my boss doesn’t want to hire older workers

A reader writes:

I recently recommended a candidate to my boss. She has 20 years worth of experience, is a Harvard MBA and personality-wise would be a great fit. As soon as I told him that she had been in the industry for 20 years, he said, “No, no way.” He is all of 33, and I’m fairly certain refusing to interview someone because they’re over the age of 40 is illegal.

Should I go to HR with this info? He’s going to end up getting hit with an EO lawsuit eventually with this info, but since I’m the only person who knows that he said this, I’m sure I’ll be targeted.

I also recently found out that I was hired only because HR intervened when he was going to hire a direct out of college candidate instead of myself (who has 10 years of experience) so it doesn’t seem like it’s an isolated incident.

Yes, you’re right that refusing to interview or hire someone because they’re 40 or older is illegal. (You can, however make decisions based on age if they’re younger than 40, so when he was reluctant to hire you, it would have been legal if you’re under 40.)

In any case, is it possible that it’s not age discrimination but experience discrimination? I know that sounds like BS, but there are positions where the ideal candidate would have a couple of years of experience, not 20 — because the job isn’t especially challenging and you want someone less experienced who will be engaged in and excited about the work and not bored. I can think of lots of positions where an MBA with 20 years of experience would be the wrong fit for reasons like that.

However, if that’s not the case, then yes, you should speak up. You have two options for saying something:

1. Say something to him directly. For instance: “Hey, the other day it sounded like you didn’t want to interview a candidate after I mentioned she has 20 years of experience. I’m worried that we’re violating age discrimination laws.”

2. Skip him and go talk to HR. If you do this, make sure to tell them that you’re concerned about his reaction if he finds out that you did, and ask them to find a way to address this without bringing you into it. There’s no guarantee they’ll be able to do that, but you should ask because sometimes they can.

Unless you really have a good reason not to, I’d go with #1. People really, really don’t like it when you go over their head without giving them a chance to fix the problem first. If you do #1 and he dismisses your concerns or you then see signs the problem is continuing, you can try #2. But I’d talk to him directly first.

{ 70 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon*

    There is so little context in this letter that I’m surprised that AAM was able to give as good advice as she was. More information here would be very helpful.

    1. OP*

      Hi there, I wrote the letter. The current employees in this role range from 3-20 years of experience, so while this candidate would be on the top side of that, she wouldn’t be the only one. The role is in the same industry as what she did previously but in a different capacity. We have hired people in this exact position before, except it was a man who was less than 30 instead of a woman around 50.

      I don’t want to give away too much in case my colleagues read this blog!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Any chance she’s just overqualified? I’m having trouble thinking of a role that could be filled equally well by someone with three years of experience and a Harvard MBA with 20 years of experience.

  2. BCW*

    I’m just curious, why is it ok to discriminate based on age if you are under 40? Shouldn’t age be an irrelevant factor regardless? Seems a bad double standard that I can not get interviewed because I’m 31, but at 41 someone not getting interviewed because of that is illegal.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The law was passed in order to fight unfair discrimination against older workers, which is seen as a more widespread problem than discrimination against younger ones.

      I’m not sure why they picked 40 in particular, but they had to make the cut-off somewhere.

      1. BCW*

        I get that they have to say you can’t discriminate against workers, but shouldn’t it be you can’t discriminate on anyone based on age? I mean I just find it ridiculous that if a company said, no way to hiring a 25 year old, but can’t say that about a 40 year old.

        I guess its just one of those double standards you have to deal with.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I think age 40+ exists because no company ever fired 25 year olds and replaced them with more qualified, more expensive 45 year olds, where it does happen the other way around.

          When people who are 18-25 think they are being discrimated against based on age, it’s typically based on years of experience or other bona fide job qualification. It’s legitimate to require 10 yrs experience.

      2. Greg*

        You’re forgetting that there are state (and sometimes city) anti-discrimination laws that prohibit age discrimination, and most of those, unlike federal law, do not protect just over-40s. I’d be careful about dispensing legal opinions on this topic.

