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Boomer Job Search

Podcast with author and career search coach, Rita Ashley

Rita Ashley Rita Ashley

Boomer Job Search Alert Over 45? How to Overcome the Grey Ceiling in Your Job Search

"Overqualified is the easiest answer to give a candidate when an employer passes on hiring an over 45 year old candidate. It is rarely the real reason; it is the politically correct reason and the safest way to get the candidate to go away. Employers who pass on baby boomers don't want to ‘handle' the questions and emotions that result from refusal; they want to move on to the next candidate. Same goes for recruiters." -- Rita Ashley

Welcome to a Career Strategies Channel podcast on TotalPicture Radio with Peter Clayton reporting. According to career and job search coach Rita Ashley, highly quailfied executives in the mid-forties to late fifties are "angry, frustrated, and scared. Many in this age group have been unemployed for over a year. They've come to believe that ageism. She is a technology recruiting veteran who not only worked closely with investors, executives and hiring authorities to staff senior positions, she came to the job as a former Silicon Valley executive.

"One executive mentioned, "When a resume or LinkedIn profile begins, ‘25 years experience' I assume the person will rely on old expertise rather than up-to-the-minute and contemporary solutions. If they lead with number of years and not recent accomplishments, I run away."

Armed with an insider's view of how hiring gets done Ms. Ashley teaches her clients life skills for career development and job search.  In the last two years, 98% of her clients reached their targeted career goals within six months.

Rita Ashley Welcome to Career Transition Channel podcast on Total Picture Radio. This is Peter Clayton reporting, and joining us today from Seattle is Rita Ashley who is a career and job search coach, and she recently posted an article on ageism and the problems that people over 45 years old are having out there in the workforce trying to get reengaged, trying to find new jobs.

Peter: Rita, welcome to Total Picture Radio.

Rita: Thank you, Peter.

Peter: What is the most significant thing someone over 45 can do to improve their chances of landing a job, Rita?

Rita: I believe the first and most important thing is vetting the potential employer. By that, I mean to learn whether or not they already have a pretty diverse workforce.

In my experience, one of the worse things that can happen in a job search for anyone is to be told no. So in order to reduce the probability you'll be told no is ask the right people.

The second and most important thing people could do is avoid the biggest mistake that most people who are over 40 or 50 make, which is they lead by stating their years of experience, and while it's those years of experience that will make them successful at the job, it is unlikely that that is what's going to get them the interview. Employers want to know that you are current; they don't want to have a history lesson.

Peter: So starting out by saying better an executive of the marketing industry with over 25 years of practical experience – that's absolutely the wrong way to go about it.

Rita: Not only is it the wrong way to go, they absolutely have no idea how many people stopped reading and go onto the next LinkedIn profile or whatever as soon as they see it because many of the executives that I have worked with in the past and certainly the ones I've talked to recently have told me that as soon as they see that, it communicates to them that the person is relying on what has worked before and won't necessarily depend on new and current solutions, won't be open-minded and therefore, not necessarily fit in with their corporate culture.

Peter: Along what's leading off with how many years of experience you have in a particular field, what are some of the other mistakes that people over 45 make that take them out of the running?

Rita: I believe that once they are interviewing, two things are true. If they are being interviewed, that means that the hiring company already knows that they are not a young kid, and they believe they saw something on their resume that communicated to them that they could do the job, and that they'd be welcome in their organization, and if they don't make it to the next step it's because they failed to prove that. So some of the ways that people failed to prove that is talking down to the interviewer; it's highly likely that the person that is interviewing them is younger than they are, and so it really requires an attitude check.

Another really serious error that is committed is the concept referenced to what I did before… or here's what you need to do… or I saw this problem at XYZ company and here's what I did to solve it… instead of asking relevant questions and exploring what other solutions they have tried, etc.

So again, it's an over reliance on things that have worked in the past rather than what they might bring to the party to help solve the problem currently.

Peter: Rita, I interviewed Tammy Erickson recently who has done a lot of work in cross-generational differences in the workplace and she has a new book out on Gen-X. Gen-X seems to be really upset with the baby boomer generation, the very generation you're talking about, because they feel like it's time for them to retire already and get out of the way. How do you combat something like the Gen-Xer's attitude towards baby boomers?

