Dear Sam: I’m what you would consider a “seasoned” candidate and am entering a job search after being out of the workforce for a while due to family responsibilities. I’ve read your advice about branding myself as an “up-to-date” candidate, but still fear the interview process. What if they ask me how old I am? I’m worried they’ll think I’m almost ready to retire, which couldn’t be further from the truth! – Jim
Dear Jim: It may put your mind at ease to know that asking questions about your age is actually illegal! Age, along with race, national origin, gender, religion, marital status and sexual orientation, are considered protected classes and are off-limits in an interview. With age specifically, you are covered by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects workers who are over 40 years old. If an employer asks a potentially discriminating question, he or she could be violating state and federal laws.
I will caution you though – it can sometimes be hard to identify potentially inappropriate or illegal questions because they could come across as innocent “icebreaker” questions. Especially in the course of a relaxed interview where participants are comfortable, it can be easy for the meeting to turn into a chat session. Questions such as, “How old are your children?” or “When did you graduate from high school?” can appear simple and non-threatening, but can easily cross the line because they can reveal your age. If you feel the conversation is turning in a direction you’d rather not go, try to redirect the focus to questions and topics that highlight how you possess the knowledge, skills, and experience needed for the job you hope to fill
If you are asked an inappropriate question, it’s best not to lie, but to either politely decline to answer or to redirect the question back to the interviewer. If you think the interviewer has a legitimate concern he or she is trying to address with a question, you could also frame your answer in a way that addresses that concern, but avoids the illegal part of the question. For example, if an interviewer asks how you would feel about being supervised by a colleague who is younger, you could talk about how you work well as a team member and how you respond positively to constructive feedback. You could also provide examples of how you prefer to be supervised in general. The key is to turn the discussion back to the position and your job-related strengths, thereby showing that your age would not affect your fit with the team.
There are a variety of factors you should consider before determining if or how to respond to an illegal question, including how much you want/need the job and how your response might affect your chances of receiving an offer. On the other hand, it’s important to consider if you would be happy working for someone who could potentially have a bias. Ultimately, it’s a personal decision, but it’s good to be aware of the law and your protections. If you have more specific questions or feel you have been discriminated against, there are expert legal practitioners you could reach out to. A strategically written resume and being prepared for interviews will go a long way to facilitating a swift and successful search avoiding the age discrimination fear.