How to Deal with Ageism in Recruitment

How to Deal with Ageism in Recruitment
  • Age bias in recruitment is more common than you think.
  • The best way is to prepare for it and deal with it during the job interview.
  • Address the interviewer’s unconscious bias professionally to help you nail the job.  

Changing jobs can be challenging at any age, but what happens when you are over 50, or even 60? 

I see many job advertisements describing the company’s organisational culture as dynamic or fast paced environments, which is generally code for young people work here so don’t apply if you are over 35! This can be heartbreaking to read if you are 50 and the job sounds great. 

On a positive note, at least the company gave you a clue to their hiring intention. This means you have a choice.  You can risk wasting your time by carefully crafting a cover letter and resume only to, more than likely, receive a dreadful rejection email once the recruiter looks at your LinkedIn profile, or don’t bother applying.

Whilst being over 50 doesn’t mean you are past it or unable to cope in a dynamic or fast paced workplace, stereotypes tend to suggest the opposite.  Therefore, what do you do if you want to change jobs because clearly, despite legislation, ageism is alive and well in Australia? In fact, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a quarter of Australian workers aged 50 and above had experienced some form of discrimination.

Firstly, let me say if someone is biased and not open to changing their opinion, then you can’t do anything to sway them from discriminating against you and you will never get the job.  That’s like trying to persuade someone who doesn’t like olives to suddenly like them, it’s not going to happen.

However, there are people who discriminate based on a lack of understanding or exposure to diversity. This group is more likely to be open to realising they are biased and perhaps changing their minds if you have the right skills, competencies and experience for the job and can handle the interview well.

I am a diversity and inclusion advocate; I passionately wish hiring managers would truly see the person inside their wrapping and recruit as they should be based on a person’s capability and experience. The truth is, sadly, many people can’t get past the way a person looks.  It’s wrong, its shallow but it’s reality.

An interview is about verifying someone’s skills and experience plus their cultural fit.  Culture fit is generally where the discrimination occurs. Skills and experience, however, is typically the excuse given to someone for not being successful! They use excuses such as, “too experienced”, “need more relevant experience”, etc.

So, what can you do if you are over 50, get an interview for a job you really want, but feel the hiring manager is biased and may discriminate against you based on your age?  In my mind you have three choices.

1. Ignore it

2. Challenge it.

3. Deal with it.

Ignoring the bias in a job interview

You can hope your feeling is wrong, try to be as positive and professional as possible and complete the interview.   The problem with this is, you are unlikely to get the job, and you may have just wasted your time.

How to challenge ageism in a job interview

If you are blatantly asked something that is discriminatory and illegal that makes you feel uncomfortable even if you are asked in a relaxed conversational manner, such as:

“Hey, you have lots of experience, how old are you?” or

“Your kids are at university, wow, how old are you?”

You can challenge those statements. This takes guts but think of it as a learning opportunity for the interviewer.  Perhaps give them the benefit of the doubt. They may have been living under a rock and not realised their question was discriminatory. If you did want to say something (though I for one, would applaud you if you did), you could try something like the answer below.

“I know that I am going to sound like I am being difficult and you might even wonder whether I am the candidate for you but integrity is important to me, so I need to let you know that asking that question is inappropriate or illegal but this is what I am prepared to share." Then tell them what you feel comfortable with.

This gives you the opportunity to answer what you like, whilst demonstrating that you are someone who has values and is prepared to stand up for what is right. If this is a trait they want, it may help swing things in your favour.

How to deal with ageism in a job interview

You are allowed to talk about the elephant in the room!  You can discuss your suspicion of bias during the interview and then skilfully address their concerns.  If you do this well, you may be able to use this to your advantage. If it doesn’t go well, it doesn’t really matter because you probably weren’t going to get the job anyway.

Often interviewers aren’t obvious when they demonstrate age bias, it’s just a look or a tone, and you just get a sense.  I am a big believer that if your gut is telling you something, you need to listen to it. Listen to your intuition and then decide if you want to act on it or not.

Most career coaches shy away from discussing discrimination in interviews, because its uncomfortable and, quite frankly, they don’t know what advice to give.  My very strong view is diversity and inclusion are important to the fabric of our society. 

If you feel you are being discriminated against because of your age, you have every right to address it, after all, it is illegal.  There’s a leadership theory of the moment called “Radical Candor”, so I recommend employing some of their philosophies and kick ass!

Here is my advice on how to handle this. The first step is to prepare before this even happens, because addressing it during the job interview is tough.   Below are steps you can follow.