Rita: First of all, the people that I work with are almost exclusively technology executives, and the technology world is pretty well used to having people of all ages contributing significantly. So, I don't see the age issue in terms of get out of my way, in so much as I when I do see and what employers have told me is the people that they have on staff who are 50 and over simply aren't as nimble as they need to be, or as current as they need to be, or that for instance one of the major things in technology is the concept of fail fast, and it's really the fulcrum on which a lot of the progress is made. If it doesn't work, we reassess and go a different direction. Whereas the baby boomers have been trained to analyze, overanalyze, assess, figure out all of the ifs ands, etc., etc., and there's where we get into a pretty big culture shock, if you will, and a head on confrontation.

So when interviewing, it behooves the older candidate to mention how they make decisions and their trial and error approach to things and more importantly, to give an example and show the result in terms of the success, and that puts that one to rest pretty easily because regardless of the age of the interviewer, their objective is exactly the same, hire the very best person who is going to make me look as good as possible, and the extent to which the candidate can demonstrate that is the extent to which they'll be considered for the job.

Peter: I think that's some really good advice. What you said earlier, Rita, about the fact that if somebody is in an organization and interviewing for a job, they've been vetted. The employer knows approximately how old they are and they know how many years they've been in the workforce, and they know where they went to college, and they've checked their references. Today, if you get an interview, a face-to-face interview with someone, you've made it 80% of the way.

Rita: I call it being pre-sold, and in the vernacular it's yours to lose, and the way the candidates, regardless of their age, lose is by not listening to the priorities of the interviewer. In other words, especially in the technology world, doing what old school people would call a core dump – just telling them everything that you have ever done in your whole life without regard to what are their priorities, and that really applies to whether you're 25 or 45 or 55, it is an error often made by people who are being interviewed.

The solution to that is before you go in, understand what the first and second, and third priorities are for this job description, and this is really critical, and what sets one candidate over others, and especially the older candidate, is to give a relevant example. Don't just say, oh yes, I've done that before, I managed people, and I got products out the door on time, and on budget. It's really important to drill down to give an example of whatever it is their priority is and an outcome. It's not enough to say I managed a group, I managed a group who did such and so and our outcome was we delivered 67 products in 27 seconds, and that's what sets one candidate apart from another. The advantage the older candidate has is they have more examples from which to use.

Peter: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier, and that was to find out whether an employer was friendly towards the baby boomer generation. I know that, for instance, AARP has a list of baby boomer-friendly corporations and does as well. What other resources can someone over 45 check to find out whether a corporation indeed is interested in hiring an older worker?

Rita: Well, let's assume that one is doing the research because they know of an opportunity. The internet obviously is the first place to look, and where you go is to their website to see who is on staff, who's on the board. Another way to do that is there's a wonderful product that I just recommend every single one of my client to call GIST. GIST takes all of your connections and gives you articles, and incidences of when they're mentioned in the press, etc., and in some cases, even bios. So that's another resource that you can use to find out a lot of information.

Typically when an executive is going to approach a company about a job, it is because they've used their network to secure an introduction. That's the most important and more importantly the most successful way to get an interview. All you have to do is ask the person who is interviewing you. Tell me a little bit about the team. You don't want to specifically say how old are they, but you can tell from the experience and the places they've worked. So, it's really a research project and it's not something that should be taken lightly.

Peter: That's some great advice. When you're networking with those younger, how do older candidates position themselves? How can you go in to a networking event and act and feel like you're part of the conversation rather than an outsider and yet, not act like you're trying too hard to identify with younger people?

Rita: Well again, understand that my target market, or that where my client base for the last 20 years has been technology executives. In those venues that you talk about, one's brand, if you will, precedes them. So if you've done a conscientious job of working on your brand, communicating your brand, and making certain that it's out there, people will come to you. I know for instance a couple of people who are in their 60s, who if they do decide to go to these events, people flock to them. They want to know their opinions, what they are up to, what's the gossip, what's on the street, etc.

