IT Employment

~10 ways to avoid age-bias landmines during the interview process

If you fall into the category of "older IT pro," you may encounter subtle age bias in questions and comments from interviewers. The trick is to identify the questions and know the best way to answer them, dismissing concerns about age right off the bat. Here are nine practice questions and suggested replies.

This information, based on the article "Job-seeking tips for 'older' professionals" by Terryn Barill, is also available as a PDF download.

The IT industry can be a cruel career sector. According to an industry survey just a few years ago, tech professionals are viewed as old and seniors (in terms of age) when they hit their early to mid-40s. And that isn't the worst of it -- while older professionals in most industries are valued for having more experience and expertise, it's the opposite within the tech community.

If you fall into the category of older IT pros, you may encounter subtle age bias in questions and comments from interviewers. The trick is to identify the questions and know the best way to answer them, dismissing concerns about age right off the bat. Here are nine practice questions and suggested replies.

#1: Tell me about yourself

Focus on your experiences and goals that relate to the specific job for which you're applying. Many experienced workers make the mistake of talking too much about their experience, especially the irrelevant parts. There's no need to recap your entire resume. Keep it to five minutes or less and leave some space for the interviewer to ask follow-up questions.

#2: How would you describe yourself?

The employer may be concerned about your fitting in with younger workers, taking direction from a younger supervisor, and coping with a hectic schedule. Research studies by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) have found that many employers think older workers lack flexibility and adaptability, are reluctant to accept new technology, and have difficulty learning new skills.

Demonstrate a high energy level throughout the interview. Highlight examples of your willingness to learn and take on new projects, your latest technology skills, and your ability to remain flexible and/or handle stress.

#3: How old are you?

Although this is not an illegal question, it is a stupid question for an interviewer to ask. If you're 40 or older, you're protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). If the interviewer asks this question and does not hire you, he or she needs to be able to prove that you were passed over because you lacked the qualifications and not because of your age.

This question could also be a way to try to get an applicant to volunteer other personal information, such as family status or the desire to get pregnant, which are illegal questions. If you really want this position and feel that the interviewer has no discriminatory intentions, do not react negatively. Stress your skills and abilities to get the job done.

#4: You seem overqualified; why do you want this job?

This is the question that often cloaks subtle age discrimination. The employer may be questioning your goals or challenging your long-term commitment to the job. Also, a younger hiring manager might be intimidated by your experience or be uncomfortable supervising someone older. This question may give the interviewer the opportunity to ask about your salary, which leads to the cost excuse needed, or to say that you'd be "bored in this position."

Indicate your sincere interest in working for the organization. Emphasize your unique attitudes, abilities, and interests that led you to apply for the job. Express your enthusiasm for the job and for the opportunity to learn. De-emphasize your many years of experience, but do stress the skills that relate to this particular position.

#5: Will you be comfortable working for someone younger?

Some employers may be concerned that midlife and older workers will be reluctant to accept younger people as managers and bosses. Age should not be a determining factor in leadership; both younger and older people are capable of leading and managing.

One response that can be very effective for dispelling this concern is, "I've had other managers who were younger than I am, and just like the older ones, some are better than others," or "I've learned something from every manager I've had."

#6: You haven't worked for a long time; are you sure you can handle this job?

Give a quick all-purpose reason and then focus on what you've been doing in your downtime -- upgrading skills, learning about new industries, etc.

#7: How is your health?

If you have an obvious physical disability that might affect your ability to do the particular job, you may want to indicate how you manage the disability for top job performance. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this question is illegal during the pre-offer stage. What the employer has a right to know at this point is whether the applicant can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. Due to the ADA, most employers are legally bound not to discriminate against persons with disabilities. Those who can be accommodated in the workplace have strong protections against employment discrimination.

Once a company hires you, it may not ask for specific medical information unless it affects your job performance. You need to know the HR policies regarding medical leave and what information needs to be communicated.

#8: We don't have many employees who are your age; would that bother you?

Although federal law bars employers from considering a candidate's age in making any employment decision, it's possible that you'll be asked age-related questions in an interview, perhaps out of the interviewer's ignorance or perhaps to test your response.