    2. Job Seeker*

      I understand your point. I am in the over 40 group and to be honest, did not realize age discrimination until I decided to go back to work. Interesting enough, I never though of myself as a older worker until I went back to work part-time a couple of years ago. I am one of those people that don’t look their age, keep up-to-date and am very physically fit and healthy. But, when I put the years I worked on a resume, it is a red flag. Age discrimination both ways hurts. Younger workers are luckier I think because at least you aren’t made feel like a old shoe.

      1. Anonymous*

        It sounds like the experience info on your resume is going way too far back into the past. Often people over 40 attribute their lack of success when job hunting to age discrinimation when it might be that, or it might be something else, including a lousy economy and not enough jobs for everyone who is looking for work.

        And younger workers complain that they can’t get hired and so can’t ever get the required years of experience…

        The grass is always greener.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I’m not sure it is a case of the grass is greener. I think a real problem exists at both ends of the age and experience spectrum. Hiring managers want that perfect 3-10 year candidate who knows all the software and systems, but doesn’t know too much extra that the HM doesn’t need.

          On one end you have my mom:
          She is a perfect example of the person with one year of experience repeated 20 times. She’s been in one position for over 20 years. Everything she needed to know was learned in 3 yrs. Yes, she’s learned new things as old skills have become obsolete, but that doesn’t add to her value. Her pay reflects 20 yrs of COLA, so why would an employer want that when a 3 yr person is all that’s needed.

          On the other end is my sister:
          Young, with zero professional experience in her field. Why hire her when she’s a complete unknown and has no proof of being able to fit the role when a 3-year candidate with identical experience to the position advertised will make the move to escape a horrible boss somewhere else.

          Neither end of the age timeline has it easy.

          1. Anonymous*

            The employment data strongly suggest that younger workers have a much, much worse time with unemployment than older workers. This is not meant to imply that age discrimination for older workers isn’t a problem. It is. Companies like Google are notorious for it as a way of keeping costs down. The impact of youth age discrimination, however, is much higher – the youth unemployment rate is higher, the young have less access to social safety nets, bigger average debt, and less financial reserves of their own.

            However, the people over 40 are the ones that vote, so they’re the ones that get legislative protection. They deserve it, but I’d personally like to see the youth unemployment problem addressed too somehow.

            You can’t, however, ever have a law that just says, “No age discrimination, period.” Do remember that minors exist and they work too. Child labor laws are around for good reason. Alcohol laws complicate the matter further where age is concerned.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              But a big part of the unemployment among young workers is due to lack of experience, which makes them less competitive candidates. Most 24-year-olds just don’t have really strong resumes yet. So I don’t think it’s really about age; it’s about lack of experience that makes them a weaker fit for many of the jobs out there.

              I’ve rarely heard a manager say they don’t want to hire someone because they’re too young, but I’ve heard concerns about a candidate being older fairly frequently.

  3. Anonymous*

    The “No, no way” is vague in the context the OP gives us. It almost sounds as if the OP is reading age discrimination into her boss’s issue of being discriminatory against experience. As for the OP’s own experience, that could have been a buddy helping a buddy out. There seems to be a few things missing there, such as how and why HR intervened. This letter is just a little too one-sided for me, and I would like for the OP to write in to say whether or not she has heard the boss actually make an age discriminating remark (such as “I don’t hire anyone older than 40/older than me,” etc.).

    1. OP*

      Nope, nothing specific from him – we were talking about hiring another member of our team and when I brought up this candidate he was neutral until I mentioned her experience. That’s when he said “no, no way”. I didn’t push the issue further at the time because I was unsure of what to do.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        OP, I changed your user name to OP so that it’s clear you’re not one of many Anonymouses likely to comment on this. (My opening salvo in a new battle against the overabundance of them here.)

        1. OP*

          It’s an account management position – if you’re more entry level, we give you smaller/simpler accounts. The more experience you have, the larger accounts you handle.

      2. Different Anonymous*

        I agree that “no way” is pretty vague. Ideally you would have just casually slipped in a “why not?” when your manager said no way, but of course we never come up with these things on the spot. You could bring it up again, though… “I still really like [person] for this position, she seems much better than all the people we’ve seen so far” and if/when he says no then ask why not. And then when he says something age discriminatory, you can be all “wow, did you know that’s actually illegal??”.