So I would say that by maintaining your brand, that's certainly the long term in career development position to take.

In the short term, I advice people who go to those venues to come equipped, knowing who's coming, knowing who the speakers are, and coming with relevant questions to start conversations about the topic, about the speakers, etc., and then it just happens naturally because you have something that you're comfortable talking about. What you don't want to do is say, I'm looking for a job, will you help me? The whole idea of these networking events is not to collect contact information as much as it is to create bonds with people that you will see repeatedly and over time get to know them to the point where you can engage them in helping you with your job search.

Peter: One of the most common complaints, I know you're aware of this, that you get from someone over 45 years old, they say well, I applied for this job and they told me I was overqualified.

Rita: I wrote a whole blog on that because it's throughout all the years of recruiting on behalf of executives, and working directly with the higher authorities, I can honestly tell you with 100% certainty, that in most cases when someone is told they are overqualified, they've been taking out of running for other reasons. It's just that overqualified is the politically correct thing to say.

Again, we go back to the idea that if, in fact, you are in an interview situation, they already know your qualifications that you've simply failed to make the sale. So, the overqualified is a signal to the candidate to drill down and review every single aspect of their interview to see where they went awry.

In those situations where someone is genuinely overqualified, the mistakes that most people make is to lead with that, and talk about their superhero strengths instead of the strengths that are specially relevant to the solution or the priorities that the open job represents. In other words, "I can do more than that," which is exactly the wrong approach to take.

Peter: This kind of gets in to the whole attitude thing that you were talking about earlier with these folks who have all of this experience going into these interviews and really what I would call overselling themselves.

Rita: It's partly overselling themselves and, you know, let's take the elephant out of the closet. They're angry, they're resentful, and it's a matter of deal with that before you get into the interview, because it's not the fault of the young person or younger person who's interviewing you and your objective, which is what you have to clearly keep in mind, is to help that individual see how you are the solution to their top priority, and that you are very low-risk, low-maintenance hire. By low-risk, low-maintenance what I refer to is that many employers have to deal with personality issues when older employees second guess or argue with their younger managers, and they simply don't want to deal with that. So the extent to which you can show that you are a collaborative person by giving examples will really ease their mind on how well you will fit.

Peter: There's another aspect as well, Rita, and I know you're well aware of this, and this is especially true with larger organizations; there are some laws in place that are intended to help protect older workers and what they do in effect is make sure that no one gets hired, because employers are terrified that if it doesn't work out, if it's not a good match, and they have to let that person go, they're going to get sued.

Rita: I hate to tell you this, Peter, but after I wrote the blog on solutions for the older worker to overcome ageism and land the jobs, I had three employers call me or email me saying, Rita, you want to hear the other side of that coin? On the top of the list for every one of them is we cannot afford the bad press or the money that develops with overly litigious people, and that it appears to them – and these are just individuals – that people over 50 become very litigious and very angry, and they simply don't want to take the risk.

Let's assume that that's true, even if it's only true for 10% of the company, we need to understand what the battlefield looks like in order to win the war and if, in fact, the litigious issue is there, the way to overcome it is through the enthusiasm, is through the excitement about the job that is there, and it's by giving examples of how you have collaborated and worked well in age-diverse organizations before, and the extent to which they are comfortable that's true for you, is the extent to which they'll actually consider you for the job.

One of my colleagues is 32 years old, and he's an executive vice president in a major corporation. So almost anybody that he interviews is going to be older than him for director or vice president, or even just manager positions, and what he looks for is how much do they rely on comments like my experience or how many years they've done the job, or worse – how they can do more than the job at hand. Because they appreciate those are signals, if you will, that the person won't be happy in the job.

Peter: You know, another thing that I've heard and I'm sure, again, because you work mainly in the high tech sector, is people do not keep up with technology and with the social networks, and how the internet is being used; they're just going to be left behind.

