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Ageism in the Workplace?

Will you be discriminated against in the workplace because of your age?

By Molly Joss

When you think of discrimination in the workplace based on age, you probably imagine it's because of advanced age. Yet, you've most likely heard people your own age complaining about not getting jobs because they were too young. Perhaps you're worried this type of discrimination could happen to you when you begin interviewing.

It's important to understand the laws against ageism and how companies manage their HR practices in light of these regulations. At first it may not seem like these laws apply to recent grads, but in fact anti-ageism laws work to protect people at every level. The main ageism law is as follows: It's illegal for a business not to hire or promote someone based on the candidate's age if the person is 40 years old or older. The Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), a several-decades-old legislation, specifies that companies with more than 20 employees may not fire, refuse to hire, or treat an employee differently from others because the person is 40 or older. Some states have their own set of laws related to ageism, but these also protect older workers.

Since you're just starting out, laws applying to those 40 or older do not apply to you yet, but the ADEA does affect you as well. It forbids companies from mentioning age in help wanted ads or asking for applicants within a specific age range-unless age is a necessary part of the job. Thus, you won't see age listed as part of a job's criteria anywhere in a job posting unless the company has a solid legal basis for specifying an age requirement.

There are exceptions to the ADEA, however, including some federal and state jobs and jobs in which age plays a pivotal role. For example, film studios can specify the age range for a part when they hold casting calls and talk to talent agents. Rest assured, though, that there aren't many IT jobs where age is a determining factor.

The good news, as far as workers younger than 40 are concerned, is that anti-age discrimination laws have made companies more aware about discriminating against anyone based on their age. For instance, one of the ways the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and lawyers gather evidence in these kinds of investigations is to look at the ages of the staff, particularly the staff who hold the same types of jobs as the plaintiff. One of the clearest indications of ageism at work in a company is a pattern over time of not hiring older candidates or replacing them with younger workers.

The best way for a company to stay out of this kind of legal pitfall is to make it crystal clear to anyone reviewing their HR records that age was never an issue when hiring, firing or promotions were involved. That's one of the reasons why so many companies have a policy of never asking how old a candidate is-even when it's obvious from a resume that this is the candidate's first job after college.

Greatest Challenges

Early in your IT career, your age alone won't hold you back, but your lack of experience might. Since companies try to leave a person's age out of the profile when making HR decisions, they pay more attention to other criteria, such as skills and know-how.

In IT, experience plays a bigger role when the job involves managing established technologies. For these kinds of jobs, companies typically want to hire the person with the most experience for the least amount of money.

Entry-level jobs pay the lowest, but they also require the least amount of experience. If you want to offset the impact of experience, concentrate on IT jobs that involve technologies so new that no one can have more than a few years of experience under their belt.

When interviewing for your first post-college job, don't focus your energies on trying to appear older by dressing in the finest suit or carrying the most expensive briefcase, instead focus on confidently presenting your experience and knowledge about the emerging technologies that the company manages.

The biggest challenge you face in the last year or two of college are planning your career debut and finding the best place to hunt for a job. The worst time and place for a new IT grad to find a job is in a city located near a college or university with a big IT program in May or June (graduation time). A better time is near the end of the first semester of your senior year in an area not overrun with IT grads.

Better still, get a summer or yearlong internship while you are still in school, and apply for a job with the same company early in your senior year. Remember that no matter what kind of technologies are involved, companies choose new employees or promote existing ones out of the pool of talent available to them at the time. Taking a full-time job after your internship may not be your dream job, but it can be a great starting point.

Act Your Age

It goes without saying, but it is worth repeating: You should always act your age during the job search. Keep in mind that even though you may still feel like a kid in reality you're an adult. You are old enough and experienced enough to have a real job, and you need to present that professional persona to your prospective employers. That means you should don the appropriate attire and demeanor during interviews and after you're hired.

Don't worry about your age holding you back. Focus on what you have to offer the company that is fortunate enough to hire you. Do your best to meet the challenges ahead of you and you will be successful.

Molly Joss is an IT veteran who writes about career and job issues, among other topics of note.

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