Explain that you believe your age would be an asset to the organization. Emphasize that you're still eager to learn and improve, and it doesn't matter who helps you. The age of the people you work with is irrelevant. Be sure that you know your rights under the ADEA.

#9: What are your salary requirements?

Try to postpone responding to this question until a job offer has been made. If asked, provide a salary range that you've found during your job market investigation. You can obtain salary ranges by talking to people who work in the same field, reviewing industry journals and Internet sites, and analyzing comparable jobs. Based on your research, you can provide a salary range in line with the current market.

If you don't have the range and you're asked this question, ask the interviewer, "What salary range are you working with?" Chances are 50/50 that the interviewer will tell you. If the interviewer continues to press for an answer, say something like, "Although I'm not sure what this particular job is worth, people who do this sort of job generally make between $___ and $___."

Be prepared

The issue of age discrimination in the tech industry isn't new, and it's certainly not dissipating any time soon. Although various federal agencies urge employers to look beyond myths and ages, pointing out that "many mid-career workers have a breadth of experience that could benefit many young IT companies," a lot more can still be done on the regulatory and enforcement end.

In the meantime, older, skilled, experienced workers will continue to struggle to find full-time employment. But by learning to identify potential age bias, and knowing how best to respond to related questions, you can make a strong attempt to get past the age-issue hurdle.

32 comments
jrussell_75423
jrussell_75423

BTDT. Nothing like having to start over, which implies that you have had a career of some sort, and are now in recovery mode. It's exactly what my last interviewer called it... recovery mode. The world is now about short term gain, only, it is a buyers' market, with many younger people ready to work for nearly free until a problem is solved, after which they can be laid off until the next hiring cycle... after living through a number of these cycles, trying to avoid appearing cynical or distrusting during an interview becomes increasingly difficult with age.

colleenrb
colleenrb

I've got news for you....If you work in the US, it IS illegal to ask questions about age or birthdate, regardless of what this article says.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

He mentioned wandering with 2 experienced workers in their 40s or so while he was in his 20s. They all applied for a job somewhere that was right in line with their experience. Neither of the older men got the job because they were too "old". They hired Louis because he was young and would be with them for years. Of course he was just a wonderer. He wanted to be a writer and was looking for experience not a career. The "old" men were looking for a place to settle down. They would have been an asset to the place. Louis was there a few months and moved on.

mikifin
mikifin

If you are one of the best in the field; they pretty much overlook anything these days.

carlbdc
carlbdc

Let me put a plug in for 40 Plus, a series of non profits that started in the 50s to help older professionals. They hold classes on resumes, interview techniques, networking, and job clubs -- small groups giving self help and support for finding jobs. Each local is independent and are located in several parts of the country so the easiest thing to do is to Google 40 plus.

nooly77
nooly77

If your over 50 in IT regardless of your experience these days you will be discriminated against! You might as well be dead! Which begs the question of what all these overpaid government people are doing to stem this trend...nothing from what I see...

DrunkWithPower
DrunkWithPower

Here's what I was told by an IT recruiter recently: "I'll be honest with you, you're way overqualified for this position. My client will take one look at your resume and toss it in the trash". I almost begged her to set up an interview but she wouldn't budge. Note to recruiters: Don't ask me to come in to your office if you're not going to let me interview for the position I applied for.

tripbus
tripbus

My buddy recently got his first IT job. It was basically based on his energy and personality! The hiring managers loved the way he displayed energy and the genuine desire to work in IT. By the way, he is 46. I'm 42 and trying to get into the IT field also. I've already done some intern work with him and his boss,"data center move---30 servers+" and they were impressed with my ability to keep up with the 'kids' while we rocked out in 2 days a complete move. So, drink lots of java and get in shape, it really helps!

delajt
delajt

Just a few weeks ago I heard on the news that the first Baby Boomer had just retired (FYI a baby boomer is a person born between 1945 and 1964). For the next few decades, the workforce will grow smaller. Now, this means that employers need to start thinking about their workforce strategies, and in The Netherlands (That's in Europe, folks) we are beginning to see a slow start in that adaptation process. Now, I admit, it won't solve current ageism, but it will be solved in the near future. How's that for positive thinking?

