You cannot ask that question! Every HR handbook you read tells you and Federal law backs it up. You cannot ask someone their age in the workplace or in a job interview. (You can’t even ask someone when they graduated from high school or any “age revealing” questions!) But especially as that big chunk of the population known as the baby boomers remain in the work place and retirement funds keep shrinking, the question is going to come up more and more. I’m no HR expert, but I can help you communicate around this sensitive topic.
If you’re the “old” person: Age is a number. It really is – and nothing more. You have probably met 40-year-olds who seemed to be totally out-of-gas and 80-year-olds who run circles around everyone. So what is your profile? How do you project yourself? By this I don’t mean you should be “putting on an act” but rather the question is this: how do you communicate with those around you? If you find yourself continually talking about the “old days” and complaining about today’s world, don’t be surprised if everyone around you thinks of you as “old.” Instead, do you have a light in your eyes and are you always interested in learning and taking on a new challenge? If you seem like a person who plans to remain in touch with all the world around you has to offer for the next decade or two, people won’t be very focused on your age. It won’t be an issue. When you have a clear zest for life, the question at the top of this page will be thought of with admiration instead of a smirk.
If you’re the boss: First, my friends in the legal profession will remind you of the very clear age discrimination wording in our laws. As a boss, there is no wiggle room here. If someone walks in and is qualified for the job, you have to give them a fair shot. But, just as important, you can set a tone for how people are valued with the way you communicate. Praise should be handed out equally among those who are doing good work – not just the younger members of the team. Everyone appreciates positive feedback. And make sure everyone understands the rules related to age so a negative atmosphere isn’t created by someone out of ignorance. (That’s not an excuse recognized in court, by the way!)
The opposite can also happen, where only the older folks get promotions or recognition. Again, as the boss you are expected to demonstrate an even handed approach and any scenario that sets age groups against each other will lead to trouble in the workplace.
If you are the job candidate: Let’s face it, even in a day of eye brow lifts and other “help” from the cosmetic world, we show our age. Resolve now to not have that be a bad thing. How do you carry yourself when you walk into the interview? Do you have energy about you? Have you done your homework and shown an interest in learning? The next thing you know, age isn’t as much of a factor. Control the part of the equation you can control by showing a great attitude along with your experience. Be someone who isn’t discounted by their age, but instead appreciated for it.
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Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting, www.clear-comm.net, a Scottsdale, AZ communications consulting firm that helps people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: email@example.com.