Rita: I'm going to correct you – they are being left behind. There's two things that play here. All the social networking takes the point of view that everybody is using, which of course is wrong; they're not. The most senior people in the technology industry avoid social networking sites like the plague. In other words, if you're on Facebook or Twitter, or even LinkedIn which is a business networking site, you're not going to find the CEO of the company that you most want to work for. What you are going to find, however, are other people who report to that individual. So, they're still useful. Being savvy about that, about how those social networks are being used, is really important.

I have one client, for instance, who is being considered for an executive vice president position in a very large company which has significant competition right now, and this is for a CTO, and their first requirement was that they know how to use social networking and the technologies of social networking, to communicate about their product. So in his case, some of the first questions he was asked were about his own uses of social networking which are unfortunately were zero because his current company disallows it.

Peter: You talk about a real conundrum and there are a lot of corporations that have policies that you can't blog, you can't be on Twitter, in fact, they have a firewall, they block Twitter, they block Facebook, they block LinkedIn and all these social networking sites from even coming across the firewall.

Rita: The company that I have in mind considers even if you do it on your own time and your own name, consider it a firing offense for anybody director level and above, unless they have specific permission from the CEO. Period. It's an absolutely zero tolerance. One of the reasons they do that is because they don't want the world to know, for instance, as an example with the person in question that he is doing what he is doing, so that they can be recruited away.

Peter: {laughs} Because let's face it, that's where the recruiters are, they're all over LinkedIn and all over Twitter, and they're looking for people who have specific skills, and they know how to put this Boolean search strings together, and find these folks. There is a real point to be said for not allowing your very valuable, your senior level, your key employees to be out there on the blogosphere promoting themselves.

Rita: Well, I don't know that it is even promoting themselves, just even making comments on blogs, and really good recruiters (and there are those out there) do exactly what you say; they use the Boolean string, but they do it not for LinkedIn and social networks; they use it for the blogs and articles because they get a much better sense of how that individual writes, how they see themselves, what values they have, etc, and they drill down way past, okay, he's got these particular keywords, and as I said, this one particular company I have in mind is not only cognoscenti of that, but they are not alone.

Peter: To that point, Rita, what do you do if you work for an organization that has a policy like this, and does not allow you to participate in blogs and social networks, how do you get over that challenge?

Rita: Well, it's a significant challenge to branding which, as I mentioned earlier, for executives, it is really important that they maintain their brand and work on it conscientiously, and blogs and articles, and social networking, and comments, etc., are just the tip of the iceberg on that, but it's a very large tip.

The way in which my clients have managed to get around that, and by get around it, I don't mean circumvent the system, I mean still be able to be contacted, is they keep up their personal relationships. When they travel on business, they maintain those relationships. They maintain relationships with key recruiters, and they mind their Ps & Qs when they do go out, for instance to, when they're a speaker or whatever at a seminar, and they make certain they have their business cards with them. They make certain that when they collect business cards that they touch base with those people periodically. So that they're taking care on a very person-by-person basis to maintain their network.

I have two people right now who are in the offer stages for significant jobs, and both of them were referred to those jobs by their personal network.

Peter: Well, we all know that the referrals are certainly, especially at the level we're talking about, are really the only way to network yourself into an organization is through a personal referral and it has to be a valid referral, it can't just be oh I met this, so and so on LinkedIn, and they're interested in this job.

Rita: You're spot on, and I would take it one step further. For example, in my book Job Search Debugged, I devoted a whole chapter to the difference between an introduction and the referral.

If we look at how hiring is done there is a hierarchy, and the hierarchy begins with if an executive or a board member introduces a candidate to the hiring authority, they get top priority, they are talked to. Below that is referrals or introductions from other people within the company and outside vendor such as my accountant, and my PR agency, etc., and introductions by even recruiters, for instance.

So, the idea that an introduction is the golden key, if you will, to getting that interview. It can't be disputed if we look at how businesses actually work, how hiring authorities actually pay attention, if you will. The very lowest on the line are resumes that are randomly submitted either through the website or just at random, those are the lowest resumes or people that are considered and often don't make it into the mix, and then below that, of course, are those dreaded job boards.

Peter: Well, most of the jobs we're referring to don't even make it to those job boards.

