The not-so-subtle ageism that lingers in our society makes it questionable whether or not folks over fifty can get a fair shake at an employment interview these days. And make no mistake about it, the door of fairness swings both ways. Coaching numerous professionals for employment interviews over the last five years of this recession, I see a consistent bias the over-fifty crowd holds toward the forty-and-under interviewers as well as the bias against the fifty-something set that underlies the process and puts them on the defensive. That’s the tragic part of the interview reality in a recession that has employers thirsty for loyal talent while experienced and dutiful people remain unemployed and demoralized for two and three years at a stretch. The encouraging news is that with just a few fresh insights and generation-friendly behaviors, employers and candidates for jobs can explore their compatibility with a genuine and mutual respect, greater efficiency and more comprehensively towards a win-win outcome.
The bottom line is that the fifty-something generation brings to the table thirty years of research, people, time-management and problem-solving skills unmatched by generations that came later. Before Google, this generation got out there and researched by interviewing experts, making their own observations, fact-checking and reading up. Before Facebook, this generation conducted detailed correspondence with people, kept files and notes, had coffee with friends and regular nights out in real-time, face-to-face social and business situations that built relationships that endure to this day. Before technology made communication “instant” this generation planned ahead for appointments, showed up on time and prepared ahead leaving little to the last minute. Before the days when a report could be research form one’s desk, typed without a secretary, and emailed in seconds, deadlines were respected and real and required consideration for the consequences to the people involved. Before WikiHOW, this generation theorized, experimented and built through trial-and-error systems that move the productivity of the workplace forward and did so while learning patience and building confidence in themselves and their colleagues. And, because fifty-somethings have raised the next generation by raising their children, they can also SKYPE, Google, Facebook, text, tweet and email. Cumulatively, what does this mean? Fifty-somethings have deeply ingrained skills and traits that make them valuable in the workplace in ways others are not. For the most part, they are patient, have relationships with the right people, and can work as easily on an iPad as on a yellow pad with a pencil.
One thing that obscures these assets is the occasional attitude fifty has when s/he goes for an interview. What eeks out is their belief that they “deserve” a position given their thirty years of experience in the workforce. With so many real and enduring responsibilities for family, friends and community commitments, fifty feels and may also send the message that they “need” the job, coming off as desperate as well as arrogant. Both attitudes may be more palpable after a prolonged period of under-employment or a dislocating run of unemployment. But what is true for all other generations is true for fifty: one doesn’t get hired in this recession or any other economic cycle because they desperately “deserve” or “need” anything. Fifty, like any other age, is offered a position when and only when fifty makes clear to an employer that fifty can reliably and more effectively take the firm to its goals better than the other applicants while being a comfortable, content and contributing member of the company culture. In a word, fifty must prepare to translate for an ageist interviewer the erroneous notions of “old and obsolete” into the accurate picture of “active and adaptable.” Seven steps can get fifty there.
Step one. Research in the old-fashioned way the firm and the department at which you are interviewing. Unlike other generations, fifty understands that a “web” presence may not reflect at all the culture of a workplace, its actual goals nor the dynamic of the day-to-day operations. And lucky for fifty, one hallmark of the generation is the ability to do thorough and comprehensive primary and secondary source research. Go there. Look around. Ask questions. Make observations. Talk to people who work there. Talk to those who are clients or patrons. Read up. Check out the website for sure, but not as an absolute indicator of much. Review industry journals and the papers – local, regional and national when appropriate – for the current issues in the field, the firm and the trends that affect both. Then think about your relationship to your findings. Take these insights into the interview with you and use them to respond knowledgeably to the interviewer’s inevitable question, “Do you have any questions for me?” Then you ask an informed question that reveals your interest in the company’s goals and needs such as “With the success e-tailing for ladies accessories do you have any plans to start an on-line version of your men’s accessories line? I set up an on-line store for our discounted off-season merchandise in my former position including the Pay Pal mechanism and could imagine setting up your website—even just as a pilot program to test the market.” And especially if you are interviewing for a promotion or different position within the firm or organization for which you have already worked, do start your research anew. Other candidates from outside that company may reveal more cutting-edge insights as an outsider who has done his or her homework that you possibly can if you rely solely on your insider’s perspective. For most of us, once our impressions and relationships are established in a work environment, we lose some degree of objectivity, passion and perspective. Fresh research will stimulate new ideas which you can then deliver with the added benefit of being a trusted insider. Use your status as a member of the team to pitch the possibilities your research generated.
