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Am I Too Young to Get Hired?

Dear Evil HR Lady,
You've written a lot about being too old to get hired, but I have the opposite problem--I look too young. I have about 15 years experience in industry, with a strong record of progressive promotions due to a lot of hard work and some shrewd career choices. I ace the phone interviews because I can rely on my experience and relevant examples to outline my credentials. However, in the past, once we get to the face-to-face interview, you can see the body language of the interviewer shift, and I end up losing out to someone with more (never expressed as better) experience. I've got an interview for an executive position that I'd be perfect for, but am afraid I'll lose out on because I look too young.

Aside from the standard advice to rely on examples, re-frame weaknesses as strengths, and hit all the relevant pain points of the interviewer(s), what can I do to push aside the age issue? I need to solve this, or I will have to conclude I wasted a lot of my 20's working on my career when I should have been partying...
I'm not above brushing in some "just-for-old-men" to grey up...
There are some things you can do to make yourself look older, such as wearing a conservative suit, wearing a wedding ring, having a conservative hair cut, etc. But the reality is, you look young. (Although, I am slightly giggling at the thought of dyeing your hair gray...)

But, you have a very real problem. Employers are just as hesitant to hire a too young manager as they are a too old one. These stereotypes include:

  • People don't respect managers who are younger than they are. If you walk in and look like you should be in junior high, you're not going to command automatic respect.
  • Young people are too irresponsible. We all know that young people today come in too late, spend all their money on tattoos and live in their parents basements.
  • Lots of book learning, but no practical experience. So what if you have a degree and a quality resume? If you're too young, you probably don't have any "real world' experience.
Now the reality is, the only problem that you truly have is the first--and this is a very real problem. Everyone claims to be accommodating to people who don't fit their expectations, but the reality is we're all thrown by someone who doesn't look as expected. I've heard from Black candidates that get the same response--fabulous phone interview and then that look of shock when they show up for an interview.

So, how to combat that?

My best suggestion is to bring it up. When asked about your experience managing others acknowledge your appearance, "I had some concerns the first time I managed other people because I look much younger than I really am. I was afraid that my employees would assume I was 12 and not listen to me. However, I found that by doing x, y, and z blah, blah, blah..." The advantage of this is that it shocks the interviewer out of any subconscious ideas about you due to your age. It brings it into the conscious realm and then they have to make a real choice, not just go on their "gut" feeling.

Besides, guts don't always speak about the real problem. They just, honestly, see you as too inexperienced, when the reality is, it's not your experience, it's your appearance. Once it's said out loud, it an become less of an issue.

One other note, you mentioned you know the right things to say, such as to "re-frame weaknesses as strengths." I know this is common advice, but honestly everyone is sick of hearing how people "work too hard," "pay too much attention to detail and therefore were able to save the last company 3.7 billion dollars" etc. Instead try giving a real weakness and explain what you've done or are doing to overcome it. Here's a true example from me. Want to know my weakness? I can't handle paper. I hate paper. So, if you were interviewing me and asked me what my weakness was, I'd answer:

"I'm terrible with paper. I tend to lose it, stack it in piles, and forget where anything is. The good thing is I'm not working in 1965 and have figured out how to work around this. I do as much as possibly electronically. My computer files are impeccably organized. If I'm going to need to refer to a hard copy document more than once, I'll quickly scan it into my computer or ask the originator to email me a copy. For things that must be done on paper, I don't procrastinate dealing with them. In and out of my office as fast as possible."

The key is to mention an actual weakness. Honestly, it's not a trick question. (Well, if I ask it, it's not a trick question, can't say the same for everyone else.) They really want to know what it is you struggle with and how you overcome it. No one wants to hear another answer about how wonderful you are.

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