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Job Search: Age Discrimination or Convicted Felon?

February 4th, 2021

This is a long post about working through, or around, job search discrimination. I’ve written quite a bit on this topic over the years.

My friend Paul sent me this set of questions, which got me thinking about how hard it is for older (definitely over 50, but many over-40 job seekers feel it too) people to get into interviews, and then get an offer.

Years ago I had a friend, Makini Harvey, who’s mission was to help convicted felons find jobs. Makini had a heart of gold, and I loved seeing her at conferences and chatting on the phone with her. She was hope and love all bundled into a ball of fire. I think all of my career colleagues would agree with that. I was always impressed that she took perhaps the hardest group of people and jumped right in, willing to help.

I don’t know nearly as much about the felon job search, but I think a common tactic is for them to just start their own business. Practically anyone can start a business, whereas going applying to companies that would discount you because you were convicted has got to be so discouraging.

In my own Big Failed Job Search, in 2006, I faced age discrimination from both ends. I was too young to have the things I had on my resume. I can thank starting my career in a small town, and becoming a VP of tech and general manager very quickly. When I moved to a much larger city, the people who had the same things on their resumes were easily twenty years older, and had much deeper experience with those titles in more sophisticated companies. I was just too young for anyone to consider me.

At 32 I was just too young.

Guess what? 32 is too old to be considered for the other jobs I was looking at, including project manager, product manager, and business analyst. There was a healthy group of just-out-of-school kids who cost about half of what I was looking for, anxious to get their foot in the door. Guess who got hired… someone with experience, or someone who cost 1/2 of me?

At 32 I was just too old.

Maybe my Great Failed Job Search of 2006 wasn’t all my fault.

Age discrimination sucks. It’s also illegal, but so what? It happens all over the place, all the time. Just because it is illegal doesn’t mean you can prove it, would win in court, or that it doesn’t happen. Deep down in our human nature we judge others based on things… many of those judgements illegal in the hiring process. But this judgement is in our lizard brains, and it just isn’t going anywhere. So, then, what do we do?

You can’t blame everything on ageism

Paul says this: “I am 64. There are several issues. 1. There is ageism, but you can’t blame everything on that.”

Paul is absolutely right. Let me rephrase this to “you can’t blame not getting an interview or a job 100% on age discrimination.”

Hire a job search coach, especially one who has worked with older workers (that is, not college grads), and they will have experience working around age discrimination issues. Their job is to help you understand what the red flags are, and how to position yourself in your branding (resume, LinkedIn profile, etc.) and your networking (30 second pitches, 5 second pitches, etc.) and your interviewing so that you minimize age as a reason for people to not consider you.

When you are looking for career professionals, resume writers and job search coaches, ask them about their experiences with people your age, in your industry, looking for jobs you are looking for. You want to get an understanding of how they might help you. Some of them will recognize the issues you are facing and know that it is not a big deal, if maneuvered correctly.

You CAN blame everything on being old, and how age discrimination is just plain horrible. But Paul is right, and has the right attitude: blaming everything on that will not help you address the problem at hand. Maybe you need to work on certifications, work on communicating your expertise better, network differently, or for crying out loud, get off the job boards.

Huh? Job boards? Where did that come from? Check out Nick Corcodilos’ post, and the 300+ comments, on the effectiveness of job boards, here: The Bogus-ness of Indeed.com

Paul’s next question is:

How do you redefine yourself?

Ah, a big question. I guess the first three questions I have are:

  1. How are you currently defining yourself?
  2. Who is the audience to which you want to be defined?
  3. How do you want to be defined?

I think one of the problems is that too often older job seekers see pretty much one definition:

OLD

Old has a lot of stigma: expensive, slow, won’t put in extra time, expensive, health issues, set in old ways, can’t teach an old dog, did I mention expensive?

When you feel like age discrimination is the issue, you see yourself as old. Washed up. Has been. Of no value. I don’t discount those feelings at all. A couple of years ago I wrote a tweet (I’m not going to look for it) where I challenged tech companies who are all about no discrimination to show their age numbers. They are real big on making sure that race and gender are not discrimination points, but my experience with high tech funded startups is that they are full of people right out of college. No hate towards those people, they need jobs. But if you preach anti-discrimination, please show me that you are hiring people who are 64, also.

