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Ask the Headhunter: Is age discrimination in your head?

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: I am 51 years old and just got caught in a layoff. I am going to pursue new employment starting next week. I have 20 years of management experience, and I know I have a lot to offer any company in my industry. The only thing that worries me is my age. You hear so many stories about talented people my age being discriminated against. Do I have a problem, or is it in my head? Thanks.

Nick Corcodilos: There is no doubt that bigotry and discrimination thrive in the dirty little corners of the corporate world. But if there is age anxiety in your own mind, that’s far more dangerous to your career.

Don’t approach an interview thinking about your age. Expect that a company wants you for the profit you can create. Then, if a business rejects you, all you’re walking away from is a lousy company.

Show them the green, not the gray

Some employers will discriminate over age; some won’t. The best way to influence them is to walk in the door, having done your homework, and show how you are going to help them improve their bottom line. I cover this simple idea so often that I fear people will get tired of it. But this is especially important if you’re concerned about discrimination, because one thing trumps bigotry: money.

READ MORE: Ask the Headhunter: How to show employers what age discrimination is costing them

Show a company that you will help it make more money, and you will get almost any manager’s attention. But if you let the manager smell your worries about your age, you’re toast. He’ll make the safe assumption that your worries reveal insecurity, which in turn will ruin his business.

Except in the case of a rotten-to-the-core bigot, most managers will see past “the gray” if you show them the green — money, profit, success. They will forget their prejudices and sing your praises if you can make them look good to their own bosses. I can’t overemphasize this: If your mind is on your age, your behavior will communicate insecurity that will turn off even good employers.

Don’t communicate insecurity

I think there are two kinds of managers: Rats who discriminate and perfectly good bosses who will nonetheless discriminate if you encourage them. Older job candidates encourage discrimination when they show their age anxiety, though they deny it even to themselves. Fear or insecurity of any kind comes through in a job interview. As soon as a manager thinks you’re worried about your age, she instantly worries too — and for good reason. It’s reasonable to conclude that your worries will affect your work. That’s how older candidates encourage discrimination without realizing it.

I know I’ll catch grief for saying that, but this column is not about how things should be. It’s about how they are. It’s about how people think and behave. It’s about how to deal with that. (For more about distinguishing good employers from bad, see “How can I find the truth about a company?”)

So what can you do? Beat your own worries. Start any interview by focusing on how you can help the manager succeed. Immediately ask what the manager’s objectives are with respect to revenue, cost reduction, efficiency, problem solving and profit production. (It’s all about profit, no matter what you call it.) Then ask: “May I show you how I can help you solve that problem or tackle that challenge?” (You should already have an idea about this and be ready with a short presentation.)

Older workers land jobs

Read what one Ask The Headhunter reader sent me a few years ago:

I am a 63-year-old woman, nothing special, with an M.A. in English and 20 years of progressive experience in public relations. I was suddenly outsourced from a job I loved and intended to retire from. After nine months of researching companies, training myself in the Ask The Headhunter methods and working hard to do the job in the interview, I have — again, at age 63 — been hired into a Fortune 500 company.

Although age discrimination can be very real, as you already suspected, it can also be “in your head” — and then in your own behavior. Don’t focus on your age, and you’ll find that many companies won’t either. Even if the employer seems stuck on age, it’s your mission to give him something more important to grab onto.

Now here’s the punchline about the 63-year-old quoted above. At 71, she wrote back to tell me she’s still working, recently got a raise and that there’s one other person in her organization who’s older than she is. (See “71 Years Old: Got in the door at 63 and just got a raise!”)

READ MORE: The unique disadvantage older women face in the workforce

If you’re preoccupied with your age in the interview, you’re giving off the wrong signal. Defeat age anxiety, and you’ll survive most age discrimination. (There’s more about this in “Too Old to Rock & Roll?”)

Dear Readers: Has age discrimination caused you trouble? Have you been able to surmount it? What is your advice to this reader?

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2016 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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