Photogenic Memory
Photogenic Memory

Despite this being a problem in other industries as well; I think it may be just a matter of time. Considering people are definitely living longer; you would think businesses would start to tap into an already experienced labor market? But businesses aren't that intelligent. They just see in the here and now. They also don't mind runnning out some young inexperienced workers and replacing them when their burned out. It's a machine runing at 110% always! Old broken-in parts have no place in the equation. The only solution to this is more legislation forcing business to meet a quota of elderly hires(it sounds dirty doesn't it?). I don't think there's enough protest about it to make a change now. Too many people except it and roll over. The change is coming just not now. Oh, also I think this article is influnced by another popular one out there about an older gentelman at Google who got the boot becuase of age discrimination. It was a good read! I hope he gets compensated big time!!

fcarr
fcarr

One I would add is, "Why aren't you looking for a management position?" The other annoying thing is when they use HR approved code words to cover up their ageism so they can't be easily sued for violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

jimmie.kepler
jimmie.kepler

At 54 years old I was asked in my last two interviews: 1)You seem overqualified; why do you want this job? 2) How do you feel about working for a younger person? 3)This isn't a senior level position. Why would you want a non-senior or non-lead level position now? 4)Was windows even out yet when you started doing support? 5) The position requires a lot of youthful energy, are you up to it?, and 6) How to you stay current? You have supported a lot of legacy systems.

Leee
Leee

My mom has had a lot of problems getting past the resume review in the first place. Many would-be employers don't know how to deal with someone whose "relevant work experience" began in 1964. In fact, on one online job site, the form to populate a resume didn't even accept dates going back that far. While my mother is not in the IT field, she has done quite well keeping up with newer technologies. She lists courses she's taken and computer programs she does know, and cuts off her experience at about 15 years ago. (Leaving off dates and graduation years is another given.) Of course, if you do this interviewers can and will still make judgments on your appearance, but then you may end up with a better idea of the people you wouldn't want to work for if their faces fall when a sixtysomething with experience instead of a twenty- or thirtysomething model walks in the door.

info
info

Thank you for this. Have computer, will travel. Do you have any Web development or Search Engine marketing positions open? ;-)

info
info

I think this is an excellent analogy of the American corporate HR attitude. How do we change this?

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

but it reminds me of that (James Bond?) refrain "makes me feel sorry for the rest". :)

rkendsley
rkendsley

BTW... some of you guys are REALLY OLD!!! Just kidding since I'm in the 50 something category also.....

LateNightLar
LateNightLar

Until it actually affects overpaid government executives and legislators, you won't see them do anything... Until the voters decide that no one is entitled to a lifetime career in Congress or the statehouses and imposes term limits on them, and forces them to actually live AND work in the world they've created with some of the dumb laws they've passed, we won't see any movement by legislators to eliminate age discrimination.

info
info

I have created an online "closed loop" search engine marketing system that works seamlessly for local and global search that can be applied to any industry, site, etc. After writing a 26-page proposal for a potential client, I was told that the CEO (of an $12M company) just said, "Get a 17-year-old boy in here" to do the work. They will definitely get what they pay for. I'll check back with them in a year to see if they got the results they were looking for.

info
info

That is a bit of good news, considering that I am a young baby boomer!

info
info

I have spent the last 15 years in IT in one capactiy or another (technical writer, marketing manager, business development, etc.) and, although my resume gets an interview more often than not, I have not landed a job in over two years. I can write HTML, use Dreamweaver, Google Analytics, get number one position for multiple key terms utilizing organic search, manage Web servers, blog and social network with the best of 'em, but the job always goes to a much younger worker. This is true with large, global companies as well as small, local ones. No one, it appears, wants to hire their mom. ;-(

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

When the cost of hiring and keeping an employee exceeds the value that employee brings to the organization; then that organization has an ethical and moral basis to refuse to hire, or to terminate, that employee. I'm 48 years old, in good health, and can (and do) run circles around most people here. If I can't bring a value of double what I cost the company, they damn well ought to fire me.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