Step two. Reflect on the details of your vast on-the-job experience but focus on those from the last ten years only. You ve an arsenal of stories about dealing with different difficult personalities in the workplace, crises that arose and were managed, unexpected opportunities that were recognized and exploited, complex problems that were solved, business and economic cycles that posed challenged and workplace transitions that were intimidating and unwelcome but inevitable. These empirical experiences are your means for pushing politely and unequivocally ahead of the pack of the younger and less experienced applicants. They can distinguish you decisively from those candidates with the very same objective credentials but who lack the in-the-trenches experiences that add up to a track record of reliability and pride in a job well done. Anecdotes that are well-selected from the last ten years and delivered with just the right amount of details can dwarf the on-paper credentials of your competition. Cherry pick the ones that reveal your generation’s characteristic skills while addressing contemporary concerns. And stick to the last ten years. Going back any further dates you in the ears of a generation where the perception of time has changed. Twenty-somethings refer to six months ago as a long time ago. In response to the interviewer’s question, ”What are your strengths as a manager?” you are prepared to respond by saying not just that you think out-of-the-box but by relaying a story. “Five years ago, when I noticed that my sales rep was starting to miss team meetings I was concerned as he was always a model rep and shared good ideas with the group. I took him out to lunch to ask in a private, non-threatening way and place about what might be going on in his life. He was widowed two years earlier but seemed to be stabilizing things well for him and his four year-old son. Turns out, he pulled his son out of day care to give his unemployed sister a job as the boy’s caregiver. Well, as his sister started to get more interviews and call-backs, she left him without care for the boy and he was rushing back and forth to cover for her. Since our meetings are always scheduled in advance, that was a predictable time for his sister to plan her outings as he could plan to be home for that block of time. He was embarrassed as he shared this unenviable dilemma with me so I asked him to focus on the issues for a moment. His sister needed a job. His son needed day-care for another year until he started school full-time. His sister was a teacher’s aide for over ten years with a stellar record. Together, we figured out that if we could secure even a temporary position in our company’s daycare center for his sister, he could return the boy to childcare and focus on work with peace of mind. We approached a buddy of mine in HR and we worked it out pretty much just that way within about one week. Within a week, I had a less-stressed and more productive sales rep who had peace of mind vis-à-vis his family.”
Step three. Replace stories about your kids with comments and questions about events and situations. Fifty has enormous experience as a scheduler, diplomat and logistician given the nature of parenting over the last fifteen to twenty years. Fifty has learned to get work done well and in time to support and enjoy family life. Fifty has learned to memorize the names and deal with the personalities and foibles of teachers and coaches that keep changing. Fifty has learned how to move people, meals and gear with competing budgets for time, energy and money. With all the accomplishments and skill-sets fifty is proud to claim, fifty must keep this in the dining chair and out of the interview chair. While seeing the diploma on the wall from the same college your kid is attending may bring a warm feeling of familiarity to you and a sense of something in common with your interviewer, avoid mentioning your child’s attendance at that school. Don’t point to the diploma and exclaim, “Oh I love visiting your alma mater; my youngest son is a junior there now.” The meta-message to the interviewer is that s/he is interviewing somebody’s “old man.” This runs the risk of playing into any latent or active ageism on the interviewer’s part. Instead, say something like, “I am impressed with the new stadium your alma mater built this year. Have you been up to a game yet?” You come off as attentive, well-rounded, sociable and contemporary.
Step four. Polish up your physical appearance with a view towards looking as healthy as you are. Fifties are generally adherents to healthy lifestyles that can, ironically, make us look older than our years. For instance, if you consume the daily green tea and red wine your doctor advises they will yellow your teeth. If you avoid the harsh chemicals of hair-dyes and the ultra-violet rays of sun you may appear pale and washed out. If you are fit because you run outdoors, swim in the ocean or play tennis regularly you may well have calloused feet, chipped nails, and a few darkening age spots on your hands. Any or all of the above perfunctory and often misleading signs of age send signals that can play right into the ageism of an interviewer who is twenty, thirty or forty-something. Recognize that younger generations grew up in a buffed, waxed, dyed and polished culture with a nail salon in every strip mall. While a woman at fifty today likely had her first professional manicure and pedicure at age twenty-five before her wedding, by age twenty-five a member of the millennial generation has had only professional manicures and does so each and every week as a priority right up there with brushing one’s teeth. And younger men do so as well. They do not, generally, perceive salon treatments as luxuries but basic and routine grooming rituals and subliminally, they will identify an applicant with anything less than pearly-white teeth, freshly colored hair and manicured hands and feet as old, unkempt, out of shape, and by extension, out of touch. With the market-place offering us so many products and services at various price points, affording oneself teeth whitening, hair-dye, manicures, pedicures, and a full complement of face make-up will level the employment playing field for men and women fifty and over. Teeth-whitening, nail trims and buffing, hair styling and a smooth complexion will keep an interviewer focused on what you say, rather than how old you are. For both men and women, a contemporary flair to one’s grooming sends the message to a younger interviewer that the fifty-something respondent is not as much “unemployed” as “between jobs.”
