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Age Discrimination Isn't About Dates

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I am 60 years old. I recently applied for a job and there were numerous places on the application as well as several other pieces of paperwork that I had to fill out where I had to list my DOB or just tell someone involved in the process what my age was (the drug test lady just said plainly "how old are you?").

Older workers always hear that a prospective employer cannot inquire as to your age. When it happens, the candidate dares not refuse to answer certain questions or the process is over. The candidate doesn't dare say something like "you're not allowed to ask me that" because it seems like he or she is suggesting they know more than the HR person in regards to what is and is not allowed. But if the company is asking how old you are and you're over 60, it's the kiss of death (or we assume it to be).

How does one deal with these age related questions when one is a senior citizen who still need employment? In this day and age when all kinds of info can be gleaned from the internet, a person's age is one of the easiest things you can find out. Questions like "when did you graduate from high school" dates you immediately. So when someone is asked this question, do we simply excuse ourselves and thank the HR person for seeing us? Do we go through the process even though we assume it's not going to end well? Or do we assume that the HR person has already found our age on the internet and knows that piece before we even reach the door?

Do we assume that part of the evaluation process is to see how well we have endured the aging process? Are we walking in with a cane and oxygen bottle and look like Phyllis Diller or are we strutting in like a young pup? So if we were given an interview do we go in with the understanding that the HR person likely knows our age and with the belief that they are going to judge us on something more important than age? And by the way...I got the job. Yet for every one like me who succeeded in getting a job, there may 100 sixty-year-olds who didn't even get an interview despite great credentials.

You got the job. Congratulations. So, obviously all the age questions weren't about discrimination after all, but rather necessary.

First of all, you are allowed to ask a candidate how old he is, you're just not allowed to use it against him. There are lots of questions like that, so we HR types tell managers not to ask in the first place, but it's not illegal to do so.

Here are some things to consider regarding age discrimination:

Age discrimination goes both ways. Younger managers don't want to hire older workers, but older managers are wary of younger workers. But, age discrimination does occur, but it's not about actual age, it's about wanting to work with people "like me."

"Older people" can also discriminate against the even older. I used this same picture the last time I wrote about age discrimination and got this email:

I want to say your article is pretty good. I'd like to add a thought to your arsenal. I'm 50. I do yoga/run/swim and am in top physical shape. I look younger that most 40 year olds. I stay current in my business and I think young. And I get plenty of work. No one would usually guess my age. I know lots of people like me. So....I suggest you should add taking care of yourself. But a visual speaks a thousand words. And the guy you pictured looks older than my 73-year-old step father. It's a ridiculous, no, idiotic picture to have included. It really undermines your message.

This woman thinks that by picturing someone older than herself, I have undermined the message against age discrimination. Because it's horrible to discriminate against a yoga-doing 50 year old, but who on earth would want to hire her 73 year old step father? Certainly not her. I'm sure she wouldn't think of herself as illegally discriminating, but rather making a good business decision because this guy is way too old.

Assume they know your age before the interview. As you said, it's pretty easy to find out. And since they already know and they invited you in for an interview, you can assume they aren't discriminating against people your age. Why go through the hassle of interviewing someone you have no intention of hiring?

Perception, not calendar dates, is the problem. It's not like you reach some magical age and people don't want to hire you. It's that they perceive that older workers are less likely to learn quickly or won't be up to the high demands of the job. How you act in the interview will influence their perception of you.

Your fear of discrimination affects your interview skills. When you go in, assuming you're going to be discriminated against, every innocent question becomes another chance to discriminate. You then feel tense and respond stiffly (or, as you wrote, are tempted to say, "you can't ask that question!"). Your attitude makes the hiring manager feel that you wouldn't work well with the group.

Dates are necessary for background checks. I need to know when you graduated from college in order to verify your diploma. I need the date to verify that your social security number is yours. And the drug screen lady? She probably had your birth date on the piece of paper in front of her and was just verifying that you were who you said you were. (The age thing is probably a trick in case you sent someone else in to take your place--they might be prepared with a memorized date, but would have to do the math to come up with the age.) But, even if she was just nosy, the drug screen person doesn't make the hiring decision.

For further reading:

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