They are too outdated, you say?

No, they are not. You are simply discriminating.

Okay, that’s a tangent. But a good one.

The irony about the people who say that too old is too outdated is that one day those people will be too old. Irrelevant. And in as much distress as people now who can’t get an interview or a job because they are too old.

Sorry, I’m ranting again. Back to Paul.

You redefine yourself through a strategic, intentional personal branding strategy. You go through the process of figuring out what your brand boundaries are, and then come up with branding statements and use branding tools (LinkedIn profile, LinkedIn articles, LinkedIn group, maybe a blog, your 30 second pitch, your resume, etc.) to ensure you are communicating the right message that is on brand, and of value, to your target audience.

You understand your target audience, and what they are looking for. Maybe they are tired of hiring people with no experience, and they could really use someone with your background to lead the team, or reengineer processes, or develop prospect or customer relationships.

Job search seminars I’ve been in talks about how you need to identify the problems organizations have, and then address those problems. Phrase your value in a way that shows them how you will save or make money (I am not 100% on board with that, but in some cases it can be an important position).

If you know the role and industry and even organization you want to work for, and can identify their problems (through networking you may be able to identify real, current issues they need help with), you can devise your marketing assets to address those. Imagine if I’m looking for help growing my pipeline… and you have a few blog posts or LinkedIn articles that show exactly how you have done that for other organizations… I do not care about your age at all… I’ve seen what you have done for other organizations and I want you to do it for me!

Find the problems and address those exact problems.

Too often I see laundry lists of skills and characteristics. They mean nothing to me. They are noise. I want substance, stories, examples, and some sense that you are the exact person to solve my problems, because you have done it before.  If you can communicate that, I’m all over you. I want to talk to you. I don’t care of you are 85, if you can solve my problems.

In my personal branding course on Pluralsight I talk about this… the why, what, and how of personal branding to define or redefine yourself. You can watch it with a free 10 day trial.

What jobs are better to try to do?

Hm, this is a big question. Every job seeker, young and old, is trying to figure this out. And, the 70+% of people who are at work but don’t like their work are asking the same things.

Early in my career I took jobs I thought would help me get to where I wanted to be when I was old enough to retire. Jobs that would put me on the right path.

At that stage in my career it was a “put in your time” attitude. This meant doing things that would lead to the next promotion, and then the next, etc. It meant working hard and maybe more hours, volunteering for things, etc.

I don’t know when it happened but somewhere along the line I realized that where I wanted to work, and what I wanted to do, shifted. I wanted to work for an amazing boss, in an amazing team, impacting the world somehow. I needed my work to make an impact. I needed a certain amount of money, of course, but I would not take higher money sacrificing the work environment.  I had worked for crappy leaders and I had worked for excellent leaders, and I knew I didn’t want to work under crap anymore. In addition to those things, I value a flexible schedule.

So, what are better jobs to try to do? I’m not sure what you have done. What have you liked from what you have done? What organizations did you enjoy, what roles and responsibilities and impact gave you satisfaction? What did you NOT enjoy? Before you make a list of companies and titles, make a list of characteristics you want in a job. Start there, then work backwards.

Once you get that list, and prioritize it, and figure out what you might sacrifice or swap out, then you can start to come up with your list of jobs. Job titles you end up with might surprise you.

What companies are better to apply to that will be more accepting (like smaller companies)?

I’m assuming you mean “more accepting of hiring older workers.” A few years ago when I was looking at local companies I was interested in working with I noticed one, a high tech funded startup that was on everyone’s list to work at around here. I was researching that company and found the about us page, with a recent picture of what looked like all of the local employees… maybe a couple hundred. I enlarged the picture and scanned through… and something jumped out at me: the owner looked like he was my age, maybe older. Every other person in that picture looked like they were right out of college.

I knew, or at least I assumed, that I didn’t have a chance. It was a disgusting realization.

That’s an example of a small(ish) company only hiring young people.

