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Fountain of wisdom: How hiring ‘experienced’ employees could be a smart move

By Carolyn Heinze

Mark Twain once remarked that age, “…is an issue of mind
over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

One wonders what the great humorist would have said if asked
about age and its role in Corporate America today. The truth is, age does
matter—and in many companies, the older you are, the less valued you tend to
be. This is especially troubling for the increasing number of older
professionals that are in the market for a job, and who are among the last to
get hired. Just ask yourself (and be honest): Have you ever opted against
recruiting someone because of their advanced age? And what is an advanced age
in the workforce these days anyway?

Scarily, it seems to be 50 years on up, despite the fact
that most 50 year-olds need to work until retirement age (if not longer), and
many don’t plan to retire at all. Beyond this, Phyllis Mufson, career coach at
Catalyst for Growth (phyllismufson.com) pointed out that the “over 50” set
encompasses a couple of generations, which changes their career landscape. “Somebody who is 50 or 55 has different needs, different
goals, different values than someone in their 70s, and they are working for
different reasons,” she said. “People tend to think of it all together in a way
that they totally wouldn’t if they were talking about a 20 year-old vs. a 40

Perhaps the largest discrepancy related to this issue is
that companies value experience—something that Baby Boomers and their older
counterparts have plenty of, both professionally and personally. “That wisdom that only age can bring is one of their key
assets,” said Cathy Fyock (cathyfyock.com), speaker, trainer, consultant and
author of several books, including The Truth About Hiring Older Employees.
“Beyond that, a lot of older professionals are very comfortable in their own
skin. They know themselves, they know their capabilities. They tend to be
confident individuals and fairly self-assured.”

It’s this experience, however,
that renders many older job candidates overqualified, and organizations are
reticent to take on someone who may demand too high a salary, who risks growing
quickly bored in the job, who will leave as soon as a better opportunity comes
along, or all three. But just as there are many reasons that an older
individual may not make a good hire, there are many reasons why they might,
Fyock argues, and many of them are associated with where that person is in
their life as compared to, say, someone from Generations X or Y. That lower
salary may be acceptable, for example, now that the kids are out of the house.
Or, while they may have held a higher position previously, perhaps they don’t
want as much responsibility anymore. “They may not be out for the big bucks,”
she said, “but they may still want to be a steady contributor to the
organization.” It’s up to the hiring manager to probe for this information.

“They really have to ask great
questions to determine things like where they are in terms of their career and
what their expectations are of the job,” Fyock said. “What do they love to do?
All of those kinds of things are important, so you have to really dig in during
the interview process to understand where that older individual is.”

It’s also important to remember
that “experience” is a broad term. “If somebody has a certain number of years
of experience, you may make assumptions on what they actually know or don’t
know,” Mufson said. “Be very clear about what you want done and what the
measurements of completion and success will be.” Ten years of experience in one
workplace can mean something entirely different than 10 years somewhere else,
she adds.

Mufson noted that what often makes
hiring managers wary of older professionals has to do with a clash between
generations—something that most companies are already dealing with in their
younger ranks. For example, how many of you prefer good old-fashioned
face-to-face communication while your Generation Y staffers are glued to social
media? “The generational clashes are a lot about values, and values for
everybody are absolute,” she said. “People do not budge on their values and
they shouldn’t.” It’s up to everyone, then, to find a way to address this, and
much of that has to do with all parties listening to each other, dealing with
conflict effectively, and being flexible.

But what about if an older
professional will be answering to a younger supervisor? Susan Ascher, founder
and CEO of two consultancies—The Ascher Group and The Sphere of Excellence in
Communication (thesphereofexcellence.us)—and author of Dude, Seriously, It’s
NOT All About You
, urges employers to address this up front. “Just have
that conversation,” she said. “Say, ‘I know that there are 20 or 30 years
between us, but it doesn’t bother me and I hope it doesn’t bother you. If you
catch me doing something right, let me know. And if you catch me doing
something that I can change, let me know that too and I’ll work with you
because we can both learn from each other.’” This is a two-way street, she
adds: both the younger and older professional should be having this exchange

Fyock has a lot of experience with how an intergenerational
workplace contributes to the professional development of employees of all ages.
Formerly, as director of field human resources at Kentucky Fried Chicken, she was
one of the minds behind The Colonel’s Tradition, an initiative that placed an
emphasis on bringing older employees into the restaurants, which up until then
were staffed by mainly young workers. At first, she admits, young managers were
resistant to the initiative, but with time it became clear that their older
colleagues had a lot more to contribute than they originally thought. “What we found was that there was great synergy, and that
there was great mentoring happening in a way that you might not expect,” she
relayed. She also notes that turnover was reduced and employee retention was
increased in locations where younger and older people were working side by

For Fyock, much of the reticence
surrounding the hiring (or not hiring) of older professionals is based on myth:
Older professionals don’t really need the work. Or, older employees will be
less healthy than their younger counterparts, and therefore will be absent from
work more often. “Many of these individuals need to work because they are not
yet retirement eligible or they don’t have enough income,” she argued. “And, we
tend to see that older professionals actually take fewer days off, and they
have fewer on-the-job accidents than their younger cohorts. A lot of those
myths about hiring older workers are just not true, and it’s really important
for employers to go beyond the myths and talk to these individuals to determine
what they bring to the table.”

In addition, while the concept of hiring someone who is
halfway into retirement may make some employers uneasy, it depends on what you
are hiring for. Fyock noted that it all hangs on
finding the right match.

“There are so many individuals who
have actually retired and have some retirement income, but it’s not quite
enough to do all of the things that they’d like to do,” she said. “Many of
these folks are fabulous professionals with excellent credentials and experience,
so they can be an excellent hire.” The trick is finding the right person with
the right mindset. “It’s all about asking the right questions to determine if
this is going to be a good fit.”

This is
especially true since many semi-retired hires may wish to work on a part-time
basis. Ascher cautions employers to select suitable positions for part-time
help. “Personally, I have rarely been a fan of part-time workers, unless they
are in a very finite type of position, because if they are part of a team and
they are coming in and out, to me it’s very disruptive,” she said. “I’m not
saying don’t hire semi-retired people. I’m saying that you are going to have to
give them a very finite job because you can’t ask them to stay an extra two

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance
writer and editor. She can be reached at carolynheinze@free.fr.

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