This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.
I recently received an interesting request for a column from community member Jim Nolan, who has retired from a 30-year-plus engineering career at multiple major corporations. Jim asked me to discuss how to approach an interview when the applicant is substantially older than the hiring manager.
Obviously, many veteran job-hunters perceive their age as a major obstacle to getting a foot in the door, despite years of experience and a seasoned professional perspective. As Jim put it in his letter, “The fact is that 30-something HR types are uncomfortable recommending a 50-something applicant to a 40-something hiring manager, no matter how well qualified the applicant is.”
As a 30-something manager (not an “HR type,” mind you), I have to confess that I’ve always been a little uneasy being “the boss” to a more veteran professional—probably in large part because I haven’t had a ton of practice. In the last seven years or so, I’d guess that I’ve managed no more than five team members who had 10 years more experience than myself. I think I’ve done OK, by and large, but I’ve always had this nagging fear that I’m either crowding the veteran or giving them a little too much room. I just never know, since I’m bound to come at situations from a very different perspective than someone who’s been doing this for 30 or more years. Veteran job candidates really have been there, done that, probably more than once.
Focus on the job qualifications above all else
So I called Jim to bounce around a few ideas. In addition to a few pointed comments for those “HR types,” he gave me a glimpse into the mindset of a candidate who’s looking to enter a company at a time when many other employees might be making plans for their departure. Jim’s focus was mainly on veterans like himself who are interested in staying professionally active. “Let’s face it—there are a lot of guys out there who may be looking for a senior management position, but they are going to be working through a headhunter, or some recruiter,” he said. “For many of us, it’s really more about the fun of working and being part of the team.”
Then again, some veteran candidates may just want to pay the bills. Or maybe they have a family care situation that makes a comprehensive benefits package attractive. Or maybe they just have some pathological need to learn Python.
The bottom line is, you just never know a candidate’s motives for wanting a new job, and ultimately it’s not what you should be focusing on, anyway. With veteran professionals—or any candidates who may have a perspective on work that’s markedly different from your own—the best you can do is focus on job qualifications and leave the motivational component of your relationship for later.
That said, here are the tips I was able to distill from my conversation with Jim. Again, many of them are just ways to keep the focus on the current job opening and off the candidate’s atypical circumstances, which in this case just happen to be age and experience.
Focus on the applicant’s last few projects
Many managers start interviews by asking the candidate how he or she got into the business. Posing that opening question to a veteran candidate immediately puts the focus on the length of the candidate’s career, which is exactly what you don’t want to do. Ask the applicant about his or her last couple of projects, and focus on the technical skills or process management abilities you’re looking for. This will place the focus squarely on job qualifications and circumvent a lot of uncomfortable banter about how much things have changed in the last 30 years. It also lets the candidate know that your primary concern is about how fresh and relevant his current skills are.
Just forget about the whole “overqualified” thing
Even at 35, I know the sting of being told I’m “overqualified” for a job. I can only imagine what it must be like for someone who was been working for three decades to be told that all that experience somehow would be a liability to a company. Sure, if someone has been managing a group of 100 coders for five years, it might be tough for them to transition to basic QA. Questions about how the candidate’s recent experiences map to the responsibilities of your open position are fair game—just don’t succumb to the idea that someone’s cumulated years of experience somehow will prevent them from simplifying their job profile and being successful.
Let HR worry about compensation
The one point Jim made during our conversation that I have to disagree with is that companies should be enticed by the fact that some veteran job candidates, particularly those that have completed a career cycle at another company, can be flexible in their salary requirements, and maybe even pass on the company’s benefit package. As a hiring manager, I don’t care about that—I just want somebody who can do the job. Bargain-hunting during a hiring search is always a bad idea, regardless of context; when protected category issues such as age are on the table, just let HR cite a compensation range and play out that whole conversation by the numbers. That’s what HR gets paid to do.
Be prepared for a little assertiveness
Managers expect job candidates to be a little nervous and deferential. When somebody’s been on the job for 30 years, they’ve pretty much gotten the jitters out of their system, I think. It’s easy to misinterpret an older candidate’s candor as brashness, but I prefer to think of it as simple confidence. In our conversation, Jim noted that some veteran candidates tend to come into an interview and thump their chests over their previous managerial experiences, alienating the hiring manager. A few seconds later, Jim was redirecting our conversation to another topic he wanted to discuss and repeatedly asking me, “Am I making sense to you?” I found myself reminded of how I probably sound to my own junior reports, but the give-and-take certainly helped our conversation along. Just be sure to check your ego before you start the interview.
Focus on why the candidate wants THIS job
I hate the “where do you want to be in five years” interview question—you and the candidate will find out when you get there. Besides, I want you to start in two weeks, not five years. For veteran candidates, this is a loaded question, because they may well not have aspirations of working their way into management, owning their own company, or any other pat answer that tritely translates into “ambition.” They just want a job, and you should evaluate their qualification and strengths for the task at hand.