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.

Comments

  1. helen fitzgerald Says:
    April 8th, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Hi.

    I am a 27yr career employee with the Postal service. I work nights and have for 15/16 yrs. due to raising a family and keeping my foot in the door. However, lately when I submit my applications for other agencies i seem to fall short on some basic requirements. I feel that my status candidatecy isn’t being recognized as it should. How do I get noticed?

    I’ve read your article and I am 47 yrs. old looking to continue my career with the federal services, I just can’t find that opportunity.

    thanks

  2. eggscuster Says:
    April 8th, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Funny the slant of this article, especially because most people I know agree that if anything there is a federal govt bias AGAINST hiring people under 40 into high grade positions; unfortunately years experience seems to mean more than contributions, performance, or impact. I understand years experience is important but it shouldn’t be the driving factor.

  3. Rhani Says:
    April 21st, 2010 at 7:54 am

    It may be a good idea if agencies trained their younger hiring officials to better understand that age should not be a barrier (E.g., EEO) in hiring decisions, and that there can be some advantages in hiring an older job candidate. Selecting officials should be made aware o,f and comprehend- that older (more experienced and seasoned) candidates could certainly bring some outstanding competencies, expertise, and capabilities to the job. Thus, an older applicant should not necessarily be swept aside in favor of a younger hire.

  4. Darby Says:
    April 22nd, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Helen, just having any govt experience is not a qualification factor. Especially if you are crossing over to a different agency. Unfortunately that is the way it is…

    eggcuster, i think you are totally wrong and just the opposite. At least here in DoD outside the beltway. It’s not what you know, it is who and how you know them. I see many younger folks hired in upper graded positions… problem is, very few under the merit principles, let alone know how to apply them. As a mgr, that should be a must. Also, many don’t understand the GS system. That’s why there is so much debate in returning to it (even tho it is law to return now).

    Many new young Managers can’t understand why their area production or work quality is reduced… 1) quit micro-managing 2) learn merit principles… this is not the military! 3) learn the basics of the GS system… those 3 areas would be a great start for anyone!

  5. Stormking Says:
    July 13th, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Age bias in hiring is the same thing as age discrimination in employment. Hiring decisions based on age are illegal under ADEA of 1967 and cannot be permitted to occur in any public or private sector workplace.

    My question is: while the average age of Federal employees is 46 years, what percentage of the total external job applicants to Federal jobs who are hired are over the age of 40? Hiring trends suggest that many Federal jobs being filled by external candidates are going to recent graduates, typically in their 20′s and early 30′s. The burden of proof is on Federal agencies that they are hiring in a fair, balanced way to all age groups of qualified candidates. I recommend better disclosure of this information to the public and the Congress.