What You Can and Can’t Do About Age Bias

Do these thoughts enter your mind while you are on the job or applying for jobs? Answer either YES or NO to each of these statements, then score yourself according to the directions below.

1. My application or resume is never acknowledged.

2. The interviewer was young enough to be my child. That company doesn’t value my experience.

3. I’m passed over for additional training that I need to stay current.

4. The jobs always go the young, good-looking people.

5. The minute they looked at my gray hair, I knew I had no chance.

6. The promotions go to the young up-and-comers. Experience is ignored.

7. I was laid off, and within a month, a younger person was hired to do my job.

8. Whenever there is a layoff, the oldest go first.

9. Employers will say that I’m overqualified and that I’ll become bored with the job.

10. I’ve heard comments about dinosaurs and old people being in the way.

If you answered YES to

1 to 3 questions: You feel unaffected by age bias, perceived or otherwise. You also feel secure in your job.

4 to 6 questions: You’re getting worried about age bias. Think about what you can do to refocus your attitude and your efforts.

7 or more questions: You are on your way to turning into the bitter employee you swore you’d never become. Get an attitude adjustment. Be positive about your wisdom and experience!


National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA): With over 3,000 members, NELA is the USA’s largest professional organization exclusively comprised of lawyers who represent individuals in cases involving employment matters. There is a directory where you can search for a lawyer near you.

Workplace Fairness

Workplace Fairness is a non-profit organization which helps to preserve and promote employee rights. Learn more about employment issues in your state.

You’re in the middle of a job interview and the recruiter or prospective employer asks, “So, how old are you?”

What do you think when you read this scenario? Let me guess that you are probably caught off guard and thoughts are racing through your head. Can they really ask me that? you wonder.

If you are like the majority of age 50+ job seekers, I’ll wager you answered yourself with a resounding, No.

And asserting that, you would be wrong.

While it may fly in the face of what you know about the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and on top of that be outright rude, the question itself is legal.

You should know before an interview how you’ll react and what you’ll say when asked about your age. Much of what we believe we know about age discrimination is vague and ambiguous. That’s bad news for age 50+ workers. Our opinions about age bias can influence our behavior during a job search and after we become employed. While it’s important to understand the principles of age-discrimination law, it is more important to figure out how to deal with it out in the world.

Age bias in hiring and employment may be the last socially acceptable form of discrimination. While the ADEA makes age-based discrimination in hiring, pay, benefits, training, advancement, and termination illegal, many people over the age of 50, and increasingly older than 40, believe that age bias still exists and affects them.

Research from two recent studies conducted by RetirementJobs.com and AARP confirms that between 80 and 95 percent of people over age 50 believe that “age bias is a fact of life.” The published statistics about actual age-discrimination claims, however, don’t support common perceptions about the extent and power of age bias. All this is not to minimize concerns about age bias. I want you to think about what you can and cannot do about the reality, or self-fulfilling perceptions, of perceived age bias.

Here are five things you can’t do about discriminatory employer behavior or decisions:

You can’t compel employers to communicate: If you don’t hear back from an employer you applied to or interviewed with, stop thinking it’s you or something you did or didn’t do. Contemporary recruiting practices seldom provide information to applicants. There is often no acknowledgement other than an auto-reply message, long delays or no invitation to interview, no feedback following interviews, and no explanation or notice of rejection. Employers are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of applicants and have little choice but to acknowledge resumes via auto-reply e-mail, if at all. Employers have become extremely cautious about what they say to candidates and to employees. Stop expecting promptness and responsiveness; it’s up to you to be persistent.

You can’t dictate a company’s hiring decisions or behaviors: Managers and executives will generally make decisions about hiring and firing based on the organization’s financial condition. Staff reductions do not differ in motivation. This may not seem fair, but here’s the deal: Older and long-service employees often receive better pay than younger coworkers, and health care and retirement-income costs tend to be higher for older workers. Employers may decide to lay off more costly employees. This is permissible as long as age is not the basis for the decision.

You generally can’t challenge management’s authority to make employment decisions: Unless you have sufficient evidence or cause to believe that age played a part in promotional decisions, the law preserves management’s authority to make employment decisions. You may not agree, you may not like it, and there’s not much you can do other than file an age discrimination complaint or claim. This is not an action that will endear you to your employer, but the law prohibits retaliation against employees who file such claims. It may be uncomfortable, but it may be your only option.

You can’t challenge legitimate job requirements: Employers are permitted to establish bona fide (legitimate) job qualifications, and they can even refer to age. For example, An advertising agency can require that a model for teen clothing not be older than a given age. Employers are generally very careful about setting job qualifications—even though they may appear discriminatory. Work in a grocery store may require an ability to routinely lift packages up to 60 pounds. There are cases when you can request a “reasonable accommodation” to permit you to perform the job, but this is generally the only way around job requirements. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to look for a different job.

Evaluate industry patterns and company cultures: Laws and management principles notwithstanding, there are certain industries and companies that are historically, culturally, and possibly financially, predisposed to favor younger workers. You can lament and complain about this situation, but the practical thing to do is to consider other industries or occupations. You can also seek out that exceptional employer that values workers for their capabilities and contributions, regardless of age.

Here’s what you can do to avoid or overcome age bias:

Know your rights: Become familiar with the fundamental rights provided by federal and state ADEA laws. You may not always choose to pursue or enforce these rights, but you should know what is and what is not permissible. Refer to this AARP explanation of your rights under the ADEA.

Be clear about your objectives: Examine your personal life and work history, and inventory your knowledge, skills, capabilities, and achievements. Consider what you most enjoy doing. Identify specific employers and know the type of job you want. Get some career advice and select the occupation or profession in which you are most apt to prosper. Put all this information down in a clear and concise resume. Your clarity and confidence of purpose will come through to employers.

Be at your best: This may sound a little silly, but look and be at your best. Splurge on a new interview outfit (even if that 30-year-old suit still fits). Be well groomed, maintain your personal fitness to the highest possible level, make sure your health or medical conditions are under control, be well rested, research the employer, and display your knowledge. These tasks should help keep you confident and poised. Try practicing for interviews with a friend or professional coach. Finally, put all concerns about your age and the threat of age bias out of your mind.

Be a continuous learner: Whether you are a candidate or an employee, always grow and learn. This is particularly important for your computer skills and knowledge. The abilities to use a computer, send e-mail, surf the Internet, and handle basic applications, such as word processing, are not optional anymore. Inability to make even basic use of a computer is a cause for rejection in all but a handful of jobs many of which you wouldn’t want. Buy a computer, set up an Internet account, and take lessons. While you’re at it, get a mobile phone. PC skills and a cell phone are powerful ways to show you are technically savvy and not a dinosaur.

Seek employment and work in the right places: Many industries and employers value older workers. Search them out and apply there. If you’re already working for an age-friendly employer, do everything you can to stay with that organization.

BoomersNextStep Guest Author

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