Our Take: Suicidal Comeback

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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.

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