers, please don’t buy into the rhetoric. Apply good job search strategies and you will be among the most competitive in the market. Your skills are sound. They’re demonstrated. You have made good and bad decisions, you’ve dealt with tricky customers and/or suppliers, you’ve coached others who took your advice and flourished. You have ridden waves of change in various forms and adapted to people and technology as required. With good job search strategies you will also be highly marketable. Low confidence is your internal enemy in the job search process.

Businesses are not going to start employing older Australians because of a report. If anything, if this report is handled poorly it may start employers focusing on the pitfalls of hiring older workers. Businesses are going to hire the best person to fill their needs. With clarity around your strengths, your direction and what your ideal employer needs you can market yourself well and be the top choice.

Catherine Nolan

Catherine is an Executive Coach and Director of CN Consulting. Catherine works with business, with individuals and through keynote speaking engagements and workshops to help improve business capability. She has over 15 years’ experience in helping people at all levels and regions globally to supercharge their development and advance their careers.

Nolan Catherine
Catherine is Director & Principal Coach at CNConsulting, with an extensive background in organisational and individual development locally and internationally. She has a passion for helping businesses to achieve excellence through their people and for supercharging careers, either through Leadership / Performance / Communication / Career coaching, or through keynote speaking engagements.
 
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