COMMENTARY: Keep Age Out of It

Ageism Has No Place in Hiring Practices [PM Magazine, April 2019]

ARTICLE | Apr 1, 2019
By Robert Shapiro

I found my job at the Village of Friendship Heights, Maryland, in the obituary section of The Washington Post. The former village manager had just passed away. Since I had been looking for a job at the time, with little success, I took a chance and called the village mayor whom I knew while living in the village 20 years earlier.

I was told the village was in the final stages of interviewing for both a manager and an assistant manager, and the mayor invited me to come in for what I was sure was a courtesy interview. Long story short, I have been with the village, first as assistant manager, then as Assistant Village Manager/Finance Director for nearly 23 years.

Up until that time I had not seen a lot of courtesy in my job search. There had been a time in my career when sending a resume almost guaranteed an interview and often led to an offer.

That was no longer my experience. Of the piles of resumes I had sent out, each with a customized cover letter, the response had been about 50-50. Half the time I was rejected without an interview; the other half of the time I didn’t get a response at all.

I was 50-years-old when I was hired by Friendship Heights. My new boss, the manager, was 29. He had been there for six years, starting as the assistant to the manager. I am sure he had his concerns when the mayor at the time wanted to hire the “old guy,” but he was willing to give it a shot.

Nearly all other employees were also older than he was. Fortunately, I had some experience being a young boss and knew it could be challenging.

We were both willing to teach and learn from each other, which is a recipe for success. We have enjoyed working together all of these years, and we have also accomplished quite a bit.

Rampant Prejudice

Ageism, in my opinion, is the last frontier of “acceptable” illegal discrimination, and I believe it is rampant in today’s world. I attended a workshop where the topic was discrimination in hiring. The moderator was talking about things to avoid when advertising a position that might be interpreted as discriminatory.

I asked about including such wording in job advertisements as three to five years of experience or five to 10 years. I could understand setting a minimum standard for the position but thought stating a maximum was equivalent to putting in a maximum age. The workshop instructor saw no problem with the maximum wording.

My wife was recently told at a consulting firm that they were looking for someone “less seasoned.” She knew exactly what that meant. A few years ago, I saw this language in a brochure I received from a recruiter concerning a position in Florida:

“Finally, the council is looking for someone who will commit to the city for the long term. They are not looking for someone who views this position as a steppingstone to the next position or to retirement (unless retirement is a long way off). The city manager’s position in [location] is a destination in and of itself.”

I contacted the company advertising the position, noting that this sounded like blatant age discrimination and asked them what, given this wording, was the maximum age for the position. This was the response:

“Thank you for (the) comment, but I disagree. The city wants someone who will stay five to 10 years and preferably the latter. Hence, they do not want someone who will be moving on after two or three years—whether it is because they will be looking for the next, better position or someone who plans to hang it up in two or three years.

“We will consider anyone who is willing to make a five- or 10-year commitment. As I am sure you are aware, some people retire at 40 and others, like my father, retire in their 80s or later. The point, again, is the city wants someone who will stay five to 10 years.”

If these are the facts, then I think the job advertisement should say that. Two years ago, I received a brochure from the same company with this wording:

“The assistant city manager needs to be someone who does not settle for second best because this community is one where the best is merely adequate and something to be exceeded. This job is not a retirement job. Only the serious and vigorous will be successful.”

Maybe I am just too sensitive.

Birth Dates and Such

When I first joined ICMA, I received a printed directory each year. The member listings included birth dates and a resume of experience.

I contacted ICMA and requested that my birth date be removed, and my experience be limited to my local government experience. The person I spoke with complied but thought this was fraud.

By understating my experience? The only thing I was obfuscating, possibly, was my age.

I asked the purpose of including anyone’s age in bio information and was told it was so people of similar ages could network. Kind of like at the assistant’s lunches at the ICMA conferences. Interestingly, my ICMA profile still lists my college graduation date, another hint employers use to determine age.

A few times since working for the village of Friendship Heights I have tested the waters for other jobs. I admit it. Twice I applied to larger Washington area jurisdictions. I didn’t get an interview either time.

As it turned out, the same person was hired for both jobs. Twenty years my junior. Is no longer in either position. Both of the people I sent my application to have also moved on.

Once, I sent a resume for a town manager position in Florida. I didn’t get an interview. When I saw the announcement for the person hired I looked up the name in my trusty ICMA directory. Very similar background in local government to mine. I just had 20 years of additional experience.

Attitudes Are Important

There are concerns, of course, when hiring someone older, especially for a position for which they might be considered “over qualified” (I’ve also heard that one a few times) or where they will be working for people younger and possibly less experienced.

One thing I accepted when I joined the Friendship Heights staff is that I was now the assistant manager of the village. Who I might have been before, professionally, was part of me but not the role I was playing at this time.

That let me not only do the job, but ultimately grow while in the job. It also left me free to learn. My boss had a lot to teach me.

He also realized that giving me a long leash often came back to benefit him. We all need to remember that what we now herald as “diversity” used to be considered reasons why a potential hire would not “fit in.”

I was fortunate that my courtesy interview was indeed courteous. We discussed the village and discussed my background. I didn’t offer my previous salary, and I wasn’t asked. I did, however, explain that salary was not a key issue for me.

There are other situations where I would have been dismissed as the dreaded “over qualified.” Ironically, when I started my new job I found that the village didn’t even have the cash flow to pay my reduced compensation.

Over the years, that has been fixed. Cash flow is no longer a problem, and fortunately, all staff salaries have risen considerably.

Am I responsible for this? Of course not. There were a lot of factors coming together. Did my presence and perhaps age help? I like to think so.

A Unique Community

Friendship Heights is a unique place. The village is a 32-acre enclave of high-rise buildings, housing some 4,500 people, just over the Maryland line from Washington, D.C. We have the second largest concentration of people over the age of 65 in Montgomery County, Maryland. Second only to Leisure World, an age-restricted community.

There are also a nearly equal number of residents under 35. We have a central community center catering to all residents, but with many programs aimed at older people. The village council’s goal has been to help keep people independent, in their homes, for as long as possible.

The 11-member village staff reflects the uniqueness. We range in age from 49 to 97. Some employees were hired in their 20s and just stayed. Others were hired when they were much older and with other careers behind them. It certainly works for us.

In my opinion it is time for ICMA to step to the forefront of opposing ageism in hiring. Simply by natural demographics, the membership will age with the boomers. I believe that there is much ICMA and its members can do to both identify factors in age discrimination and to assist members in dealing with them.

Robert Shapiro is Assistant Village Manager/Finance Director, Village of Friendship Heights, Maryland (rshapiro@friendshipheightsmd.gov).

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