Tips for Getting Hired When You’re Over 55

Dave Denaro Interviewing, Job Search

You’re over 55 and you want a new job. Maybe you just got laid off. Maybe you are just so burnt out in your current company that it’s either leave or get fired time. You know there is age discrimination out there and you think it’s aimed right at you. How can you get around it to find a good job?

Is it them, or is it you? Don’t let it be you!

First let’s get a handle on the facts of the situation. Yes there is age discrimination out in the marketplace, no doubt about it. However, not everything that you attribute to age discrimination is actually based on your age.

As I debrief interviews with clients who suspect age discrimination was the reason some interviews didn’t go very well and/or they didn’t progress in the process, I sometimes hear issues other than age.

Managers are looking for fit and motivation along with just enough experience.

In a midsized to large company, the fact that you are 55 years old is not going to have a huge bearing on their healthcare costs. They already have employees that are your age. You are not going to have more sick days than anyone else. There won’t be any more benefit dollars paid out to you than to anyone else. That’s not criteria a typical manager uses when trying to hire someone. They simply want three things.

Someone who:

  1. can do the job
  2. wants to do the job
  3. will fit into the group

Unfortunately, the mistake I often see older candidates make is that they focus on only one of those three criteria when they get into the interview. They assume what the manager should want in a new hire is just the “can-do” part, probably because as candidates they have tons of can-do experience! They have done the job for a long time. For example, when asked to describe themselves, older candidates often start with “Well I have 24 years of experience in healthcare.” Think for a moment. If you are truly worried about age discrimination then why in the world are you immediately branding yourself as “old!”?  Why not start by telling the hiring manager about your biggest strengths, your superpowers, or about how you add value to your team? Or, about some experience they actually need per the job description?

It’s not your age but your attitude.

If you are over 55 and don’t consider your attitude as you interview you will be in trouble. By that I mean you need to show the “will do” and “will fit” attitude as much, or more, than the “can do.”

The trap older candidates can fall into is that even though they can see from the job description that the manager only wants an “experienced enough” person, they continue to make their vast experience their major “selling point” in the interview. So, they end up creating the exact result they are afraid of getting: they wind up labeled as overqualified for the role.

Clearly, one dimensionality like this is the wrong way to prepare for an interview. Young managers, middle career managers, maybe all managers, look for three basic things in a candidate: They look to see if a candidate can do the job, if they want to do the job for their organization, and if they fit smoothly into working style of the rest of the team. Thus, as a candidate you have to prepare to talk about yourself in all three ways.

Can you do the job is all about knowledge, skill and experience. Having been in the workforce for a while you have plenty of that but don’t let it crowd out the other two elements.

Wanting to do the job is about your motivation. Why do you want this job? Talk about why you want the job in a way that aligns with why they are hiring. What impact do you like making and does it align with the impact the company wants? Show that their motives are also your motives. You probably will have to ask about what drives the group to get their motives for the role.

Fit is about working smoothly with the boss and the team as it currently exists. Ask about and then be prepared to describe how their culture, their work style, is also one that you have worked well within.  All of the above has to be true of course, but you have tons of experience so I am sure that at different points in your career you have worked with micromanagers and at other times you have worked for hands off managers. At some points in your career you have worked in collaborative teams and at other times you have worked very independently. Make that match in your interview.

Let’s set up a typical scenario that could be problematic for an older candidate. You are getting ready for a first round interview. The HR person found you on LinkedIn (you do have a really good LinkedIn profile don’t you??) and already has done a half hour screening call with you. Based on the screening call she then scheduled you to meet and interview with the hiring manager. You should ask the HR recruiter about the manager’s style and the team’s culture so you can prepare for the interview. The very act of asking shows you are interested in more than just the “can do” part of the job and that’s a good thing. The response you get is that the manager has moved up the ladder and into her manager’s job very quickly and so has a third of the experience you have, by years anyway. What will be your mindset as you prepare for the interview?

It’s about can do vs want to do and will do.

If you concentrate on only your skills and accomplishments I can safely predict you will be in real danger of being considered overqualified. The reason is simple but often overlooked by older candidates. You highlight too much of that grand experience you have, much more than is really needed to do the job perhaps, and neglect telling the manager why you would want the role in a way that registers with them and how you would fit in well with the team. Lots of “can do” and little “want to do” or “how to do.”

Here now is the core of the problem for that younger manager. Of the three areas she is evaluating you on, which area is most trainable and which are next to impossible to train? The “can do” is based on skill and managers can train or upskill team members when necessary.  Motivation and fit are personality based and are very hard to train. Psychotherapy hard. And managers are not going to do that. Ever. They will pass.

She will pass on you because she will wonder if you will be too hard to manage; because you are so experienced, perhaps you won’t take direction easily, and won’t adapt fast enough to the few things that you will have to learn about their system of doing the work. All that experience actually becomes a disincentive to hire. Without hearing about how you would love to do the work and how well you would fit in with the team, she has nothing to counter her reservations.

It’s up to you to demonstrate your “want to do” and “will do” attitude.

Even if the interviewers don’t explicitly ask -not all managers are good interviewers -they intuitively respond to those three things in an interview. So, don’t focus the conversation on your experience. Always talk about your motivation match and your fit match. They could be your best selling points, and the only ones that will deflect what you think is age discrimination and the manager thinks is just being overqualified.


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