Our Take: Age Bias Revisited

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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.

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