I heard that when I was fresh out of school. Jobs were tight in that locality then. After 6 months without I ended up working graveyards at the local convenience store. It is an overused phrase to ease the pain of rejection. What they are really afraid of is that you won't want to stay with them. Or sometimes they are afraid you might know more about their job than they do. I'm not sure why that's necessarily bad. Many times employees junior to me WERE more knowledgable than me. When they left I was more knowledgable too.

don.gulledge
don.gulledge

You seem over qualified for the job! I think this one tells it all. Heard it before and most likely will again. I'm an EE and have worked heavily in the computer field. I think it's just another way of them saying their not really interested in you.

excalibur2811
excalibur2811

For what its worth I believe that experience plus academic qualifications plus an ongoing will to learn new things garnished with a healthy dose of drive and energy will always remain a winning combination, all other things being equal. Many young fresh graduates out there lack one or more of these vital components.

lawrence.ridgley
lawrence.ridgley

I've faced similiar problems with dates. You can leave them off of the resume, but then you hit the snag of dates on applications; especially on-line ones! So, it's a Catch-22 situation. I am certain that I missed out on a couple of jobs because they saw grey hair and the 27 years I worked at my previous company! I finally found a company that was more interested in me, personally, than cared about my age. Took me 2 years, though...

Canuckster
Canuckster

Have your mom try a different format for her resume, a functional resume versus a chronological type, (I think they are called those names). Without lieing, make it sound like you are the best qualified and most trouble free person on the planet. Getting an interview is harder than getting an offer after the interview. Just charm them in the interview, show them you are qualified and can adapt and they will accept you as suitable regardless of your age. I think the article is dead on, most careers would see life experiences as a positive that a candidate possesses, but in IT its a negative to have a life at all, outside of techdom.

MikeGall
MikeGall

Work for yourself. If you are worth double to the company, why let them have it? I'm still at the beginning of my career, learning on someone else's dime, but once I know enough to be able to sell it, off I go. That is something at least the older people that can should try to do. You have 20+ years experience, if a company is going to treat you worst then someone that is a new grad because you'll cost more in health care/time off, then screw them. Be a consultant and enter the world where they pay a premium for your years of experience. As a bonus, you're probably closer to the age of the typical business owner/dev lead or whatever, so you can fit into the old boys club better than a 25 yr old saying he has 10yrs experience doing network security :)

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

The problem with a Functional Resume that's packed with relevant skills is that older skills that you may have been the world guru in 10 years ago, but haven't touched since, are no longer at the cutting edge or version. Saying that you know how to maintain computers when the last one you worked on was a Z-100 pulling and replacing 256k memory chips isn't as current as choosing and installing the correct cpu in a motheboard - similar skills, but the knowledge set has changed. The same with networking, OS & Application installation, maintenance and usage. By all means let the interviewer know or put on your resume that you have experience working with whatever it is, but do not bill yourself as a current guru for it (unless maybe you're a COBOL programmer). DO let them know that you're a quick study and can bring yourself up to speed on the latest version they are using at that business.

Dr Dij
Dr Dij

why would you even list a date that old? You should show last 3 jobs or last 10 years that's it! You don't need to show DATES for graduation, etc. If you feel it improves your chances and won't cause age discrim, you can say '25 years as programmer', etc.

info
info

There really is a double bias against older women workers in IT. Maybe even triple. I do work for myself, but even so I am often beat out of contracts by men who will say anything to get the job and deliver much less than they promise. I check back on the Web development jobs I lose out on to see if the project turned out better than I could have done and nine times out of ten the work is substandard. For instance, a quasi-governmental agency that should have an ADA compliant Web site was promised some "really innovative" components. The site is not compliant, has nothing innovative added and looks eerily similar to the comps I did for the proposal. It is hosted at the "good old boys" site that is now defunct. They didn't even mask the URL to cover up that deficit! Oh, well. On to the next challenge.

DrunkWithPower
DrunkWithPower

Although I don't condone it and wouldn't do it myself, I can understand how the pressures could lead some to lie on their resumes. Two years ago, I had a recruiter tell me to change the "PeopleSoft 8.4" to just "PeopleSoft". My advice: customize your resume for each position you apply for. I've gotten more interviews since doing this. Just need to perfect my delivery once I get there.