Are You Hiring, Or Not Hiring, Based on Age?

Is there ageism in our industry?  I know it’s not a pleasant topic, but it’s one that probably needs to be talked about because too often it gets in the way of making the right decision.  Ageism exists on both ends, from younger to more seasoned veterans, and it comes in ways that are sometimes overt or more subtle.

I literally grew up in this business, getting involved in digital marketing way back in 1994.  When this business started it was a small, intimate group of people and most of those folks have grown, evolved and continued to reinvent themselves.  Along the way it never mattered how old you were.  It only mattered how smart you were, how much you tried and what results you were able to achieve.  Age was nothing but a number, except when you went into a client meeting and your clients were sporting the grey.  Back then we joked about it, and my first start-up CEO even joked about coloring his hair grey to fit in.  That was 1997.  Things have changed a lot!

I read an article last week about industry vets in the Valley having plastic surgery so they can look younger and get jobs at start-ups.  That makes me sad, annoyed and angry.  There are literally thousands of companies in the ecosystem who NEED the kind of veteran leadership and knowledge that only comes from experience.

Regardless of what you do, experience only comes from time.  When I was younger and relatively senior in the organization, I was accused of being a bit arrogant, and I completely agree with that assessment.  I was arrogant.  I was a bit difficult at times.  I needed to grow up.  I improved because of the good leadership and mentorship around me.  I call that experience.

Now there’s something to be said for unbridled enthusiasm and talent, which can be present regardless of age.  There are also hundreds of young leaders, whether they are CEOs of start-ups or in other leadership positions, who are proving to be successful.  I don’t take anything away from them at all -- they are special people.  That being said, I can almost unequivocally guarantee that if you ask them how they have been successful, they will attest to a balance between pure talent and mentorship from someone in a successful position who they have tapped into for advice.  I call that experience by proxy.

Discrimination by any criteria at all is wrong, but ageism is one that gets overlooked because it’s impossible to prove, regardless of how clear it can be.  I personally know a bunch of people who are seasoned, experienced vets in this business, all of whom have been successful entrepreneurs and operators at companies that have sold or gone public. Every one of them would be valuable to smaller company looking to grow.  Larger companies and more established brands recognize the value in experience and tend not to worry about age as much as the start-up community, which is ironic because large brands are the ones that are always looking for the kinds of innovation that start-ups represent. 

How can these two worlds coincide?  How can start-ups gain the experience they need to be successful, while big brands be infused with the kinds of innovative people who are not tied to any previous way of doing things?

Veteran leaders have more balance.    They typically have families and they typically are looking to share their time with others more so than you do in your early 20s. Too often start-ups look at those as negative attributes, whether they voice it or not.   Veterans also tend to cost more from a salary perspective, and most early-stage companies are afraid to assume that kind of commitment prior to, gulp… the dreaded word… revenue! 

My advice to start-ups looking to succeed: Get creative!  What these people bring in terms of experience, many also bring in terms of creativity.  Experienced people may require a little more base, but they also tend to be accountable to metrics that drive business success. They are able to sell ideas to customers faster, and in many cases have relevant experience that can help you avoid the mistakes they probably made along the way.  That saves you both time and money.

So the next time you have two qualified candidates, weigh the benefits well, because your predisposition to one side or the other may come back to haunt you.  And along the way, stop discriminating against anyone at all.  Hire based on one thing: smarts.  I can also guarantee this will help your business in the long run.

