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Thursday, April 26, 2007

How Old Are You?

Dear Evil HR Lady,
First, may I just say that I really enjoy reading your blog. It's always funny and informative. Back in college I was an Evil HR Lady Intern for a Fortune 500 company and I actually really enjoyed it but have gone on to a different profession which leads me to my question about my current position (hmm...now I'm wishing that someone had clarified this for me during my internship of evil but, so it goes, I was too busy filing resumes to ask all the astute questions)...

So I've just begun a new job and I'm quite young to have my position. Since the first day that I've started my position I've been asked with some regularity "how old are you?" While I can tell that some of the question askers are just being friendly and curious and are often hoping to then begin telling stories about "back when they started" at our current employer, I sense that others are seeking to gather information about me in not wholly neutral and/or friendly ways.

First question: I've been trying to parry all questions about my age since I recognize that disclosing my age may undermine my authority in some respects. I do this nicely by not directly answering questions and responding to age querries with comments like "well, I've had six years of experience doing the particular job I've been hired to do" or, slightly more irreverently, "oh, I'm ancient but I'm a disciple of vitamins, veggies, and botox". Am I doing the right thing to not directly mention my age? Do these sound like appropriate answers to you if I didn't want to disclose my age or do I sound like I'm being sneaky and unhelpful? What about those who I sense have ulterior motives (e.g. trying to use my age as evidence of a lack of experience)? Any ideas how I should respond to them? Or do you think I should let everyone know my age so that these questions don't get asked any more?

Second, (okay, this is more of a comment) I'm just really weirded out by the number of people who have asked me how old I am. I'm just trying to keep my nose down and do my job but I feel like once I have more seniority it may be a good idea to perhaps raise the issue that questions regarding age, marital status, etc. are somewhat complicated and troublesome. I don't really want my company to get sued for violating any HR confidentiality practices. Should my employer be reminding employees that there are certain questions that they should not ask during the interview process and, more broadly, once new employees are hired? Does the confidentiality of the interview situation apply to all current employees of an organization?

Thanks for your help.

Not sooo young


Dear Youthful One,

Ahh, to have youth instead of just beauty. Or, umm, yeah. First, from a legal standpoint, your age only counts as a protected class if you are over 40, which you are not. From an annoyance standpoint, you've got a case.

I like your responses. I, being more obnoxious than you are, would start answering, "I'll be 62 next week. Can't wait until the grandkids come to visit!" or "I'm 15 and a half. Dad's going to start giving me driving lessons next month!" But, that's why I'm an evil HR Lady and you were only an evil HR Intern.

As I said, your age does not put you in a protected class, but if you find you are being discriminatd against you may wish to take it up to HR. My bet is that the reason your co-workers repeatedly ask you how old you are is because you are doing a fabulous job. If you were acting like they expected a dorky 22 year old to act they wouldn't keep asking. But, because you are performing at a level that seems out of character for your perceived age, they keep asking.

It's bothersome, but I would try to ignore it as best as possible.

While technically, you probably shouldn't go around asking your co-workers and underlings questions that you wouldn't ask in an interview, that's what real life is all about. "Hey, I need Friday off for Good Friday" or, "we're going to my mother-in-law's for Passover" is part of daily conversation, although it reveals your religion. Someone may have a picture of their spouse or partner in their cube. You may have to leave a meeting early to go take some insulin or get something to eat if you are diabetic. You wouldn't bring any of these things up in an interview, but it would be hard to hide them day to day.

And I'm not saying that you should. Your co-workers should all be adults and we should all be able to handle anything about you, as long as you are working hard.

The longer you are there and the more you prove yourself, the less frequent the questions should be. But, remember that co-workers are frequently like mothers. "Why aren't you married?" will change, once you get married, to "When are you and Bill going to have a baby?" and (trust me on this one) once you have a baby the question will be, "So, Offspring is almost 4. Aren't you about ready to have another baby?"

It's life. It's annoying, but there it is!

And all too soon no one will as you your age because you'll look old like me.

Evil HR Lady

11 comments:

Mike Doughty said...

This is probably annoying to you, but it's not illegal. Lots of things that can't be asked by anyone in interviews need to be asked after someone is hired (birth certificate, proof of citizenship, etc.).

If I were your HR person, I'd advise you to just tell them how old you are. Being evasive will just encourage them and add to their curiosity. I doubt that anyone is looking to "use it against you", but if they really were, they'll find out anyway, since some people know your age. Also, the wrong people (people who can affect your career) may begin to think you're "a little strange" .

The point is, in my opinion, there's more downside to being evasive than there is upside.

Rowan Manahan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rowan Manahan said...

Two thoughts, one whimsical and maybe a little off point, the other (hopefully) more practical:

Ronald Reagan VS Walter Mondale in their second debate in 1984 when he killed the age issue with a great one-liner: "I want you to know that I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Your problem is quite the obverse. Clearly you feel that some 'whisperers' might be pointing out your callow youth as a mark against you. How do you indicate how wrong they are without sounding defensive? Short answer, you kinda can't so I wouldn't recommend pursuing your evasion tactics. 

If you are bright, talented and professional and have been recognised for those qualities by the wise old owls, REVEL in it. "What age am I? Well I would normally say that a lady never tells, but in fact I'm 2X. In fact, someone recently told me that I was the youngest person ever put into this role."

You might also want to collect a few gentle put-down facts. Alexander, Mozart, Maria Sharapova - look at what they achieved at extraordinarily young ages. The key here is to not apologise for your youth. The whisperers may plant seeds but they will only grow if you give them reason to. 

Henry Rollins (another person of significant accomplishment at a young age) has a great line on this: ‘When you start to doubt yourself, the real world will eat you alive.’

Anonymous said...

Hi Oh Youthful one,

I have faced somewhat of the same thing in the past, both at a younger age, and continuing on throughout my career as I tend to look much younger than I actually am.

To be honest, I see it as a great advantage, I find a lot of people will under-estimate me when dealing with me at times simply because they think I'm young and inexperienced, and then (hehe) when I've gotten the better of them, they realize that perhaps I have more experience than they think. Often afterwards I will get the question of "how old are you anyway" or "how long have you been in Human Resources anyway", I just answer truthfully as I see it as a positive attribute of what I can bring to the table.

Perhaps you could turn it around to a positive for yourself in some way?

T.

Dean Dad said...

"Yes, my career ceiling is higher than yours. Thanks for asking!"

Wally Bock said...

OH young rising star, I once had your problem. I was a RYCS (Rising Young Corporate Star) at 24. My direct reports were at HQ and scattered across the company. Most had a couple of decades on me and the youngest direct report was five years older. When anyone asked, I always told them my age (I'm with the commenter above about that) and added "Why do you ask?" Depending on who had asked me that either facilitated conversation or killed it dead.

Rowan Manahan said...

Ooooooh! "Why do you ask?" So simple and yet so effective.

Anonymous said...

Simple response, but I love it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the feedback, folks. It was good to hear the answers and, also, to know that I'm not alone on this particular issue. I'm definitely going to be more forthcoming about my age while, potentially, employing Rowan Manahan's rejoinder as necessary.

Thanks again!

The not so young one

Katy said...

I always find "Where are your manners? Don't you know it's rude to ask a lady her age?" works wonders!

Ye said...

Now I have been facing that kind of question. I am from Myanmar, and I now live and study in Thailand. Now I am 33 years old. Most of Thai students are only 17-21. Comparing with them for me is too old to study. One of the instructors is always asking me "how old I am infront of the other students who are 10 years younger than me". This is very inconvinient to stay in the class to study for a while. I hate that kind of question to me.