Rita: Well, occasionally they do, but they don't do it because they're trying to fill the job through the job board. Back in the day, companies would post advertisements in the newspaper, and the reason they did that, Peter, was because especially in larger corporations, their human resources and EEOC rules say you have to post a job in an external place in order to fill it and so therefore, you're going to see a lot of postings for executive level jobs that really don't exist because they're basically already have been filled.

Peter: They're just out of EEOC compliance.

Rita: Exactly.

Peter: They're just putting the job up on Monster or some place so that they have posted it in a public place.

Rita: In addition to which often times some of the less scrupulous recruiters will post a senior level job simply because they want the resumes to use as Trojan horses to go to other companies and say, look, I'm representing these really senior people, why don't you give me the job search. So again, the job boards are just a very poor place for executives to be searching for their next opportunity.

Peter: I want to talk for a minute, Rita, about this 32-year-old executive who you work with. If I'm let's say 52 years old and interviewing with this 32 year old, how should I dress?

Rita: Wear a suit and for women, of course, you can wear a jacketed dress if you'd like. The reason for that is to show respect for the interview process, show respect for the organization. Now, especially in tech companies, will they comment on it? Absolutely. Will you get teased about it? Probably. The point is still made, however, and it is absolutely 100% important to wear a suit.

Peter: Because there's a lot of tech companies out there that nobody who works there wears a suit; they're all in jeans.

Rita: And when you get your job, you could certainly change that, but for pursuing a job, you must wear a suit.

Funny anecdote, I have one client who not only wore a suit to all his interviews because it's his normal way, when he actually started the job, he still came to work in usually wearing a suit, or if not a suit, certainly a sports coat, etc., and nobody else in the organization did. The company I'm referring to is a Bellevue organization that has a home office in California, and when the executive vice president from California came up to visit, he said, you know, you're the only adult in this organization. When it came time for them to select a new business unit manager, he was the only candidate.

Peter: That's interesting.

Rita: Isn't it though? It's a subliminal thing Peter that we overlook, it's absolutely subliminal, but when you dress the part, you get the part, and a lot of flack.

Peter: So, Rita, what haven't I asked you or what haven't we discussed around this whole issue of ageism that you think it's important for the listeners to know?

Rita: That's a terrific question. I think that if I were to leave your listeners with a sound bite, it would be prove your experience through examples, not your opinions.

Peter: That's very good advice, and it's really been nice having an opportunity to finally connect with you and to do this interview. I really appreciate it.

Rita: And I appreciate the opportunity to get some practical advice out there to folks who…

Why some employers are reluctant to hire those over 50.

In the past ten years as a career coach, I have often worked with clients who believed they were overlooked for promotion, dismissed or not hired because of their age. Not one of these people looked to their performance or work place interactions for clues. And while each was subsequently successful in achieving their career goals, it wasn't because we changed their age. Instead, we changed their behaviors, approach and expectations.

When someone tells me they were fired or overlooked because of their age, I can't help but think, "That is the symptom, what is the disease?" What is it about age that causes folks to be overlooked or fired?

I look to those who hire and work with people over 50 for the answers. All those interviewed said they were apprehensive about hiring people over 50 in case the individual didn't work out because they were reluctant to expose the company to potential litigation. Their observation was that older workers seem to be especially litigious.

Those companies, especially those in California where there are significant numbers of high tech employers, are at risk because the laws favor the candidate. Even with extensive documentation on performance issues, companies suffer from bad PR and expensive legal disputes. Not something a thinking executive willingly puts on their agenda. So the very laws in place to protect those over 50 are what make companies averse to hiring them. Ironic, that.

One employer disclosed how ten out of ten over-50 employees, from individual contributors to vice presidents, over a period of three years, were dismissed. The company is culturally and gender diverse and up till now, more than happy to hire older employees.

Executives with whom I spoke gave many examples of why they avoid hiring older workers. Each complained the candidates or employees often referred to their ‘30 years experience' which provoked employers to respond, "Number of years is irrelevant. the only thing that is relevant is the last four or five years and what was achieved or learned."

