The Wisdom Behind Hiring Older Workers

So the Harvard Business Review posted an article today making “The Case for Hiring Older Workers” for roles they’d typically not consider anyone over 35. It makes a good argument and lays out many great attributes of the older workforce. However, there’s one huge flaw: Have you stumbled across anyone under age 35 who reads the Harvard Business Review? No. No you haven’t. So unless Cardi B starts an Instagram story on older workers, don’t expect much to change.

I’ve experienced age bias firsthand. Often. It is nearly impossible to prove that you were passed on by a company mainly because of age, so forget trying to seek any sort of remedy. However, to keep from wasting too much time, there are plenty of euphemisms and “tells” to watch out for.

First look around the office. What’s the dress code? Is there one? Are you the oldest person in the building? Is the hiring manager half your age? If so, do you think he/she wants to be your boss? (Ask that question both ways – an important thing for YOU to consider.) Is there a “break room” or an open “lounge area”? Are quirky craft beers freely available? Does the guy with the long beard and hair in a knit cap NOT realize it’s 90 degrees and humid? Do you feel like “the grown-up in the room”? This isn’t born of arrogance, but greed in curiosity and selfishness; if I feel like the smartest one in the room – I’m in the wrong room. I want a work environment where I can constantly learn, grow and be challenged. That needs to be a stated core mission of the company to retain great workers.

Next, listen to what is said in the interviews. How often do they bring up their culture? Is it usually accompanied by “fresh”, “innovative”, “smart”, “daring”, “fast-moving”, “risk taking” “work hard, play hard”? All code for, “you won’t fit in with us cool kids, Gramps.” I prefer seeking companies with cultures they describe as “established”, “like a family”, “rewarding”, “inclusive” and “long-term”. No one’s trying to grab VC money, launch a product, then flip the company to the first Google that comes knocking so they can cash out at 27 and go to the next five consecutive Burning Man’s. You know the scene in “Office Space” where all the employees are forced to sing a half-hearted “Happy Birthday” to the boss? Yeah – that’s the kind of cringe culture I want to avoid.

I had an interview with a hip interactive agency in Atlanta. In mid-July. Even though the 20-somethings were all bopping around in short sleeves and khakis, I made a personal point to wear a suit and nice dress shirt (sans tie). As I was cooling my heels in the floor to ceiling glass lobby, even with the A/C cranking, I was still feeling like a bug under a magnifying glass and was sweating. Excusing myself to the restroom, I mopped my face and neck with paper towels, sticking a couple in my pocket in case needed between interviews. All the people I met were under 30. While I never met the HR person I’d been talking with for weeks of pre-interviews (who was there, just never bothered to come out), I did meet her assistant who looked fresh out of high school. After the interviews, which I felt went well and allowed me to showcase the value I could bring, eight weeks of radio silence ensued. Emails and calls weren’t returned. Finally on week 8, I got a terse email from the mystery HR person. Apparently, I wasn’t [CompanyName] “material”. Followed by the ultimate disqualifier, “You were sweating and your clothes were rumpled.”

Finally, re-read the requirements of the job itself. These always are full of inconsistencies. When a company says they want a “Senior Director of Innovation” for their new “Innovation Lab”, then ask for “3-5 years’ experience”, do they realize that they seek an innovation guru whose first professional experience with a smartphone was the iPhone 6?! Seriously – this “guru” has never built anything without an SDK and seasoned development community to fall back on. The key inconsistency is the company says they seek someone with real innovation experience, yet are only going to consider young people whose only experience is iteration. See, when you have never been FIRST to market with a product or service, you’re iterating on the work of those that have.

I’ve been fortunate to have been FIRST to market with a number of groundbreaking things that turned out to be pretty respectable businesses over the past 30 years: Video on Demand, Residential Broadband, Streaming Mobile Video, Mobile Applications, Over The Top Branded Channels, Games on Demand, the Interest Graph. These didn’t have SDKs to work with because WE were creating them for others to follow and iterate.

At Packetvideo, I liked to say that, “I’ve done my job well when my job is no longer needed.” Which means we knew the simple streaming mobile app prototypes we were developing and demonstrating in carrier trials weren’t going to set the world on fire. But what they DID do was convince and close business deals with top carriers, OEMs, chip manufacturers and branded content of all kinds. Once everyone in the ecosystem was aboard and using our SDKs, my job WAS no longer necessary to prime the pump. Today, PV patented tech is in every single device on the planet that streams mobile video. That was 20 years ago. Your guru with “3-5 years’ experience”? I was at CES demonstrating what would become FaceTime while he was in diapers.

Hire accordingly, but excluding the wisdom older people bring to your culture could be a very expensive lesson to learn.