1. Prepare a list of bias statements.

Write a list of all the things you think someone who is age biased might think. Go wild here, vent as much as you like, you might include things like:

  • Older people don’t like change
  • Older people are slow to learn, especially with technology
  • Older people try to take over and dominate others
  • Older people don’t like reporting to a younger manager, etc.

2. Counter the bias statements.

The next step is to write the truth as it applies to you and relates to the job type you are applying for.

  • In your last role you worked through system change and loved it
  • You learnt a new system at the same speed as everyone else in your last role
  • You enjoy being in a team, you don’t need to lead it, you like mentoring and helping others instead.
  • You are interested in doing the job you are employed for; in your last role you helped your previous manager get promoted.

For every negative you feel an interviewer may be thinking, prepare an example of when this was not true for you.  This prepares you for the actual interview. 

3. How to nail the job interview

Sometimes a hiring manager may have had a negative experience working with an older person, which is why you are sensing their discomfort. What they are doing is associating you with them. They may be making a generalisation that all older people are the same.  You need to get them out of that way of thinking.

One option is to ask the question, “Have you ever worked with an older person before?”   Gasp, I hear you say.  If you don’t think you are going to get the job, because you sense age bias, what have you got to lose?  If you want the job – step outside your comfort zone, otherwise you may not get it.

They are likely to give one of two options to your question: “Yes, I have” or “No, I haven’t”. If they answer yes, you can respond by saying, “Terrific and how did that person work out?”.

If the person was brilliant and excellent, they would remember their positive experience and hopefully they will think more positively of you by association.  

If they say “they were fine”, in a non-committal manner, you could say, “That’s great, I believe with my drive and openness to change and learn, I will be even better as I can deliver [insert as appropriate for the role]”. This allows you to position yourself as a better fit for the role and inform them of some of your attributes they are looking for.

Finally, if they answer, “The person didn’t work out!” Yikes! What you can say is “That’s terrible, I can imagine you are reluctant to make that mistake again. Have you ever worked with anyone who was younger who didn’t work out?”  You’ll get the person to realise that just because the person was older, others who are younger have also not worked out. One thing does not equal the other.

You could then ask, “What was it that caused them to fail?”. Then tell them how you are different and tell them of your achievements, using some of the prework you did.

If they say “No, I haven’t worked with someone older” then you could answer, “Some people think when you are older that you can’t change or learn new systems and technology. I’m not suggesting you would think that, but you know what, for some people who are more mature that is true, they hate change, they aren’t open to learning but that’s not true for me. In my last job I loved learning the new system. I love keeping up to date with technology, it’s amazing the apps available these days, there is almost an app for everything. Don’t you agree?”

You could even add:

“When I went for my last job, the hiring manager was unsure about hiring someone my age, they weren’t sure I would work for a younger manager or if I would try and dominate the team, but they saw that diversity in a team is good and I admired their openness to that.  They were delighted they made that decision because I really added a different perspective and we all got on so well and delivered great results.”

Or you could say:

“Some people are concerned about hiring older people because they think maybe they don’t like change or may not fit in. I just want you to know in my last role, I got on so well with the team, I taught them things, they taught me things and I really enjoyed working for a younger enthusiastic manager. I am at the stage in my career where I really want to enjoy my job and do it well. If you give me the opportunity, I am sure I could do a great job for you too.”

It’s not right but discrimination is still alive and well, however, if you are able to get the interviewer to see beyond the physical to who you are and what you can offer in the role, then you are more likely to get the role.  Use the work you did to address any unconscious bias the hiring manager may have.

Hiring managers sometimes unconsciously discriminate, so when you bring their bias into their consciousness, they have the opportunity to address their falsely held assumptions and focus on who is the best fit for the role.

Having these tough conversations is never easy, especially if you are being interviewed by a millennial, but you have nothing to lose.

If you are 50-ish, you may still likely to need to work for another 15, maybe 20 plus years. Thank your kids and parents for sandwiching us in and needing our financial help! You have skills and value to add, you are amazing, and you simply need potential employers to see this too.  

And remember there are plenty of great inclusive employers out there who do not discriminate on age, and who see the value in your experience. Go to every interview with a positive attitude and great examples of your achievements, because that is what is going to give you the best change to receive a positive email with a job offer and keep advancing in your career, until you decide it’s time to stop working.

June Parker

Director at

I have over 20 years experience providing career coaching across many industry sectors, supporting people from front line managers up to MD's and everyone in between. I have an honours degree in business, a post graduate diploma in HR & a Post grad in Leadership. I am also CDAA and ICF accredited. I love what i do and what I do is help people find jobs and develop in their career.