Step five. Use, and offer to use, all the contemporary technologies for communication as well as the more traditional ones. While the technologies that facilitate faster and more abundant means of communication with more channels and choices are changing, human nature hasn’t changed a bit. And that means that some forms of communication that worked well and reliably in the “old-days” still are meaningful and enduring for people of all generations. Hand-written thank you notes and snail-mailed greeting cards signed in one’s penmanship are still more than likely to communicate appreciation, respect and positive thoughts than some instant and disposable forms of communication like texts or emails. Fifties are versatile communicators having lived through and adapted across all known communication channels and making sensible and situation-specific choices about how to effectively send a clear message. Make initial contact in a voice mail message during off-hours to reveal that you are articulate and have modern telephone skills. Younger generations don’t call as often or spend as much time on the phone and as a result have fewer telephone skills, generally preferring email. Especially if telephone skills are required in the position, give them a sneak preview of a skill you possess and the department needs. Make interview appointments via voice mail and confirm via email. Offer SKYPE and email addresses for your references. Upload your second interview presentation to a private YouTube account and tweet them an alert. Send a handwritten thank you note.
Step six. Review your vocabulary for terms that are obsolete or subject to a new meaning or interpretation by the younger generation. If you ask the interviewer to “hook you up” with the right person in Human Resources, they may think you are looking for a date or sexual encounter. If you assure the interviewer that by “business casual” you mean no “thongs” in the summer, s/he may believe you mean that you don’t wear underwear rather than the summer sandals nowadays called “flip-flops.” Fifty’s most reliable dictionary is your trusted eighteen to twenty five year-old kid.
Step seven. Dress in your own sense of style but accessorize like the younger generation. When the interviewer is forty or under, s/he is less likely to wear a watch, hosiery, sport jewelry that is a coordinated set, carry a briefcase, or avoid eye glasses. As such, the tasteful, valuable, pure gold watch you wear proudly as a remembrance of your parent or grandparent is among the first subliminal sign your secretly ageist interviewer gets that you are “over-the-hill.” Younger generations grew up with digital clocks and use their cell phones to tell time. While some do wear watches, they are contemporary costume jewelry more like accessories than timeless timepieces. Socks and hosiery have seen a change as well. Young people are college campuses are wearing sports socks under the sandals – the very look that sent our generation into a deep blush of embarrassment when our parents and grandparents did it. We, too, thought no self-respecting woman would leave the house without hosiery. Today, covered legs scream, “over fifty.” Veins, marks and cellulite are on display without judgment. Jewelry is unisex so men over fifty can proudly sport their earrings and bracelets while women over fifty must work at selecting earrings that are not the same stones or metals as our necklaces and even leave off one or another in favor of non-coordinating bracelets in layers, belts and rings. Whereas female fifty was taught to wear the same genuine stones, styles and precious metals in the ring, earrings, necklace and bracelet quartet, this now sings out “old lady.” The back-pack has bumped the briefcase off its seat at our society’s desk. With options for many materials and styles at various price points the contemporary professional backpack is lighter, water-bottle and cell-phone friendly and says, “going places.” Your heavy, leather, high-quality, last-you-a-lifetime briefcase will keep your over-sized umbrella company at the family tag sale. Once upon a time we only wore our eyeglasses out of the house when we were too sick to put in our contact lenses. Today, twenty, thirty and forty-somethings sport their eyewear as fashion statements just like any other accessory and any other article of clothing selected for style, comfort and function. With all the computer work we do, eyeglasses are easier on the eyes.
Lisa Bernard has prepared and represented people from all walks of life to speak publicly at meetings, on panels and as keynoters. She has addressed audiences as large as 2000 and designed and delivered over 500 workshops, seminars and college courses on oral communication. She has slowed down fast-talkers, turned “uhmers” into smooth-speakers and moderated accents from Brooklyn to Beijing – all to develop confident communicators. Lisa has a Masters Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and today manages Lisa Bernard’s SecuritySpeak, LLC, a consulting firm that makes available experts on national, global and cyber-security for distinguished lectures worldwide. You can reach her at (203) 293-4741 or LisaBernard@SecuritySpeak.net and like her firm at www.Facebook.com/PodiumTime.