Finessing Your Age on a Resume

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Should older job seekers make it difficult for employers to gauge their age from a resume? While this is no time to scrap the traditional resume with work experience carefully dated, there are circumstances where older candidates needn't reveal all, resume consultants and recruiters say.

It's acceptable to exclude or massage early work and education dates that could highlight age at the expense of job qualifications and skills. "Every situation is different, depending on who you are, what job you're applying to and where you're going in your career," says Wendy Enelow, author of more than 30 books on resume and cover letter writing and other career issues.

As older workers entered the job market in larger numbers over the past 18 months, the issue of how to present themselves on a resume has loomed larger. Some are concerned their longer experience may weigh against them.

Help Employers Do the Right Thing

While eliminating a candidate based on age is in theory illegal, the reality is that many organizations are more apt to hire younger workers - often because they command smaller salaries. In response, a few career experts suggest older candidates eliminate some dates to avoid being screened out based on age.

"There is quite frankly age discrimination," says Louise Kursmark, principal at Best Impression Career Services and a co-author with Enelow on a number of resume writing books. Although Kursmark includes full work dates on almost every resume she crafts, she says providing an effective work story line can be the most effective approach. "The resume is designed to entice employers. Employers don't expect to learn everything about you from the resume," she explains.

In an article on her Web site, Susan Ireland, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Perfect Resume, suggests at times omitting early work experience and the dates of educational degrees. "To help you figure out how far back to go (in work experience), consider these two things," Ireland writes. "1) How relevant your earliest positions are to your objective; 2) How old you want to appear on your resume." She adds: "Most employers have an age range they consider to be ideal for a particular job...A well-written resume uses dates to lead the employer to deduce that you are the ideal age for the job you are seeking, regardless of your actual age."

Weigh the Risks

To be sure, resume experts stress that candidates should never try to deceive recruiters. They also warn that there are risks in dispensing with dates. "Any time you omit something that's standard, you put up a red flag," says Cindy Kraft, the founder of The CFO Coach. "Resume writing is all about strategizing and you have to think about what you're doing when your resume raises a red flag. Is it a curiosity that attracts somebody or is a recruiter going to say, 'What is it that they don't want me to know?'"

Indeed, Steve Kass, a Robert Half International district president who oversees some 300 recruiters in the Midwest, feels strongly about including dates. "It helps chronologically to follow a person's background," Kass says. "A lot of times, people develop patterns in their job history. The more experienced the hiring manager, the more you look for these things."

Kraft, who focuses her business on finance executives, dates all work experience. She says companies seeking to fill senior openings expect older applicants. Enelow follows a similar approach for the mid- and senior-level executives that compose most of her clientele. "Companies don't want a CFO to be 28," says Enelow. "They want a CFO to be 48."

'Kiss of Death'

Yet Enelow says she almost never includes education dates from the 1970s because it's not essential information and may cast too strong a light on the age issue. Kursmark goes further still, calling dates from the 70s or the 1960s "the kiss of death" for some jobs. "They can make you look too old even if you're vigorous and energetic," she says.

Here's an alternative that both Enelow and Kursmark use on occasion: Group several early-career jobs into a single resume item and state the combined time span during which those positions were held. This approach works best for older job seekers considering junior positions, Enelow says. But, she adds, "Sometimes people have jobs early in their career that are so cool they become nifty interview stuff." In that case, she lets the especially interesting early job have its own entry.

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