One executive mentioned, "When a resume or LinkedIn profile begins, ‘25 years experience' I assume the person will rely on old expertise rather than up-to-the-minute and contemporary solutions. If they lead with number of years and not recent accomplishments, I run away."

Work ethic: High tech companies typically develop product plans based on a 50-60 hour work week projections which means employees consistently spend 60-70 hours working. In every case, the older employees left work long before their younger colleagues. When a senior manager was asked why he thought leaving ‘early' was acceptable, he said, "I have more experience than the others. I can get done in less time because I know how to do this." He was wrong.

The employer responds, "While experience is valued, the processes and techniques for creating products and doing business have changed significantly. Things take as long as they take regardless of how long you have been doing them."

"Our younger employees are less encumbered and are more than happy to spend the time at work. They are eager to prove themselves and hungry. Whereas the older employees, especially the individual contributors, feel they paid their dues and don't have to work as hard. Like it or not, we reward employees based on their contribution. Someone working 65 hours contributes more than someone working 45 hours."

Adaptability: Employers require employees to adapt to new technologies (i.e. Agile), new processes and new business concepts. Older employees who constantly refer what they did in the past alienate their peers and are not productive. "Here's how we did it at xyz company…" is a poor substitute for a solution.

The employer responds: "We need innovative ideas, not a report on what worked in the past. When employees cling to their past experience, it is an impediment to moving forward."

One of my clients had a manager that simply could not adapt to the Agile methodology for product development. He was a constant road block for release dates and the product quality suffered. He was invited to take classes, givin on-site mentoring and still could not adapt.

The ripple affect was he could not set proper expectations for his team and his old-school techniques were passed on. After nine months trying to solve this issue, the manager was moved to another position; one where he had no impact on the schedule. The company would have fired him for well documented lack of performance, but were concerned about litigation. Based on this, no one over 35 was considered as his replacement.

Takes longer to make decisions: The ‘fail-fast' mentality of modern technology companies requires quick decision making. If it is the wrong decision, immediate course correction ensues. Older workers tend to take longer to evaluate and assess and over analyze thus taking more time to make decisions that impact schedules and the bottom line.

The employer responds: "Morale is affected when decisions are not made quickly. Older employees are no longer hungry and eager to impress. They cease to be aggressive and appear to have stopped caring."

Attitude: Employers need enthusiastic employees who are committed to the corporate mission. Older workers often behave as though this is their last job and they can do the minimum, relax and enjoy job security.

The employers responds: "Without the constant energy and creativity of each of our managers and executives, we will not succeed. If an older worker is not engaged and forward thinking, they damage the team morale and productivity. They have to keep up."

"When an older worker reports to a much younger manager, the dynamic is often disruptive. We can't afford all the personnel issues. If an older worker argues or won't cooperate because they feel they know more, everyone loses and a lot of time is wasted."

The bottom line is, often the track record of older employees and the ill-will generated by their behavior and lack of performance makes the company and hiring authorities gun shy about hiring older workers.

These are just the facts as they relate to some companies. It is a substantive peek inside the rational for avoiding hiring older workers. All that having been said, there are many people over 50 who are not only gainfully employed, but revered by their employers.

If you are looking for a new job and are over 50, it behooves you to vet the employer carefully. If you see age diversity, you have found a good prospective employer who has likely not been negatively affected by your poor performing age mates.

Rita Ashley Biography

Rita Ashley transitioned to job search coaching nine years ago because many top executives and technology professionals she knew did not have the proper job search skills to land the jobs for which they were qualified. Executives visit a different career landscape from those more junior in their careers and require different resources and tools. She coached these executives and perfected her coaching process. The advice is field-tested and the books provide unique guidance and advice based on what works. In the last two years 98% of her clients achieved their goals within six months.

Rita is the author of "Job Search Debugged" and "Networking Debugged." Download both as PDFs for information on how to conduct a compelling job search.

Peter Clayton

About Peter Clayton

Peter Clayton, Producer/Host, is an award-winning producer/director of radio, television, documentary, video, interactive and Web-based media who has created breakthrough media for a wide array of Fortune 100 clients.


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