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Fighting Age Discrimination

A group of people sitting around a table in a meeting.

Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

I'm an HR professional with more than 20 years of HR experience and a 20-year-old master's degree in HR. I've held several HR positions, from HR assistant to HR business partner to HR manager. My last role—as an HR director for a small nonprofit—lasted six months.

I've been looking for a new position for the last six months, but I haven't gotten any offers. I am wondering if employers think I am too old for midlevel roles but have too little experience for a director role. Am I a dinosaur in HR, or are there still opportunities for me in the industry? If so, what can I do to continue to be competitive?

Age discrimination is real, even in HR, which is astounding when we consider that our profession is ethically bound to uphold employment laws, including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

You are obviously not a dinosaur because your question shows a desire to survive and adapt. And so, with the realities of ageism in professional life today, you can adapt by determining not which jobs are available, but which job best utilizes the experience and wisdom you've accumulated over the years.

How to Evaluate the Best Job for You

There are probably at least two or three jobs you can do and would enjoy. But to get the best results, focus your resume on a single job. You can put more keywords and data in the job-specific resume, and it will be discoverable in resume database searches and more relevant to the reader. Prioritize your possibilities by answering these questions: 

  • Which job best leverages the experience that comes with my years in the trenches?
  • Which job can I make the best argument for on paper?
  • Which job can I make the best argument for at interviews?
  • Which job gives me the greatest odds of success? 

You can also customize this main resume for other target jobs. 

Most resumes are honest recitations of your work history. They list everything you have done that you feel is important. But you don't want a backward-looking resume; you need one that is focused on the future and shows what you bring to this specific job. 

Don't Ignore the Obvious

When they get to the interview, many older professionals feel their age is used as a discriminating factor, but they still cross their fingers and hope it isn't. Don't buy into negative stereotypes that will only make you feel worse about yourself and perform less effectively at interviews; learn to manage how you react to such thoughts.

In the interview, start with a chronological review of the challenges you've faced over your career. Focus on the ones that align most closely with the job for which you are interviewing. Talk about successes and especially failures and what you learned from them. You'll notice that what was an overwhelming challenge at age 25 was a no-brainer at age 35, and so on.

You'll be able to clearly show how your widening frame of reference has steadily made you a more competent and less easily rattled professional. You can share real-life examples of problems and solutions that only experience, deepening analytical skills and growing maturity allowed you to handle. Use your age and experience to your advantage and show the interviewer your knowledge, what you can do, and why and how you can do it. The ability to do so can be a big part of turning interviews into offers

Show Your Skills, but Don't Brag

Many people overcompensate when they fear age discrimination in interviews. The older you get, the greater the likelihood that your interviewers will be younger than you are. If you try to show how you can "leap tall buildings in a single bound," you could well be intimidating that younger hiring manager. In trying to show just how good you are, you could be coming across as a know-it-all. 

The Best Interview Strategy

Answer the questions the interviewers ask, but don't give long-winded responses. Instead, after replying to a query intelligently and concisely, demonstrate your competency by asking questions that demonstrate your understanding of the job. Inquire about the challenges, issues and problems the organization is facing in the department where you'd be working. You've probably encountered the issues in the past and can talk about specific challenges in these areas and how you anticipated, prevented and solved them. Do this, and you can turn a one-sided examination of skills into a two-way conversation between professionals with a common interest. 

Face the Age Issue 

Address the age issue straight on, if not naturally during the interview, then when the interviewer asks, "Do you have any questions?" Say you want to be upfront about some issues. Here are some ways to get the conversation started, with specific points to stress (in bold font):

  • I'm older than the staff I've met and may be older than my future manager. That's OK with me!
  • Of all the jobs I've done over the years, including higher-level positions, this has always been the one I've enjoyed most (and give a reason why you've liked it). I'm good at this, and I really enjoy the work—crazy as it can be at times (smile). I don't want your job or anyone else's, just this one.
  • Hire me and you will have an experienced team player who has been through panics and upheavals. Because of that experience, I can be a reliable support and steadying influence, helping the department stay on track whenever things go sideways.
  • Statistics say that younger workers change jobs more frequently, and they want promotions. I know your company, and I know this job. If I am hired, I won't be looking to move on. I will become someone you can trust to make you and the department function at its best.


Apply these tips to your professional life, and you'll find employers who recognize your immense value.

 Packed with practical, honest, real-world guidance for successfully navigating common HR career challenges, Martin Yate's new book, The HR Career Guide: Great Answers to Tough Career Questions, is available at the SHRMStore. Order your copy today!


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