The first time I ever experienced ageism was during a panel interview. I was one of the interviewers sitting in that big conference room after the conversation. We had three candidates to discuss. The other interviewers on the panel didn’t explicitly say they wanted a young candidate. They didn’t say that the other candidate in question was too old or too experienced either.
Instead, they said they wanted someone they could “mold.” They needed a candidate that was “teachable.” “We don’t need experience,” the manager kept emphasizing. I looked around curiously. While the other candidate was clearly more qualified than this young person with zero experience, it felt like the manager was hinting in every way that we should hire the younger candidate.
With a little shake in my voice, I asked the question no one else did. “How could you know that about someone based on their resume?” The manager seemed offended as I went on. “Resumes don’t list our personality traits. They don’t note our willingness to bend instead of break, and they sure don’t mention whether or not we’re interested in learning certain things.”
The manager then interrupted to tell me he made up his mind about who he wanted on his team and that he didn’t need to hear any more of my thoughts.
A System Perpetuated by Years of Experience
I don’t understand when knowing how to do a job became a bad thing. Why is having more than enough years of experience considered a negative? There’s no explanation other than this being a preference for younger candidates.
At the end of the day, the system is perpetuated by years of experience requirements: When you say “one year of experience,” there is a little biased voice in your head that assumes that the next person walking in the door is going to be 22 years old. When you say “15+ years of experience,” they’re going to be older.
Say what you will about what happens next, but any other reasons interviewers might come up with about more experience candidates — they’ll want more money, they’ll be bossy, they aren’t teachable — are all biases.
Now, whenever I’m teaching others how to write good job posts, I encourage them to remove years of experience. To make my point, I compare myself to Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, because guess what? We both have five years of experience as CEOs.
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But we didn’t have the same experience during those five years. If you’ve ever had two jobs with the same job title for the same amount of time, you know the work can be wildly different. There are so many variables involved, like the systems, the scale, and the team.
Practically, we know that two talent acquisition managers could work for five years at the same company and not do the same work every day. The same is even more true across different organizations. So why do we use years of experience and then assume just because people have tenure, they know the job?
Time Does Not Qualify Candidates
We should focus not on years of experience but on experiences themselves. Ask yourself: What did a candidate do during that period of time that would help them be successful on Day One? For example, did they do a certain task with a certain amount of people? Be specific. You can still use numbers for scale, but you don’t need to quantify time.
There are some systems and legal requirements that still require years of experience, but you can’t just give up and write “three years of marketing experience” when you now know it only serves to measure time and not qualification. Instead, provide the required number but then create context — make sure you are quantifying the scope and scale rather than just the time spent.