Ask Tami #2: Countering Ageism and the “Overqualified” Label

Laura asks: As someone with a long career but a sizable break, I worry about facing ageism in interviews. In particular, how should I answer the “overqualified” question?

Tami: I get asked about ageism a lot and I wish I could tell you that it doesn’t happen, but it does. A lot. Ageism is a structural issue that we should collectively work to dismantle. And, while I’m on a soapbox, it is, like other -isms, something we should be aware of in ourselves and actively working to not discriminate against others. 

Okay, great, but how does that help a person who thinks they aren’t being interviewed for a job because they are “too old.” It doesn’t. Which is frustrating but I think leads us to a set of individual solutions that won’t dismantle ageism but will help us find a job.

1. Practice a good answer to “You seem overqualified”: Sometimes this question is really about age. But sometimes it’s about a worry that you will be bored and move on quickly. Or that you will want more money than the position is budgeted for. So you need an answer that accounts for all this. Something like: “This {industry, field, role} is new to me and I’m excited by the challenge of diving in and learning everything I can. I think some of my past experience will be a benefit and I’m excited by that too. My research suggests a role like this at a company like yours should pay {give a range based on research you’ve done on salaries} and if that is in the ballpark of what you’ve budgeted, I’d love to keep this conversation going.” By the way, do future job seekers a big favor by not then asking for a much bigger salary than you discussed. That’s the fear that recruiters and managers have about people they deem overqualified — that they will profess interest throughout the process then ask for a much bigger compensation package at the offer stage. If the range you discuss in the early interviews is much lower than you would accept, you should say so. 

2. Don’t assume ageism: While I think it’s very important to notice when someone is behaving in a discriminatory way toward someone else, I think it’s less helpful to try and see when someone is discriminating against you. It’s so hard to know for sure, and worrying about it can drive you crazy. It’s better to assume positive intent. 

3. Watch out for signs of ageism. While this might seem paradoxical to the point above, there are signs that a company is going to be less likely to consider an older candidate. If everyone on the “About Us” page is under 30, for example. If their Career page emphasizes foosball and happy hours and doesn’t include many family friendly initiatives. The job description can be a clue, too. When a company posts a social media manager position with “digital native” as a job requirement they have kind of laid their cards on the table. I believe in assuming positive intent — but not banging your head against a brick wall. 

4. Network, network, and network some more: How do you get your resume considered even when you have much more experience than the position calls for? By having someone inside say “No, I’m telling you, you have to meet her.” How do you figure out if the company really isn’t going to be open to an older candidate? Someone on the inside gives you the scoop. However much time you are spending now on reaching out to people in your network, try doubling it and see if it makes a difference in your ability to move forward with employers. 

Good luck (and remember to keep going!),

Returning to the paid workforce can be both an exciting and daunting challenge. My work as Executive Director of Path Forward has given me a unique perspective on both sides of the employment equation. I’ve answered questions for thousands of job seekers and I understand their worries. And I have gained insights from HR and talent executives at the more than 75 companies we’ve partnered with. I’m eager to help you leverage this insider advice to help you get back to a fulfilling career. If you’ve got a burning question you’d like me to answer in an upcoming edition of “Ask Tami,” you can ask it using this form.