Ageism Amongst Safety Professionals and Hiring Processes – An Exploration

What are your Thoughts on Ageism During the Hiring Process?

Across LinkedIn’s various message boards, thousands of discussions get started every single day in an attempt to stir up interaction based around relevant workplace topics. While questions posed may be striking in their own right, discussion often tends to tail off after a few replies. A week ago, safety professional Dave Weber posed a question on ageism in the hiring process amongst safety managers; the discussion did anything but “die out.”

The original post illustrated a struggle to find work for older environmental health and safety (EHS) professionals. The poster asked what, if anything, others had noticed and if they found themselves in the same boat.

Through the woodwork came a handful of safety workers of varying ages with their own experiences to share. Their own stories almost universally confirmed the existence of some sort of hiring bias in their field related to age.

While some were content with a little bit of (possibly justified) indignation, others tried to dig to the bottom of the issue by rooting out exactly why this might be. In this article, I’m going to compile some of the best points in a coherent fashion to help EHS professionals get an idea of what they’re up against as they age. 

All Professions Are Not Created Equal

The discussion starter raised the point that when selecting who healthcare professionals, like doctors, dentists, and surgeons, we tend to prefer those with more experience under their belts. While this appears a valid point, there are three main ways I can see in which drawing this comparison isn’t accurate. Furthermore, professionals struggling to find work should know these points so that they don’t leverage them in the wrong ways in interviews and resumes.

  1. Audience. One of the biggest problems with the comparison is that the audiences are not equal; in the doctor/dentist example, you are demonstrating your choosing habits as a customer, when hiring an EHS professional, the decision is being made as a business owner. Both of these perspectives have very different considerations – customers may only be concerned with the quality of care they receive, hiring managers have to worry about their bottom line, etc. For this reason alone, we’re already in a case of comparing apples to oranges.
  2. Wage Expectations. Speaking of the bottom line, those hiring you have to consider how much you’re going to cost. In EHS, professionals with a lot of experience under their belt often demand a higher wage, so the hiring manager may feel pressure to choose someone younger and save money. Conversely, medical professionals are already expected to be at a high cost that is relatively flat in its progression (until the elite, celebrity-level surgeons etc.), meaning that hiring a young doctor is usually close to the same cost/salary as an older, more experienced one. Not to mention doctors often start their own practices and aren’t accountable to be “hired” by anyone at all except their clients.
  3. Value Perception. When hiring healthcare professionals, we are entrusting our very lives to them. When hiring a safety manager, someone is entrusting a very similar responsibility, but there is a disconnect in how important those services might seem. Especially if you’re being hired by someone who isn’t actually on the work floor (a regular occurrence), there may not be as direct of a connection between hiring based upon experience and the results one can expect.

Combating the Negatives

Alright, now let’s look at how we can help employers address some of these negatives and realize our value as an EHS professional in his or her 40s, 50s, and 60s onward.

Demonstrating New Tricks

Safety Quote Series Posters
Safety Quote Series Posters
One of the most commonly proposed reasons older professionals might not be hired was that employers were afraid they may shy away from new and potentially more effective techniques and systems. According to one poster, this idea seems to be largely an issue of perception.

How people actually behave varies greatly despite whatever their physical age, but if employers perceive you as ‘old’ they may attach some negative perceptions. Here are a couple ways to get past this:

  1. Drop any arrogance. If a hiring manager is looking for an excuse to not hire a more experienced professional, don’t give them the easy out of being just plain unlikable. Even if you know more than every other applicant they’re going to see, you need to be clever and subtle about working in your knowledge.
  2. Dust off your resume. One of the best ways to buck stereotypes based on professionals far along in their careers is to use your resume and interview as a surprise attack. Start by listing only recent achievements and work experience on your resume (no later than 10 years ago). Take out aging details like your graduation date, etc. Basically, you can make your resume standout by looking like someone who has only been at it a decade or so but has some seriously good recent positions under their belt. When you show up for the interview in person, the person hiring may be taken aback, but it will show them that you’re smart and can adapt your resume to come through as new and impressive, and maybe they’ll get to realize that your age doesn’t mean you have to be a stubborn old working stiff. 
  3. Be able to be different. When you’re young, you take risks and many young professionals catch the attention of recruiters because they think outside the box. As we get older, we tend to not take as many risks, or assume that what was outside the box when we were younger shouldn’t be changed because it has worked for us in the past. Format your resume in an exciting way, mix up the language in your cover letter, etc. One of the things that entices people into hiring youngsters is their drive and excitement, show them that you’ve still got it (with the added bonus of having experience).

In the end, the game is about framing yourself in the best light, highlighting strengths and minimizing weaknesses, just as it has always been. While it may seem an uphill battle as time goes on, staying current and knowing how to portray yourself as such will take you far, just as it always has.

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