Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

How to guard against age bias

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The average age of federal employees is 46, according to the Office of Personnel Management. That means chances are good that you are in your 40s, 50s or possibly even your 60s. And if so, you should keep in mind a few things if and when you decide to start looking for another job, either at another agency or outside the federal sector.

More to the point, let’s consider a few potential strategies for deflecting potential age bias when that time comes.

Suppose, for example, that you find yourself sitting across from an interviewer who is much younger than you. Chances are he notices the obvious age gap as much as you do.

One option is to ignore the elephant in the interview room and let your interviewer’s potential unspoken biases silently sabotage you. Alternatively, you may gingerly and obliquely address your interviewer’s potential biases by saying something like, “You may think that, because I am very experienced, I might be rigid and not take direction well. But I assure you that I understand that you’d be my supervisor and it would be my obligation to support you. I am certainly prepared to accommodate any approaches you would suggest. I also want to emphasize that I’m energetic and flexible.”

Other potential ways to strengthen your case in applications and interviews is to choose from among these strategies:

• Assure hiring managers that you plan to work for a long time and that retirement would be an anathema to you. This is particularly important because in my informal — and admittedly unscientific — survey, federal hiring managers ranked an imminent retirement as the primary risk of hiring older workers. Also, support your projected longevity with positive motivations for continuing to work, such as your zest — without mentioning negatives, like your crashing retirement account.

It is possible to do this in a cover letter if you are using an application system that accepts cover letters, or in an answer to a question about knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) — even if the KSA doesn’t specifically ask a related question?

I advise applicants to kick off their first KSA response — no matter what the question is — with a brief overview of their best credentials. That way, you hit the hiring manager with your best shot up top, and he will learn about your best credentials even if he doesn’t read or remember later pages of your KSA answers.

• Explain how the depth and breadth of your experience make you a uniquely well-rounded applicant. If appropriate, mention your record of reliability and freedom from potential distractions, such as small children.

• Prove that you have stayed current on the latest practices, regulations and software in your field. Have you, for example, recently applied them, attended conferences, given presentations, published or completed relevant classes or self-study? If not and if possible, start doing so now. Also, emphasize your ability to get up to speed on your target job, and describe your credentials as a fast learner.

• Update your grooming so it won’t reinforce negative stereotypes. Buy a new, stylish interview suit or outfit — no matter how new you think your old interview suit or outfit still looks. Cut and — if necessary — color your hair. Show good posture — no slumped shoulders!

• Don’t act old. Don’t mention your adult children or grandchildren or illnesses you or your relatives may have.

• Provide employer-centric reasons for wanting to change sectors, if landing your target job would require you to do so. These reasons may, for example, include your desire to advance your target employer’s mission — but not your desire to shorten your commute or earn extra money during your retirement. Additionally, mention your adaptability and eagerness to learn about the culture of your target sector.

Also, if you aim to switch sectors, apply to jobs at various levels — including levels that are less senior than your current or most recent position. No matter how experienced you are in your field, hiring managers may penalize you for your inexperience in your target sector.