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Our Take: Suicidal Comeback

I ended last week's column with a promise to address two high-risk (to put it generously) answers I've seen others recommend for certain job-interview questions that may signal age discrimination.

One such question is: "Aren't you overqualified?" A user of our sister site, JobsintheMoney, offered a suicidal comeback he says is favored by the Financial Executives Networking Group, a respected organization that's been around since 1991.

"We believe that the best way to overcome age discrimination is to sell ourselves as highly experienced managers who have 'been there, done that'...," he wrote. "When called 'overqualified' we answer, 'Do you mean that I can do this job with one hand tied behind my back?' .... We present ourselves as those who are less likely to make the mistakes a younger candidate is more likely to make."

Arrogance Kills

That advice is so wrong on so many levels that I find it difficult to believe an established outfit like The FENG would endorse it. Why? It's arrogant. Arrogance from a candidate in a job interview is an absolute killer these days (and probably in days gone by, too). The respondent's in-your-face attitude - even if couched in more diplomatic language - is an instant ticket to elimination from consideration for any job, at any level, in any organization.

I know speaking so categorically makes me sound a bit haughty myself, but there's no reason to beat around the bush. The critical role of soft skills and what I'll call "team-player-ness" in any organization's hiring process is universally recognized among career coaches, hiring authorities and recruiters. There is simply no upside to defining yourself as someone who responds with bravado or defensiveness when challenged by a future supervisor or teammate.

I can even offer personal confirmation. Some years ago, faced with a similar question in a job interview, I was instantly eliminated for giving an answer like the one above. I now believe my interviewer's intent wasn't to question my ability to do the job. Rather, he was probing my tolerance for the routine, less glamorous tasks that come with the territory. By getting my back up, I came off as a prima donna - the exact opposite of the qualities I needed to show to stay in the game.

Arrogance aside, it's also self-defeating to highlight long experience to counter possible age discrimination. In such situations, rather than cite advantages of being older - judgment, maturity and the like - behavioral scientists say it's wise to trumpet strengths typically associated with youth, such as physical vigor, agility with new or unconventional ideas, or computer savvy. Dr. Kenneth Siegel, president of the Impact Group, a Los Angeles leadership consulting firm, likens this stereotype-busting approach to "a blonde going into an interview and laying her Ph.D on the table."

'When Did You Graduate?'

The second dubious answer I'll address relates to the question: "When did you graduate from college?" Aside from interviews, the question often is asked by external recruiters and by online job application forms. Unlike the "overqualified" question, which can have many possible meanings, the graduation-year question nearly always means an employer is screening by age.

With limited exceptions, demanding that information as a prelude to making a hiring decision is inappropriate and possibly illegal. I've seen some authorities advise that candidates decline to answer and politely explain why. That simply won't wash. No matter how politely you protest, you're still asking a prospective employer to modify their established procedures to accommodate a mere job applicant.

In my opinion, the best way of tackling the graduation-date question is to make every effort to bypass situations where the information might be used against you. If an online form makes graduation dates a required field, approach that company by a different route, such as contacting the hiring manager directly or (better) through a mutual acquaintance.

Yes, networking your way in is a challenge. But having a personal connection - even a remote one - will often pay off even in cases where you do answer an online posting. As I wrote in last week's column, the goal is simply to avoid being screened out by an age-based rule within HR, so you at least get an interview.

If you do get an interview and the hiring manager demands to know when you graduated, you'll probably have to answer. Nor do I have a magic bullet to offer if you're working with an external recruiter. Their clients (so I've been told) demand they obtain this information from any candidate whose resume they forward.

AUTHORJon Jacobs Insider Comment
  • Ma
    Matt Bud, Chairman, The FENG
    20 November 2009

    Dear Jon,

    Your comments about addressing the "over qualified" issue are significantly wrong headed. There is a myth propagated by "so called" career couselors and advisors that you can somehow trick your way into an interview AND win the job. Not true.

    While it is certainly possible to mistate your credentials and get an interview, it is not clear to me how you can carry the day when your interviewer realizes he/she has been "duped." In the arena of senior financial folks, correctly presenting a situation is still valued as a character trait by employers.

    I have never advised my many friends to come across as arrogant. The "sell" is to promote yourself as high value. Your "been there and done that" background should position you as someone who can get the job done without reinventing the wheel.

    I would invite you and your readers to read my blog at for more information on properly conducting a senior level job search.

    Regards, Matt Bud

  • Jo
    Jon Jacobs
    19 November 2009


    I suspect your conviction that networking can't work for you is a crutch to insulate you from fear of failure. Opportunities to utilize our nature as social animals - the stone-obvious fact that people prefer to interview (and hire) candidates referred or recommended by associates they trust - aren't restricted to "5% or 10%" of us. Such opportunities are readily available to all of us. You included, if you'd just take your blinders off.

    And I can't imagine where you got the idea hiring mangers are discouraged from relying on referrals from network contacts. The reality, of course, is just the opposite - in all industries, but especially in finance.

    Here's a fresh example of networking's efficacy, reported on CNNMoney just three days ago: How one worker survived Wall Street's downfall.

    My own experiences over more than two decades corroborate the above. For details, see Our Take: Is Networking Overrated? and Our Take: Networking is Hard.

    -Jon Jacobs, eFinancialCareers News staff

  • Dr
    Dr. No
    19 November 2009

    Let's face it we are in a buyers market right now. And yes the lack of a social net to speak of makes it very difficult and competitive for most. Assuming the economy picks up recruiting in 2010 we should keep the hope that things will improve and talent will be hired back. I hope that that talent goes back and fixes the HR-gone-wild process once they are on the inside.
    I recently sat through a day of interviews trying to discover my teamplayer-ness and leadership skill. Sadly, I was unable to discern which job this was now about ("we have several open opportunities"), who the hiring manager is, and which of my academic qualifications and experiences are actually relevant. I guess I do need the job, but still can't see myself working for that company happily. But I might until the buyers market turns into sellers market.

  • Ma
    Maurice Johnson
    19 November 2009

    I had my first blatant experience with this with a recruiter when I called to 'network' after an application. He told me - "you are too experienced". I rejoined that the advertisement called for a minimum of 10+ years. He noted that instead of a VP/MD - the client was now looking for an Assistant VP. And he did not forward my CV - saying "I hope you understand but if I show them your CV they may not hire me to recruit further."

    I always for get that recruiters and real estate agents work for the seller - not the buyer.

  • Is
    19 November 2009

    It torments me to have to state,
    being unemployed and 57 isn't great.
    As the "Experience" section on my resume reads,
    it does not fit the 34 year old interviewer's needs.

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