        (He will still find some other reason to not hire her, but at least your conscience will be clear.)

      3. Anon...*

        Is it possible that he actually has a bias against Harvard? Or MBA’s? Or, just doesn’t want another woman… who is (possibly) better educated than him?

  4. Anonymous*

    In some states, there is protection for workers under the age of 40. In New York, for example, anyone over the age of 18 is protected against age discrimination.

  5. Joey*

    First I think it’s best to say something to him like “I’m confused. Why wouldnt someone with 20 yrs of experience with a Harvard MBA be a viable candidate?”

  6. K.*

    So sorry if this is jerky, but it’s one of my grammar-nerd pet peeves: it’s “he was loath to hire you, no E. “Loathe” means “to hate,” “loath” means “reluctant.”

    Re: the letter, I agree that more information about the job itself is needed – is it an executive or management position where that much experience and an advanced degree would be a boon, or is it a lower-level position where your boss thinks your friend’s experience would trump his? It makes me think of how fast-food joints don’t like to hire former white-collar workers – not a totally comparable situation, I recognize. But if your friend would be reporting to your boss, I can see why he wouldn’t want someone in the role with more experience than he has.

    1. Blinx*

      Huh. The things you learn! I never knew that “loath” was a word! Thanks. [squirrels away newfound word for next Words With Friends game.]

    2. The Snarky B*

      Thank you! I use that phrase and never knew that I was doing it wrong. Making a little note to myself :)

    3. AMG*

      Ditto–thank you! Personally, I am on a mission to stop the use of ‘nauseous’ when people mean ‘nauseated’. The former means you are nauseating to others. Spread the word, people!

      1. Nony*

        Hey AMG, I went on that crusade for a while until I looked it up & nauseous has had dual meanings for as long as it’s been a word. So you can use it to mean both nauseated and nauseating.

  7. Anonymous*

    I don’t know that this is necessarily age discrimination. Maybe something else was going on? He wants a younger worker because he can pay them less? He hates Harvard? Hard to say from the info here.

    1. OP*

      That is another though – he wants younger workers because they are less likely to complain about things than people who have been there/done that.

      Askamanager, does intent matter in EEOC cases?

      1. Joey*

        It matters although by itself it can be considered mere speculation. It’s got to be supported by actions, statements, and other evidence to be credible.

  8. AnotherAlison*

    Maybe he prefers team members with less experience than himself. Or he has all the people he needs for complex accounts. We have a situation like that, were most our acct mgrs are super senior employees. Rather than hire another one, we would prefer to give a less experienced person an opportunity to move into biz development from another role in the company.

    1. ThatHRGirl*

      THIS. I’m in this exact situation right now, I had to hire a (temporary, thank goodness) employee to cover leave for another HR person going on leave, and ended up hiring someone with 25+ years of experience that has been out of the workforce for 2-3 years, when the position really only requires 3-5 years of experience.
      Now every. single. conversation. has to be about “what we did when I worked here” or “back when I was manager of this department”, which is completely irrelevant – or even worse, questioning the way we do things and refusing to do things the way I’m training her to do them. It makes me wish that I’d gone with someone with virtually NO experience, who would much more trainable.

      1. ThatHRGirl*

        *clarification – experience was at Giant Insurance Company based in our city, not at *this* company (“Moderate Sized Clothing Retailer”) which is what makes experience especially irrelevant.
        I realize from my original stream-of-consciousness typing that it sounds like this person worked at my company previously.

      2. Blinx*

        It does make me wonder what amount of experience the original job posting was asking for.

        I’ve got more that 20 yrs experience, but I always apply for jobs that say 3-5 yrs (this is a very common requirement), simply because I’ve never seen one that asked for 20 yrs. Closest I got was one that wanted 10.

        It used to be that corporations commonly hired employees directly out of school, so that they could train them “their way” and didn’t have to undo any previous training.

