Interview questions and structured interviewing
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Information on conducting effective interviews

How to make interviewers see a more youthful you

Joann S. Lublin

Edward R. Mills was wrapping up a job interview with New York's public-television station when station president Bill Baker asked how he spent his spare time. Mr. Mills said he competed in tennis tournaments and did "a little bit of hiking."

Then, the candidate whipped out a recent photo of himself hiking at the 14,000-foot level of snowy Mount Whitney in California. Within hours, WNET-TV offered him the post of head of membership. "This guy had plenty of energy," Mr. Baker recollects. At that time, Mr. Mills was 61 years old. Today, nearly three years later, he still enjoys his demanding job.

Success stories like his offer inspiration to older job seekers everywhere. Amid a tide of layoffs, even middle-age baby boomers increasingly face bias in the workplace.

Age becomes a significant hiring-decision factor at or before age 50, more than half of 199 job-hunting executives reported in a recent survey by ExecuNet, a career-networking organization in Norwalk, Conn.

Turning gray need not cloud your employment prospects, however. Here are four ways to deflect attention from your 40-plus years when you're looking for work:

Downplay ancient history on your resume.

Only disclose the dates of jobs held within the past 10 or 15 years and omit the year you graduated from college, some career experts suggest.

When Sam Sanders was job-hunting in early 1999, the information-technology veteran prepared a chronological resume covering positions back to 1985. He summarized his quarter century of pre-1985 employment without any dates. "I wanted to get in front of [employers] to sell myself," he explains.

The gambit worked. At age 63, Mr. Sanders became vice president of sales for OpenOrders, a small maker of Internet-commerce software in Newton, Mass.

"He probably would not have gotten in the door" with a full disclosure of his job history, admits David Levitt, then the concern's 47-year-old CEO. "You don't want to highlight what could be held against you."

International Business Machines acquired OpenOrders last fall. Mr. Sanders now works as a salesman for IBM -- where he began his career in 1960.

Hiding your age can backfire, however. Rodney Struhs, another IT industry veteran, shortened his resume to cover just 12 years during a lengthy job search last year. "I got a lot more calls," except they were for entry-level positions, the Salt Lake City project manager remembers.

Some employers attracted by his abbreviated resume were shocked to meet the balding, stocky prospect, expecting someone younger than 47 years old. These hiring managers typically rejected him by declaring, "We're not really looking for someone with as much experience as you have."

A Phoenix technology-consulting firm finally hired Mr. Struhs last January. He got laid off in June. He recently posed for a CIO magazine photo in which he boldly held a cardboard sign that read: "Aging IT Pro Seeks Employment."

Take steps to look younger.

"You're not supposed to dress like a 20-year-old," advises Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a national career-counseling organization based in New York. "But if you look really, really old, it's not good. You need to look fresh."

So update your wardrobe. Buy new shoes. Dye your gray hair. Lose weight. Leave your big battered briefcase at home. Fix those baggy eyes.

Stress your high energy level and active lifestyle.

Even hiring managers biased against older applicants can change their minds, notes Dave Opton, CEO of ExecuNet. You might take the lead, for instance, by citing the frequent business trips you recently took for a successful product-line launch.

During a job hunt earlier this year, sales manager Mark Rigor exuded youthful enthusiasm by always asking interviewers: "Is there an opportunity in your area to bike? I'm a serious biker."

The Scottsdale, Ariz., resident, who turned 49 last month, rises at 5 a.m. every day to ride 10 to 30 miles. In early June, Mr. Rigor became a sales representative for Sure Alloy Steel, a design, engineering and fabricating concern in Madison Heights, Mich.

Offer evidence of your up-to-date skills and willingness to mentor younger people.

By staying current in your field, you demonstrate an adaptability that helps overcome a widespread misconception about 40-plus jobseekers. You also will appear flexible if you tout your multiple role switches, experience as a team player and ease about working for a younger boss.

None of these strategies will succeed, however, unless you truly hunger to work for a significant period. "Put yourself in the 20-something mold by asking yourself: 'What am I striving for?' " suggests Michael Skok, the 40-year-old chairman and founder of Alphablox, a Web software concern in Mountain View, Calif.

He says he rejected a contender for its No. 2 spot in 1999 because the wealthy applicant "didn't need to be successful" again and planned to retire in a few years. The candidate's age? 43.