Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Time to tackle age bias at work

Published 18 October 2012 04:35, Updated 10 April 2013 07:40

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If you don’t want to look too old for the job, make sure you have a Gmail account. Employers think that use of Yahoo and Hotmail email accounts are a sure sign that you are behind the times and probably a mature-aged candidate.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that older people are discriminated against in the job market. People over the age of 55 take 73 weeks on average to find a new job. At the age of 30, it’s just 24 weeks.

Anything you can do to make yourself look modern can only help whittle down the time it takes to get work. The idea is not necessarily to hide your age but to take it off the table as a possible issue, the managing director of mature age job board Adage, Heidi Holmes, says.

“The feedback I get is a lot of [older] people will put forward 400 applications for jobs in a year and only get four interviews,” she says.

When they get no feedback following applications, they conclude that discrimination is keeping them jobless.

Says one 52 year old, who was made redundant by ExxonMobil: “I’ve become accustomed to the slight flicker of the eyes as I meet recruiters, the glib cliches trotted out and the hollow, going-through-the-motions screening interview.

“Post-interview feedback is consistent; powerful resume, wonderful achievements, strong cover letter, excellent interview and great presentation. I was, after all, trained by some of the best ‘career transition’ people. They’d be proud of me.

“Then how come I won’t progress to further interview? It’s usually very carefully couched in terms of business need: it’s a junior role, you’re too senior, you’ll get bored and disaffected, we’re looking for someone who’ll grow with the role, we want someone who we can develop further over a full career.

“I can deal with the honest feedback; the successful candidate had a much stronger background in social media but when I’m lied to, it really gets to me. But I’m being lied to really well, in a way that defeats almost any Victorian Civil and Administrative discrimination claim.”

So, out of discrimination fears, many attempt to disguise their age. But this can backfire. “In the applications process, often people try to look too young”, says Holmes. When they get an interview, the arrival of a much older than expected candidate can be jarring and grab the recruiter’s attention – in the wrong way.

Common mistakes are removing all dates from resumes, going over the top in highlighting social media knowledge, and overplaying technology skills. In trying to disguise their age, these people have just drawn attention to it.

“There are even changes in language as people try to sound like a Generation Y”, she says. My bad. It’s all good.

However, this all falls flat when a mature age person meets a recruiter – typically in their mid-20s. To these youngsters, anyone over 40 is old.

Age discrimination is not always overt. And employers will try to fudge what they are doing by saying they are looking for people who will fit their “culture”.

An Adage client, a graphic design worker, says: “There is the wording of ads that are clear references to age, but are just vague enough to avoid accusations of age discrimination. I am taking about wording like, ‘Be part of a young, energetic team’ and ‘Are you a designer with lots of energy? Well, this job is for you!’ or ‘Would you enjoy being part of a fast-paced environment with a fun, youthful, energetic team?’

“There is the mistaken perception that a person’s approach to graphic design is determined by their age and that older designers will not be up with the latest trends in design or technology.”

Holmes suggests that confident job applicants should challenge the “culture” excuse and ask the interviewer to be specific in defining culture. They can actually challenge some misconceptions about why they would not fit in.

The good news is that some organisations are starting to realise an eternally youthful workforce is not necessarily a good thing – especially if it does not match the profile of the customers or clients. Banks and supermarkets have been seeking out people who match the profiles of their customers.

It can be disconcerting, for instance, for experienced executives to be advised by management consultants who are of the same generation as their children.

One employer using Adage to recruit approached Holmes after receiving feedback that its representatives looked as if they were “straight out of school”, yet charging $500 an hour.

Professional services firms, which have massive graduate intakes each year, are particularly prone to being Generation Y-heavy. At one end they have massive graduate intakes and then often also have mandatory retirement for partners, as low as 55 or 57 – a time when many still have young children to support

“I know of one partner at a professional services firm who was ‘retired’ when he had a nine-year-old and six-year-old,” Holmes says. “He left, and his clients went with him.

“People have a relationship with people – not with the brand.”

Professional services firm Deloitte is one of the few firms that does not have a retirement age for its partners and is making a determined effort to get a “multi-generational workforce”.

Its partner of people and performance, Alec Bashinsky, says Deloitte is “age-blind” but sometimes has to re-educate recruitment consultants who try to second-guess the firm’s preferences.

Recruiters will often look at the average age of people in the client form and try to match applicants to it.

At Deloitte, the average age is 35, but more than 70 per cent are younger than 34 years. “We need to supplement our talent by hiring wisdom workers. They can come in a help coach and mentor the younger talent,” Bashinsky says.

Bashinsky says mature age recruitment is not treated separately to the rest of the firm’s intake, but work flexibility options make the firm attractive for older people.

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