Ask the in-house recruiters and they’ll tell you that no, absolutely not, is there age discrimination. But there is. We all know it. They know it. Company owners know it. Job seekers especially know it. So, just cross that company off your list.

I’m not sure if all big companies are discriminatory and all small companies are not discriminatory. When I go to Home Depot (ahem, The Home Depot) I see a bunch of old people. People who have had great careers as electricians, plumbers, handymen/women, etc., now roaming the Home Depot isles helping people pick put the best products for their job. The last time I talked to one of them, we chatted for almost an hour (not about what I went there for). Rather than being bored in front of the TV, these people with decades of knowledge and experience got to be out helping and chatting with people.

That’s an example of a big company hiring older people.

I’m not sure what the best companies are… I bet AARP has some “best companies for older workers” list. But I want you to go back to your list of ideal characteristics and make sure they match before you do a job search based on who hires older workers. Then, make sure your brand communicates the right things, and see how you can network into those roles.

My 6 week Job Search Program is designed for recent grades and older people alike… it’s based on informational interviews. I think informational interviews is an excellent strategy for just about any job seeker.

Back to Felons and Older People

If discrimination is the issue, and it might very well be THE ISSUE (regardless of what I wrote above), maybe you need to do what felons are advised to do: figure out your own thing.

I wrote a book about creating alternative income streams based on things I’ve heard about from people who have done it. I don’t sell the book anymore (I’m pretty much out), but you can find similar lists online (here’s a list with 55 ideas). Look for side hustle lists. If you don’t have a job, these side hustles become your main hustles. This list doesn’t quite do it for me, but I only took one second to actually look.

I had a guy come clean my windows. I think I paid him around $450. He was in his mid sixties, but his age wasn’t a deciding factor at all. As we were chatting he told me about taking his whole family, including grandkids, on a European vacation. Who imagines their window cleaner is making that kind of bank?

When you start your own business, whether it is consulting or web design or delivering flowers or whatever, you don’t face age discrimination like you would at a job. You have other challenges, like sales and marketing. But usually when I hire someone to do something (like my windows, or marketing consulting, or video editing, etc.) I don’t ask their age, nor do I ask if they just got out of prison.

Business ownership… not easy, but perhaps easier than finding a job when faced with blatant discrimination.

One last thought about these lists of ideas… many will be like “um, NO!” Cosmetologist, for example… here in Utah you have to be in school for it, which is expensive, then get I think 2,000 hours practicing, to get licensed. Unless it is your passion, I’d advise you to pass on it.

What I want you to get from those lists is inspiration. Figure out your own gig. Watch Shark Tank to see the crazy ideas people have to create income and value.

I know this is super scary. But if you have expertise in an area, why not hang your shingle and do consulting on that? It wouldn’t cost you anything to fish for clients, and see what kind of interest there actually is.

When I started JibberJobber I was still looking for a job, hoping to finally get a corner office on the top floor, and be called Mr. Alba (not really, I prefer Jason). But there came a point where I realized I was getting a lot more attention from my side business idea that I was as a job seeker. It was a lot easier to do my own thing. Maybe that is where you should focus your time.

Lost

Paul ended his emails to me with this: “I am truly lost at this point.”

My heart breaks. I know the feelings of being lost, and hopeless. For me, everything changed when I got hope, which came as I conceptualized JibberJobber. It has not been the smashing success I thought it would be (you don’t read about me on the front page of anything), but it provided HOPE at a time when I had pretty much lost all hope. It was enough to get me on a good path, instead of a path where I kept hitting dead ends.

JibberJobber lead to blogging, which lead to my first book, which lead to getting paid to speak, which lead to consulting and writing and more books, and eventually to my Pluralsight courses. All of that lead to a 10 month job a couple of years ago, which was one of my best and most favorite jobs, but even that went away. Even so, my other things were still there, waiting for me to pick up again. I was sure I knew how to create an income… and I have.

It took creativity, persistence, courage, etc. But most of all it took HOPE.

It is my earnest desire that you, Paul, can find hope in whatever you choose to do. When you get that hope, the whole world brightens again, and opportunities somehow present themselves.

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