      3. Cara*

        This was something I hoped would come up. Train-ability can be a big factor depending on company culture. For example the place I work at is mostly younger workers. Our culture is very open and not corporate and our work requires that employees always be learning and keeping up on trends in the industry. We have seen that more experienced workers have to unlearn bad habits when they come to us. Because it’s a small company we simply do not have the time for that. We need people who can be taught the way we want, a blank slate. They need to be self sufficient and figure things out alone and quickly, or with a teammate. All of us play many roles and to have the ability to keep up is essential! It’s not that we have not considered more experienced candidates, but more often that not there is just not a good fit. If we can tell the fit wouldn’t be good and the candidate would not be happy, why waste our time and the candidates time.

        1. Joey*

          Don’t make the mistake of associating older workers with training difficulties. Old people know how to learn too. You’ve just got to separate those that keep up with business trends from those that dont same as you do for anyone else.

        2. EngineerGirl*

          Cara, I have to agree with Joey. Some older workers may have a hard time learning. But I’ve seen that from younger workers too – they want you to hold their hand through every step of the process! You have to train them more than once. From my experience, training is more about attitude, which is age independent.

          I learned how to program using punch cards and paper tape. I assure you, I haven’t used them in oh, twenty years or so. Your statements sound more like some fabricated excuse to justify ageism.

        1. ThatHRGirl*

          Yes, it came to that point yesterday and I had to be frank.

          I pretty much said, “Look – I understand you’ve done this before at other companies, even Big Impressive Insurance Company. But this job is administrative, and we’ve got a lot to cover and not a lot of time to cover it.
          There are some things I will train you on that, as long as they get accomplished, can be done using whatever system works best for you – and I’ll be very specific about what tasks those are. Otherwise, the way I’m training you needs to be the way things are done, and I’m not going to entertain suggestions to change processes.”

  9. Nic*

    This may be a stretch, but maybe he’s intimidated by someone with an extensive resume like that? OP, you may have a better idea of whether this could be the case based off previous situations with this manager. Maybe he doesn’t want to bring on any more very experienced candidates for fear of looking sub-par in comparison…

    1. EngineerGirl*

      I had a couple of leads like this. They did want to bring some award winning engineers on to our program. I think it was a matter of a B player not wanting to be exposed by an A player.

    1. Natalie*

      That was the logic that led to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act being passed in the first place, so if that’s his logic it won’t protect him from a successful age discrimination suit.

      1. Peter*

        But it’s not obvious to me how paying less for a position automatically equates to age discrimination.

        If an employer determines that a particular role only requires a junior level of experience and thus allocates a suitable (market rate) budget for it, I wouldn’t t consider it age discrimination if the employer refuses to hire employees who would bust that budget when other alternatives within that budget are available.

        It would be a different story, though, if the older employee could accept the lower pay (i.e., the amount budgeted by the employer) and sufficiently demonstrate commitment to staying on in the role…

        1. EngineerGirl*

          But if the offer is never made, they will never be given an opportunity to accept. That is the point. If you never give them an interview, never check them out, then you are also assuming that they won’t take the lower pay.

          I think that is why job postings with the pay range included are so great. People that don’t want that self filter for the most part.

  10. Anon*

    I have a question. Op wrote: “He’s going to end up getting hit with an EO lawsuit eventually with this info, but since I’m the only person who knows that he said this, I’m sure I’ll be targeted.” So OP, are you saying that you or your friend are planning to use this information to report or sue the company if she is not considered? If so, I think you will have to go to HR with this information to do your due diligence and that you have an ethical obligation to your employer to report misdeeds if you really believe that this managers actions violate the law.

    1. OP*

      I meant that eventually someone else will find out (maybe many years from now!) and that someday he’ll have a headache on his hands.

      While I agree with you on a theoretical sense, I’m also concerned about my career here if I do go to HR. I’m still on the fence.

      1. Anonymous*

        And if you are indeed the “the only person who knows that he said this”, he can just deny deny deny and where will that leave you?

      2. Joey*

        Let me get you off the fence. Don’t go to HR at least for now. Give him the benefit of the doubt until you see something more than circumstantial evidence. You’d have needlessly created an enemy if he has a plausible explanation you don’t know about. Only when you’re convinced go.

        1. OP*

          I agree completely – the only thing that’s putting me on the fence is that we have a totally non-traditional HR department that is very interactive. This is the 5th company I’ve worked for an never seen anything like it.

