Movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp are spurring necessary conversations about unconscious bias in the workplace. But, bias goes beyond gender and race. It’s time to talk frankly about a common, socially acceptable bias in the technology industry: ageism.
It’s no secret the tech sector celebrates youth. What may surprise you, gen Xers, is that you’re considered old now, too. A 2016 Payscale study found seven of the 18 top Silicon Valley companies it covered have a median employee age of 30 or younger. A 2017 Indeed survey found 43 percent of tech workers worry about losing their jobs due to their age. Eighteen percent worry about this “all the time”.
Ageism isn’t just a problem for older candidates (and occasionally young ones). It has more far-reaching implications for businesses: CEOs who fall into the “culture-fit hiring trap” deprive themselves of the bottom-line benefits of a more diverse workforce. A recent study published in Harvard Business Review found companies with higher diversity across multiple measures (like gender, immigration status, as well as age) “had both 19 percent points higher innovation revenues and 9 percent points higher EBIT margins, on average.”
How can companies and candidates remove unconscious ageism in the interviewing process? There are several subtle signals worth paying attention to throughout the process, starting before the candidate ever walks through your door or gets on the phone with a recruiter.
Prepping for the interview
All productive interviews start with preparation. Hiring managers, you may be tempted to make assumptions about candidates as you get ready to interview a candidate. Instead, plan to ask questions to see whether those assumptions are actually true. Your first reaction might be to dismiss a candidate with a long list of Fortune 500 executive roles who seems overqualified or too expensive for a position at your startup, for example. But, do you know the real story? The experienced (and probably older) candidate may have earned a bundle from a past role and now want a second career or a passion project. You’ll never know unless you ask.
If you’re using a recruiter, ask them for context about the candidate’s career goals. This may explain why a candidate older than your average employee is interested in the job. The candidate could be an empty nester looking for a new challenge. This motivated 50-year-old, perhaps newly freed from some domestic responsibilities, could be just as, or more, energetic than younger employees.
As for candidates, I don’t advise them to pretend to be younger (or older) than they are. But, candidates should take simple steps to send the right signals and remove age as a potential obstacle to getting hired.
Age-neutralize your resume by removing years you earned degrees. Older candidates can streamline the earlier, less relevant jobs on their resumes.
Get an updated email. Retire that AOL address, an ISP-provided address or any email that includes your birth year. Best is a Gmail address or a URL of your name. If your alma mater is impressive, like Harvard or Stanford, an alum email address subtly underscores that connection.
Dress the part. It’s fine to ask the recruiter or hiring manager what’s typical office wear. It’s good to know before the interview if the culture embraces jeans and t-shirts so you don’t show up in a suit and tie and look out of place.
Look for common ground. Ask your recruiter and subsequent interviewers about the company’s culture. Then find interviewers on social media and look for common ground. Maybe you share an interest in golden retrievers or soccer. People want to work with people they feel rapport with. It doesn’t matter whether you’re different ages or like the same bands. Rapport is rapport, so try to find things before and during the interview to connect on.
The interview enables candidates to demonstrate who they are, what they’re looking for and that they understand what matters to the hiring company. It’s also the hiring manager’s chance to test a candidate’s expertise and decision-making acumen — areas where older candidates may outshine younger ones.
Candidates should be open, honest and candid about their life situation and career goals, particularly if they can’t read the interviewer’s interest level. As the candidate, you have the power of personal disclosure — the interviewer legally can’t ask certain things. Don’t be afraid to reveal details if they’ll help interviewers understand what motivates you.
Older candidates have accumulated more life milestones that impact their resumes. If someone sees gaps on your resume they’ll naturally be curious about the situation, so if you’re comfortable it’s best to address those questions up front. If you took a leave of absence to have a child or care for an elderly parent, both are valid reasons that will help your interviewer understand you. In an interview, both candidate and interviewer just want the real story. Volunteering information can clear the air and help candidates regain control of the narrative.
Be direct. Ask the interviewer how well your skills and experience fit with what they’re looking for. Directness enables them to address concerns or considerations that haven’t come up yet. It may also unearth potential objections — and give candidates a chance to neutralize them during the meeting.
Hiring managers should probe older candidates’ experience carefully. Older workers bring deep perspective and well-honed decision-making skills to their work. They’ve often “seen this movie before.” Engage candidates about the challenges facing your company and industry right now. What perspectives can they bring to your problems? The candidate might be someone who can tell you what’s coming around the corner in six months much better than a “young and hungry” candidate lacking the same years of experience.
If you like what you hear, take time to listen to what candidates tell you about themselves before you draw conclusions. Often people assume older candidates want a fat salary. But, not all do. Imagine hiring someone with excellent experience for a modest salary and a robust equity package — because that might be exactly what they want. Or say the candidate lives far away from your offices. Instead of assuming that’s a deal breaker, address this issue directly. Maybe the candidate’s renting, recovering from a divorce and willing to move closer. Asking will reveal the true story.
After the interview
Both candidates and hiring managers should talk to the recruiter after the interview. That gives both sides a forum to address content not covered in the interview.
Candidates, send a thank-you note either via snail mail or email. Older candidates may wonder if this habit dates them — but the simple act of thanking someone for their time is always in style. It’s also a great opportunity to remind interviewers and recruiters what you bring to the role. I’ve had people tell me they kept my handwritten thank-you notes for years because they’re so rare. In fact, a recent study found only a quarter of interviewees bothered to send these in 2017, but interviewers confirm it’s impressive when they do receive a handwritten note.