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Our Take: Age Bias Revisited

Age discrimination in hiring is a topic that reliably gets opinions flowing - sometimes to the point of boiling over. Reaction here and elsewhere to "Finessing Your Age on a Resume," an eFinancialCareers News story by contributing writer James Rubin, is a case in point.

Citing the views of three resume-advice book authors, that Oct. 29 article suggested older candidates omit some dates from their resume to avoid being screened out based on age. Here are my answers to criticisms and follow-up questions posed by users of eFinancialCareers and other online venues.

Is It Deceptive?

At the risk of sounding flippant, my answer is, "Not if you're honest."

Omitting jobs held more than 15 years ago is standard coaching advice nowadays. Since you're unlikely to be credited for any skills you haven't used since way back when, detailing such positions merely clogs up valuable resume real estate better devoted to recent accomplishments. Skipping the stale jobs helps not only you but the prospective employer, by sticking to the information most pertinent to their search.

To head off any possible mischaracterization of your motives, follow the suggestion from the final paragraph of Rubin's story: Group several early-career jobs into a single resume item and state only the combined time span for those positions. This approach is well suited for older job seekers considering relatively junior roles.

What's the Point?

Doesn't revealing your age become inevitable as you progress through an employer's process? In fact, won't they get a good idea how old you are as soon as you come in to interview?

Certainly. But the experts Rubin interviewed were talking about resumes - not interviews or follow-up communications. A resume is a marketing document whose primary purpose is to secure an interview - a precious opportunity to sell yourself to the hiring manager. In many cases a hiring manager might be more open-minded about a candidate's age than a checklist-based screening algorithm would be (whether the algorithm is applied by a machine or by a junior HR associate). Even if a particular manager is biased against older candidates, there may be wiggle room: bias doesn't always take the form of a hard-and-fast rule. But an older candidate will never get a shot at overcoming it if she got eliminated by a "bot" that computed an age number from her resume.

Whether it's feasible or ethical to continue trying to hide your age once your foot is in the door is a different (and perhaps more interesting) question. Veteran advertising executive Hank Schwarz, chief executive of Long Beach, Calif.-based Haller Schwarz, offers this intriguing bit of advice which comports with my own "Not Fade Away" column published a year and a half ago:

"Your real resume is your body. If at 60 - male or female - you aren't willing to work hard enough to protect your health and maintain the body of a 37-year-old hiker or marathon runner, what does that say about your fresh enthusiasm for life and your work?"

What If a Silicon Monster Demands My Age?

What if an online application form won't let you submit without graduation dates?

If you're pretty sure that information would get you screened out - for instance if a posting calls for "3-5 years total work experience" (code for age 25-30) and you have four years relevant experience but another five years in a previous career you switched out of - then skip the online application or don't make it your main channel. Instead, network your way to someone in the hiring department. Coming in via someone you know, or through a second-order connection, can overcome many an obstacle to getting that crucial first "look."

Why Not Dispense With Dates Altogether?

If too many dates "date" you, should an older candidate adopt a "functional" resume format that eliminates or minimizes the time element? (A functional resume is structured according to skills and accomplishments, rather than a chronological sequence of employers and jobs.)

While authorities differ on this question, my answer is a definite "No." Surveys show most hiring managers distrust non-chronological resumes, precisely because they suspect the applicant is trying to conceal something - either advanced age, or a problematic gap in work history. Instead, I like the approach presented in Rubin's article: keep the chronological format, but omit age-markers such as jobs held more than 15 years ago and graduation dates.

The above questions and answers by no means exhaust the insights I drew from discussions of Rubin's article on various online forums. In particular, comebacks others suggested for two questions that sometimes signal age discrimination - "When did you graduate?," and "Aren't you overqualified?" - struck me as object lessons in how not to behave as a job candidate. I'll deal with them in a future column.

AUTHORJon Jacobs Insider Comment
  • HR
    24 May 2010

    I just hope that all these 30 something managers who are screwing people out of jobs because of age, have the same thing happen to them when they are 50.

  • Ex
    Ex T. Rowe Employee
    17 November 2009

    T. Rowe Price practices age discrimination. Not in hiring but in advancement.

    In my case, one of the departments was looking for an individual with certain computer skills. I had those skills, and was able to demonstrate them. They advanced a 27 year old who "they felt shared a goal in common with the organization." One of my co-workers who holds a PhD was gathering assets to the firm in excess of $24,000,000 per quarter. His 30 year old supervisor felt threatened and terminated him. A conversation was overheard in one of the managers' offices that they needed to find a way to get rid of him. He was honest, a hard worker, and a machine when it came to performance.

    T. Rowe Price was allowing new investors with $100k to invest fall through the cracks. One of my co-workers (a gray hair) put together a process to prevent this from happening. He attempted to show this to upper management by going through proper channels. He showed it to his (then) 29 year old supervisor and 34 year old manager. They immediately started looking for a way to discredit him and eventually forced him out of the company. Who is spearheading the project? The 27 year old supervisor.

  • Ma
    Mary T Reilly
    14 November 2009

    In Accountancy Recruitment age discrimination is widespread and for roles paying between 40k and 70K the recruiters use weasel words like "newly qualified" "recently qualified" and "2-3 years PQE" to target candidates in the 25-32 years old age bracket. The main cause of this discrimination is that the consultants who work for the large recruitment agencies are just sales people, they have no rexperience of finance, are not accountants and have never worked in a finance related role. Their only skill is to be able to identify the age of the candidate from their CV and the reason employers use these agencies is just to have this service. A look at the CV of consultants from the PLC recruitment agencies will reveal that they have only ever worked in sales and they do not have the ability to select CV for roles based on anything other than age (and perhaps sex and race). Employers seem to find this a useful service and continue to use them to write and publish discriminatory advertisments.

    The Equality Commission has so far refused to act against these recruiters even though they have received a lot of complaints about discriminatory advertising. Please complain too.

  • Ch
    14 November 2009

    I am guilty of the opposite discrimination. I prefer an older man or woman's experience and thoughtful appraisal of matters concerning clients investments and loan decisions above the rapid decisions, only look at the performance in the markets and loan default rates for the past two years, of the "bright young things" employed today. As my late mentor said to me over twenty years ago, "They have the best education and can manipulate those figures in their head but they do not possess the common sense of the man I bought my fish from in the market in 1925. Success, Christopher, is not measured by how fast you can come up with numbers that fit but by your ability to stay calm while everyone else is losing theirs." This eighty-six year old gentleman taught me more than all my expensive education. While the world trembled last year his words had my clients in cash and steady investments while the "bright young things" were still touting all these new investment vehicles. Give me an older person every time!

  • BB
    13 November 2009

    Maybe it would help if I sent in a picture with my resume. I am more fit than most 30 year olds. I am 51 and could easily pass for under 35. I am just joking of course.

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