          In any case, if it comes up again I’ll use one of the above poster’s responses and ask him what he has against more experienced workers. HR should probably stay out of it for now.

  11. Anonymous*

    Once, when we were in a meeting talking about several candidates, the executive director said something about one of them that went like this: We shouldn’t hire her because she’s too old. Of another candidate: She has small kids. They’ll get in the way. I’ll never forget that! It also made me quietly look for another job because, God forbid I get old or have kids.

    Definitely, it could be a prejudice against older people but I’m not sure in this case it’s enough to get HR involved. Maybe just have a casual chat about it?

  12. Anon*

    I was the first comment. I’ve read OP’s further comments and haven’t changed my mind. OP has offered no strong evidence (or even weak evidence) of age discrimination. It’s not clear why HR stepped in previously or whether the candidate is even the best for this role! (S)he has noted that candidates with different experience levels have the same title but handle different kinds of accounts. That seems to suggest that there is *some* key difference between candidates. Does the boss know anything that OP doesn’t? Is the OP close enough to know that the company *needs* the higher experience candidate?

    And then there is the non traditional HR which is apparently powerful enough to force her appointment but not powerful enough to get this guy disciplined or have current hiring monitored.

    I know the OP is trying to be discrete but the situation sounds incredible (literally).

    1. OP*

      I don’t have any other details around my hiring other than what a managing director (whom I had worked with previously) has told me. I didn’t pry because I’m not sure I want to know. We were in a meeting together last week when he told me that they were going to go with a less experienced candidate over me, and that he and HR fought to get me hired instead.

      We are evidently budgeted to hire another person in our department but so far they haven’t posted anything publicly for an open position.

      You’re right, I don’t have any solid evidence of discrimination – only one comment from the hiring manager directly.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, with these new details, I’m going to change my answer a bit: It doesn’t really sound like there’s evidence of age discrimination here, because there are so many plausible alternate explanations.

        There are all kinds of reasons why he might have wanted to hire the other candidate over you: personal connection to someone in his circle, attended the same school, just clicked better, who knows.

  13. Anonymous*

    I have a question along similar lines: If I hear about a company using discriminatory hiring practices through its employees who are friends of mine, is there any way for me to report such a thing? They hated the company and all left within the same month, which is when the discrimination became very apparent, but didn’t do anything because they wanted to wash their hands of the whole place and all its tomfoolery– specifically the supervisor who was doing this, as he was their main problem all along. He would reject applicants unless they were the same ethnicity as him, even going so far as to require my friend who was helping him go through resumes to only give him candidates of said ethnicity as potential interviews.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You could report it to the EEOC, but I suspect they wouldn’t act on a secondhand report. Your friend is the one who should do the reporting.

      1. Anonymous*

        That’s what I thought. Two of them said they were going to go to HR about it but right after that they got offers elsewhere and decided to just bail and forget about it, but it still bothers me.

  14. ECH*

    I am a 31-year-old manager whose staff members are 65. 75 and 45. I am thankful every day for the life experience and wisdom they bring to the job.

  15. Ann O. Nymous*

    Yes, I’m quite aware that this is an old thread but I’d like to add some thoughts nonetheless. We may well be seeing more employers who are loath (reluctant) to hire older workers because of the new laws pertaining to employer-sponsored health insurance under the ACA. As we know, it costs more to insure an older person than it does to provide coverage for someone much younger. As the employer mandate becomes a reality, and employers are to be required to either provide insurance for full time employees or face a fine (over 50 full timers), it will drive up costs for these employer-sponsored policies if there are many older workers who qualify. I’m not in any way justifying this as a reason to discriminate against older workers, but I can see where it may be a consideration, and where some businesses might try to skirt the laws by claiming a ‘hardship’ if they have a staff that has too many older employees. ‘But these older workers are driving up our benefits costs and driving down our profit margins! Not only do we have to pay more for their experience but now we have to pay more for their insurance. These older folks are just too expensive and we can’t afford them, so let’s cut costs by cutting the older ones!’ Is that legal or right? I don’t think so, but that might not stop some ‘unthinking’ employers from exploring that as a loophole. Just something to think about…

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