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Age-Old Question: How to Reply To Illegal Queries With Grace?

By Perri Capell

Question: During an interview, I was asked what year I graduated from college. I was thrown by the question, and said, "I prefer not to discuss this." After that, I believe the interviewer felt I was hiding other facts, since I don't show my entire job history on my resume so people won't figure out how old I am. How should I have answered this question?

-- Suzanne Marcus, New York

Suzanne: You went on the defensive in your response, and it's easy to understand why. As an older candidate, you probably felt the interviewer was going on a fishing expedition to learn your age, and you may be right. You were trying to protect yourself since you believe that your age might be used against you in the hiring decision.

It might make you feel better to know that "the interviewer was insensitive and clueless" and should never have asked this question, says David Russo, chief people officer at Peopleclick Inc., a Raleigh, N.C., recruiting-management software firm. Mr. Russo says interviewers who ask questions like these may not be aiming to make decisions that could violate equal-employment-opportunity laws. Instead, they just make dumb mistakes.

Candidates should be judged solely on their experience and ability to do the job and not on factors such as age or sex. If you were asked and you answered a question about your age and weren't hired, you might have grounds for legal action, Mr. Russo says.

But older candidates often aren't interested in filing discrimination lawsuits. They want a job. So how should they address age questions without making themselves seem unpleasant or spoiling the interview atmosphere? If you tell the truth, the interviewer then knows your age and may not want to hire you because of it. If you say you don't want to answer the question, you could come across poorly and may make the interviewer uncomfortable.

Here's how you can finesse the situation. First, assume the interviewer doesn't have ulterior motives. Instead, figure that he or she is trying to learn something, albeit clumsily, about your ability to do the job. So listen to the question, then ask your own question in return to determine the interviewer's underlying agenda, says Marcia Lyons, a career counselor in Boise, Idaho. For instance, you could respond, "I'm curious to know why you are asking me this. Are you worried that my skills might be out of date?" Or, "That's an interesting question. Are you probing to learn about the applicability of my skills or my course work?"

The interviewer should then respond with the reason for the question, which allows you to say something good about yourself. "You should immediately make this a showcase of what you've learned and that your training is current," says Ms. Lyons.

Some employers make assumptions about older employees that may not be true, such as that they don't have current computer skills or aren't hungry enough to put in the effort a company wants. Concerns that you might not fit the job typically are behind questions that raise your defenses, Ms. Lyons says.

Your goal is to make the interview a dialogue; you should be talking about 60% of the time and the interviewer about 40% of the time, she adds. Don't be passive during the meeting. Ask questions often and try to help the interviewer to feel better about your candidacy. "You want to get the interviewer to see new ways of thinking and you can't get at that unless you ask questions," she says.

And if interviewers really do want to know something that's not relevant, you will be politely and agreeably signaling that you know what they're doing and aren't going to cooperate.

Have a question about job hunting or career management? Send it to Perri Capell . If you don't want your name used in our column, please indicate that. Due to the volume of mail received, we regret that we cannot answer every question.

Article from Today – December 2005