Overcoming Self-imposed Age Discrimination

Dean Becker, Vice President, Corporate Business Development, Kelleher Associates, LLC

Ageism in the workplace is real. In our Executive Career Transition Management practice at Kelleher Associates, our senior clients routinely report instances when they have experienced age discrimination – both at work and in the job search. And we work closely with these clients to help them prepare for and minimize the impact of ageism as they interact with the job market.

The reality is that, other than doing the obvious, e.g., omitting graduation years from resume and LinkedIn profile (which we strongly discourage), staying in good physical condition, and remaining technologically proficient, there is not much we can do to alter the inherent bias against older workers.

However, in our interactions with senior executives, we have also noticed a disturbing trend, which we’re calling “Self-imposed Age Discrimination”. Here are a few examples of how it plays out in the job search:

  • An executive fails to apply for a position for which she’s qualified, assuming that her age will disqualify her.
  • During a job interview, an executive makes comments that call attention to his age and take focus away from his accomplishments, inadvertently selling against himself as a viable candidate.
  • An executive learns that a prospective employer has selected another candidate. Although he has not received any specific feedback from the recruiter, he tells his career coach that this was due to his age.

The common factor across these three scenarios is self-limiting. That is, these executives are behaving in ways that limit their chances to land a new position, absent any situation-specific information to inform their behavior. And behind each is a self-limiting belief. Here is how these self-limiting beliefs might sound, as well as their impact:

  • For the first executive: “I’m just too old for this position.”, or “No one is going to hire someone my age.”. Even though she has no real evidence, these beliefs are causing her to jump to a conclusion that takes her out of the game before it starts.
  • For the second executive: “Honesty is the best policy.” or “It’s not polite to blow your own horn.” Notice that these are deeper-seated rules about how he should be. While they might serve him well in some areas of his life, it’s obvious that in a job interview they will undermine his chances of success.
  • For the third executive: “It’s just not my fault.” This belief may not relate to age in particular, but it leads the executive to automatically point the finger of blame away from himself. It leads to an easy, ego-protective response, but it could be dead wrong. The failure to look inward for answers may keep him from learning from this experience and self-correcting for the next interview.

So, what can we do to avoid our self-limiting beliefs about age? The first, most important step is self awareness. Sometimes, by just getting off auto-pilot and tuning into our thinking, we can engage our self-limiting beliefs and head them off before they start to affect how we feel and what we do.

But this can be easier said than done. We formed many of our beliefs, especially the deeper-seated ones about ourselves, our worlds, and our futures, as children. Even with conscious awareness of how these rules might be hurting us, it takes far more effort to navigate them.

Kelleher career coaches work closely with our clients, using proven techniques, to help them stay resilient in transition. This includes helping them minimize the negative impact of their self-limiting beliefs and concentrating on all the ways that they can positively influence the outcome of their search.