Hiring Trap: Don’t Hire Anyone Older Than…

When I was a young developer, my employers were hungry for talent. They hired women, as well as men. Of course, my first employer wanted to know what birth control I used, which was an illegal question at the time. I told them so.

Fast forward to the 80's, when I became a hiring manager. I could not understand why I only received resumes of people younger than I was. (I was a young manager, in my 30's.) I told the recruiter, I was open to engineers of all ages.

“Good, I have some really interesting people in their 50's, who need a job,” he explained.

“Send them over!” I was excited. I hired several of them. They were great. I didn't care that they were older than I was.

A few years ago, I was consulting in Europe, and one of the managers there said, “No one over 40 can know anything about agile.”

I replied, “I realize this is like asking, ‘How do I look in this dress,' but how old do you think I am?”

The manager looked at me, and said, “Uh, 45?”

“No, I'm over 50. I'm teaching you agile and how to improve your agile approach. Are you sure you can't hire anyone over 40 to join an agile team?”

He was surprised. He changed his mind.

I don't know if you saw this post, STEM Shortage Claims and Facebook’s $19 Billion Acquisition of WhatsApp. The author claims we have rampant ageism in technical hiring. He's right.

Too many hiring managers look at surface issues: where you went to school, how old you are, how many years of some kind of tool or language experience you have, or heaven forbid, what personality type you are, as if all of that predicts your destiny. As if you can't learn and grow. Nothing about your behavior on the job. Nothing about the essential qualities, skills, and preferences that make you what you are, and how you fit with a team. No auditions. No work with a team. Nothing that would be useful. Nope, just surface nonsense.

Hiring managers and teams, and yes, even HR, think that because they have a job, they are experts in how to hire. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you have not learned how to hire, you need to. Otherwise, you are making mistakes.

Just because you have a job, does not mean you know how to hire.

You can hire people who are older than you are. They do know something. You have to check for how quickly they learn and adaptability. Do you know how?

You can hire people who don't look just like you. If you are creating products or solving problems, consider hiring people who have some differences, so you get idea diversity. Do you know how?

Are you worried about people sticking around for a while? Calculate the mean and the median duration of people's length of employment. Are your managers good enough to keep people around?

Now, look at the duration of the longest length of employment (not the most recent, the longest), on a candidate's resume. That is a better indication of how long someone will stay, if you are a good employer. Are you good enough?

People want jobs, regardless of their ages. Don't fall for the trap that “I can't hire anyone over a certain age” or “older than I am.” Hogwash! Do you think there is a shortage of qualified candidates? There is less of a shortage than you think there is.

There are great people out there. Some might be older than you can imagine. Some might look different than you imagine (women, black, Asian, and many more combinations).

If you're having trouble imagining the candidates you need, do yourself a favor, and buy a copy of Hiring Geeks That Fit. You don't have to do this alone.

21 Replies to “Hiring Trap: Don’t Hire Anyone Older Than…”

  1. If the average stay is five years, unless you are 70, what difference does it make how old you are. If you can get five good years out of a worker, hire them. This did not work for me, btw, so I ended up retiring at 62. Not bad as it turned out.

    1. Tom, exactly. I meet too many hiring managers who are concerned. “What if I hire someone who’s 55?”

      Well, what if you do? You might get at least 7 good years out of somebody, maybe more! At this rate, the retirement age will be 70, before we turn around.

      I see too many managers worried about 5-10 years from now, when they need to be worried about how to get the product out the door. If you can hire someone to help you get the product out the door, do it. Who cares how old that person is?

      Maybe the person with experience knows how.

  2. So true….. 🙁
    Johanna, pity you didn’t write this 7 years ago. The “Hi-Tech after 40” problem, let alone after 50, is a real problem – so many young managers and HR people don’t value the experience that comes at our age.

    1. Debi, I actually did write something less inflammatory in the first hiring book. And less inflammatory in Hiring Geeks That Fit. The big problem is that most people who have jobs don’t know how to hire. I’m working on trying to understand how to have people buy my hiring workshops.

  3. Reminds me of a company I worked for briefly. I was the most senior programmer they had hired that year. So, they decided I should interview candidates for them. This young woman, barely in her twenties, wearing a stunning red dress, came in for an interview. She objectively aced the quiz they told me to give her, answered every question perfectly, and generally seemed like a really smart and capable person. I was the only person who gave her a good review. IMO, it was more about how comfortable they were sitting in the same office with her than whether she could do the job.

    1. Adam, yes. She was different.

      I cannot tell you the number of senior management jobs I have not gotten because I am different also.

      Why do you think I am a consultant, and not a CEO of some corporation? I decided it wasn’t worth interviewing for the jobs when the interviewers had no good reasons for saying No to me. I was different. Too short. Too smart. Didn’t play golf. They weren’t comfortable with me.

      I’m very happy with my decision now. And people wonder why women “drop out” of software or management. We don’t have to wonder.

  4. Had a large, well-known computer company NOT hire me several years back, due to assumptions about my age. I work very hard had keeping current, even cutting edge, in HPC. A recruiter for the same company called again the other day, wanting me to apply for this position (scientific computing on HPC, my domain of expertise).

    What part of NO didn’t they understand? HR people often suffer from Dunning-Kruger Effects. Part of that syndrome is the inability to know you suffer from Dunning-Kruger Effects.

    1. Gentle readers, the Dunning Kruger effect is when people do not recognize they are not competent and they do not recognize competence in others.

