The Tender Issue of Age

How do you deal with interview questions that probe -- however indirectly -- how old you are? Very carefully

Q: I am an "experienced" professional, and I find that during the interview process an attempt is made to determine my age. This is done indirectly, such as asking me when I graduated from college or when I served in the armed forces. Prior to the interview, most companies have you fill out forms with questions about your first job or where and when you graduated from high school. How do I respond to these types of questions without excluding myself from consideration? ---- P.R. Tulsa, Okla.


I'll get right to the point. It is generally illegal in a job interview for employers to ask questions -- even indirect ones such as when you got your high school diploma -- that can be used to determine your age, says employment attorney Louis DiLorenzo, who heads the labor department at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Syracuse, N.Y. But whether it's smart to stand up and cry foul in the middle of an interview if you really want the job is another issue. (Once you're hired of course, employers can ask your age for a variety of reasons including pension eligibility and other benefits.)

First things first. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) bars employers from using age as a basis for hiring, firing, and other employment considerations, such as promotions and compensation. The protection generally applies to workers age 40 and above, but individual states can pass laws that protect even younger employees.

There are some fuzzy areas, however. An employer can ask you when you graduated from college if the question is related to the job that you would be doing at the company. Let's say you have an engineering degree. If you are being considered for a technical position, the company could have a legitimate reason for asking the year you graduated to figure out just how knowledgeable you are about the latest technology, DiLorenzo says. "If you graduated 20 years ago, the degree might not be that useful if you were trying to get into fiber optics," he adds.


  Otherwise, sniffing around to find an employee's age is pretty much verboten, DiLorenzo says, and most employers know it. In fact, most companies with an on-the-ball legal department will go to great pains to avoid learning a candidate's age during the interview process because they don't want to get slapped with a lawsuit if they don't hire the person. "Most employers know not to gather any information like that preemployment because all it does is open them up," DiLorenzo notes.

Sometimes, inquiries about when a candidate graduated from high school or college may be nothing more than a harmless attempt by the interviewer to find something to talk about, DiLorenzo acknowledges. But in other cases, employers could have nefarious intentions. In fact, companies in 2000 paid $45.2 million to settle age-discrimination cases, up from $38.6 million in 1999, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal enforcement arm for cases of employment discrimination.

If you think an employer is crossing the line with a question about age, DiLorenzo suggests responding with a comment that gently probes the wisdom of the interviewer's question, such as: "I'm not sure I see how that is relevant to this job." This way you can highlight the inappropriateness of the question without turning the interview into a confrontation.


  Remember, however, that by not answering the question, you also run the risk of the employer suspecting that you have something to hide. If you, in turn, bring up your age by mentioning it in the interview or by putting revealing dates on your resume, it may minimize your ability to claim down the line that you were a victim of age discrimination because the employer did not solicit the information, DiLorenzo says.

Still, he adds, it doesn't make it "open season" for the employer to ask you any questions related to your age such as your health or family situation. "There is no protection for the employer for soliciting additional information if a candidate volunteers information about age," DiLorenzo says.

Of course, if you're persuaded that you have been discriminated against because of your age, then you may want to seek counsel or file an EEOC complaint, DiLorenzo says. One thing to remember, though, is that discrimination in hiring cases is among the hardest to prove. That's because plaintiffs must show that they would have gotten the job if not for their age.


  It probably doesn't hurt to remind you that you should always be honest in your answers. Saying you graduated from college 10 years later than you really did could get you in trouble, even if you get the job. Companies have been known to can employees after discovering that they misrepresented themselves during the hiring process.

"It's definitely in a candidate's best interest to be as honest as possible, as anything less would take away their opportunity to be evaluated alongside other candidates," says Bobbi Moss, vice-president in the Scottsdale (Ariz.) office of Management Recruiters International, a large executive search firm.

Moss thinks the best way to deal with an employer's concerns about age is to anticipate them and counter them in an interview. If you believe the employer might be wary of your appetite for working long hours, Moss suggests saying something like: "I've raised my children. I have several interests outside the office. But my career is very important to me." Or if you believe your interviewer suspects that you could be an old dog who can't be taught new tricks, describe the breadth of your experience and your ability to adapt to a changing work culture.


  Moss suggests a comment such as: "I recognize that I have been at my last company for quite some time, and you're probably thinking that I'm set in my ways. But because of the variety of projects that I had to handle, it was actually like working at several different companies."

Don't forget, though, we live in a society that's in many ways superficial: How you look in your interview does matter. Louise Kursmark, president of Best Impression Career Services, a résumé and career-guidance company in Cincinnati, suggests making sure your coif is up to date -- if you have any hair left to style. And don't bother wearing the same suit or interview outfit you used to apply for your first job decades ago.

"Make sure your appearance isn't going to disqualify you," says Kursmark. "Are you wearing a skinny ugly tie that accountants wore 20 years ago?" For a fee, image consultants can help with makeovers. And many department stores now offer personal shoppers, free of charge, who can help you put together a new wardrobe.


  More important, perhaps, than looking slick, is projecting a youthful, energetic, with-it attitude. That's done partly through following the basics of interviewing such as sitting forward in your seat and making appropriate eye contact. You also want to be comfortable using the lingo in your field. And you want your interviewer to know that you are at ease working with lots of different people, some perhaps barely old enough to order a drink in a bar.

"You don't want to refer to 'those young kids in the home office' or use other terms that make you seem like an old codger," Kursmark says. "You want to talk about working in 'teams.'" Be up on technology, and make sure that the person recruiting you knows it. "You don't want to be one of those people who can't save a file that was e-mailed to you," Kursmark says.

One last thought that may provide hope. The likelihood is high that you'll find employers who value your experience. The U.S. as a population is working longer and getting older. Indeed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median age of the labor force is expected to reach 40.7 years in 2008, up from 38.7 years in 1998 (the most recent year for which figures were available).

So with any luck, you'll be the best candidate for the job thanks to your background -- and your age won't matter, in part because your interviewer may be even older than you are.

By Eric Wahlgren in New York

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