      Ken, when I coach managers about hiring, I tell them to not make assumptions about age or ability. I say to not mind-read, to ask the candidate what their expectations are. My clients listen. People who read and absorb Hiring Geeks That Fit, listen. Other people? Who knows?

      No one knows what a candidate is thinking. You have to ask.

  5. Excellent article. You can’t teach wisdom and experience. In addition to not hiring more experienced staff, the flip side is that companies tend to “right-size” by targeting their older staff members in their effort to reduce costs. True, that does reduce a larger visible cost because more experienced people often command a higher salary. In the end, however, those organizations incur an even higher cost as a result of somebody trying to do that same work who may have the skill, but have not been tested over time. Those that remain see right through it, and may often decide that there is little point to a long tenure there, and eventually move on rather than staying on only to experience getting cut later themselves.

    1. Hi Rich,

      Yes, When you have real experience, not just the same year repeated, you add much more value to the organization.

      When organizations cut people with long tenure, the people who remain say, “Hmm, when will that happen to me?” The good people leave. They’re not stupid!

      People respond to the way they are treated. It’s this way at work, and in life. It just is.

  6. I looked for a new job for over a year until I actually found a company that WANTED someone with experience. The company was comprised of people who were mostly 35 or less (including the CEO), and my boss realized that older, wiser heads were needed to keep the company grounded. So thankful for a place where I am valued and appreciated!

  7. Great article for those hiring. Suggestion that may tie into your new Job Search book: could you do a post with tips for those over 50? In the tech industry, obviously you need to keep skills current. But on a resume, how far back should one go? I’ve been capping my resume at about 10-14 years of relevant experience, and have removed the date off my college degree. Anything else I should be doing to at least land interviews? Thanks Johanna for all the great wisdom!

  8. Great article, Johanna. It’s a year since this was published. I’m stunned at how many people I know over 55 can not find work. Or should I say have not found work. just yesterday, a Boeing employee told me that if he ever left Boeing he is confident he would never find a job that paid over $35 – $45000 per year. He has a masters degree and he is 60!

    Shortly after I turned 50, my 5-year contract ended with a major employer in WA. It was the summer of 2008. By the time the economy had turned around, I was working for myself as a web designer, writer, and photographer — but never stopped shopping for a steady job.
    I rarely get responses to my job applications. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know if I should just lie or what. Theoretically, I’ve been the manager and backbone of 3 businesses and been a medical advocate and caregiver for 20 years now. It’s like having 3 jobs plus a family.

    I’ve since been told by recruiters:
    “You don’t have current corporate employers” (to which I can list many corporate engagements)
    “You need to change your resume to prove you can work for corporate employers” (I’ve worked for several fortune 500 companies, several medium sized companies and one of the NW top 100)
    “You’ve become irrelevant” (Yeah, thanks. that screams of “you are too old to be worthy of us”
    “Companies won’t hire people who’ve worked on contract for too long” (except those same companies only hire contractors to try them before they buy them)

    I’ve been told by consultants and career coaches:
    “You just need to match word for word your resume to their job posting” (and lie? )
    “You have tons of skills” (yeah, and if I list too many I look like a Jill of All Trades and Expert at none)
    “Don’t put anything on your resume older than 10 years”

    A friend who my age has extensive experience and stays current in her IT skills. She has had tons of interviews. She swears it’s all ageism.

    I too would like to hear what you advise those who are older, competent, talented and dying in this job market.

    1. Nancy, what you are experiencing is a crime. Just stupid. Let me craft a better response over the weekend. (Yes, it will take me that long.)

      BTW, I suspect that if I was not a consultant, I would have the same problem. I will summarize what you can do as a candidate.

      1. Just seeing the quote, “You’ve become irrelevant”, would have me making a phone call to an attorney, after leaving the interview! LOL I’m an undergrad at 50 and will be an MBA at 55, looking to change careers. I KNOW it’s going to suck and am investigating management consulting in hopes that it will, “suck a little less!”

  9. Im 49and working in hospitality for 18 years as a kitchenhand. But recently i have apply for the same job in different hotels and 4 employers have replied saying i’m unsuccesful. Is it my age or do i need to polish up on my resume?

    1. I would polish my resume before I assume it’s age discrimination. See if you can ask someone who rejected your application to explain why they think you are “unsuccessful.”

      Oh, and I would make sure I know what my references are saying about me. You might not have good references.

  10. Johanna,
    Excellent article! My son is 35 yrs. old and leaving his job of 6 years as a sales manager at a logistics company. He has a BA in communications, is extremely bright and gets along exceptionally well with others. He wants out of sales and I was wondering if you have any advice as to what type of job he might look for. He is absolutely the only person I’ve ever met who actually ENJOYS the challenge of job interviews and wins over people immediately. I know he could ace an interview with corps. such as Google or Facebook, etc., but he’s “over the hill” as far as age is concerned. Any thoughts?

    1. Hi Scott, Oh, I don’t know what he should look for. I don’t think 35 is too old, especially if he looks for something like a Product Owner/BA position.

      Here’s one way to think about it:
      – make sure he knows what he values in a job. (I recommend the timeline activity in Manage Your Job Search.)
      – define his value in Dollars and Time. The things he writes down are things he likes to do.
      – look for what’s in the help wanted ads for companies he wants to work for and see if he likes those ideas.

      If he’s already done that, send me an email please, and I’ll see if I have more possibilities.

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