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13 comments about "Are You Hiring, Or Not Hiring, Based on Age?".
  1. Carol Lewis from Riverton Media LLC , April 2, 2014 at 12:20 p.m.
    When I was 27, I knew everything...wait, when I was 35, I knew everything...wait, when I was 43 I knew everything...actually, I know more now than I did then. I'm glad to discover that it's not all downhill from the age of 30!
  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , April 2, 2014 at 12:47 p.m.
    Thank you but I wouldn't hold my breath.
  3. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC , April 2, 2014 at 12:50 p.m.
    Cory, I am 58 now. Having been to Hell and worked there should be an advantage. However physically age does catch up with you. In my case I was born deft in one year and now the other is slowly going. If god gave me a level playing field, it was the internet. I can hear prefect when the words are on the screen. God also gave a good head on my shoulders and the smarts as you mentioned. This came about from many years of hard work and determination. Has Sweepstakestoday.com done well? Yes if you consider I took the company to number one in the world in the Google rankings. Smarts and desire is what I look for, not age.
  4. Cory Treffiletti from Oracle , April 2, 2014 at 12:55 p.m.
    Paula - i see you comment on everyone of my posts and are always very counter to whatever i write. If you hate my writing so much, how come you always comment?
  5. Michael Ginn from medialink, LLC , April 2, 2014 at 1:08 p.m.
    Well stated Cory. Thank you.
  6. Mark Schultz from Schucon , April 2, 2014 at 1:16 p.m.
    Cory, you are on target. Especially on the sales side of advertising. All of the open jobs these days are posted to eliminate those with experience. They are "interns" or "no experience needed" or the pay is so low that someone with a family can ill afford it. These are revenue producing jobs! I have been advised to never include any job title over 10 years old, dye my hair (or get a hairpiece), one person suggested I "adjust" my birth date to 1982!(from 1952). Considering that my college degree is from 1981 and I got out of high school in 1970 that is not very practical. Besides the second they see me it would be apparent that I was not truthful and I would be washed out for that. I have paid my dues for a lifetime and can bring that to employer but I never get the chance because there is real ageism. I don't understand this trend. To say the least is it not pleasant being at the epicenter but I and others like me will press on. I have spent my whole adult life in this field and would hope that some how it counts for something.
  7. Michael E. Keenan from Keenan & Company , April 2, 2014 at 1:21 p.m.
    The ad agency industry has become the most ageist industry in the country by far, always was to a degree, but now is outdoing itself...and unfortunately in some of its output this can be readily seen.
  8. Bob Sacco from Travora Media , April 2, 2014 at 2 p.m.
    Great article Cory. We've been in the trenches together on both coasts throughout the fledgling growth of online media. Were we arrogant, insecure, scared? Yes. There was no blueprint. Did we make mistakes? Yes. I've done both gigs. Worked for a corporation and then I co-founded a successfully funded startup. Hiring can be different for both environments. But I think you need to deeply consider who you will hire based upon what type of support you receive in managing that position. One of the mistakes lots of folks make in startups is they hire light in experience only to find that person flailing in the wind later. They don't have the bandwidth to spend training the person they just hired. I know that it was hard to find experienced folks for key positions but when we did it paid off big time with lots of success and low turn-over rates. Having the correct mix of new inexperienced talent mentored by Sr.-level folks was synergistic and bolstered the company morale. My recommendation is go for the right mix.
  9. Ruth ann Barrett from EarthSayers.tv , April 2, 2014 at 2:08 p.m.
    Thanks for the article, Cory. Many years ago a mentor advised me that people hire in their image and likeness. It's an observation that is evident in the 'about us' web pages of start-ups and many established high tech companies in terms of not only age, but gender and race. Companies used to be held accountable for such discrimination, but we have returned to the good old days. My problem is back then I didn't have two strikes - gender AND age - which makes the decision 18 years ago to opt out of Corporate culture seem all the more a wise one. What isn't wise is to continue to build a company based on anything else but knowledge, skills, and experience.
  10. David Carlick from Carlick , April 2, 2014 at 2:35 p.m.
    “My Generation” was a conspicuous break from our elders, leading to the hippy movements, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth and ‘back to the land’ trends, recycling, Earth Day, and later, the Home Brew Club, personal computers, the peer-based Internet ethic, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. I was taken by the Irony of the Who singing at half time at a recent SuperBowl; the surviving original members in their 60’s and ironically avoiding their anthem, “My Generation,” with the fateful lyric, “Hope I die before I get old.” I remember when I was a hippie woodworker in my early 20’s and a job applicant at my business was the age of my father. And I told him, from the heart, “I can’t hire you. I can’t imagine being the boss of someone my father’s age.” He took it well, but to this day, it is one of my greatest regrets; I’d have learned so much more from his experience and wisdom, and I was too stupid, or young, or insecure, to make the hire. I didn’t really learn how to be a decent manager until I was in my 40’s, after 15 years of running my own advertising agency. I feel badly for all the wonderful people who had to suffer through my learnings. The hippie movement was less about age, and more about philosophy. If the philosophy of a company is to continue fraternity life for a couple of decades, fine, if that works. Had some wealthy person showered my woodworking business or my agency business with millions of capital, I hate to think what horrors I would have wreaked, infused with the certainty that the money meant I was a business genius. I can’t tell now if the ‘ageism’ which is genuinely here is going to stay as the cohort itself grows, has children, and ages as well. Generational ‘rebellions’ are certainly part of the fabric of life; I hope this generation doesn’t get too caught up in its exclusive clubbiness. Talent is everywhere, in every age, and while programming (like math or chess or music) may be the province of the very young, business, management, growing careers, contributing more than profit to society, are more wine-like behaviors, developed through aging. Or, through big data. We’ll see.
  11. Mike Donatello from . , April 2, 2014 at 2:45 p.m.
    I enjoyed your comments and chuckled as I read them. They reminded me of the times I've been in meetings and heard the enthusiastic exclamations of some newly minted MBA, pouring forth on the latest pop-psychology nuggets pulled from some email newsletter. Invariably, the majority of that stuff is information we learned in the 80s and 90s -- which people would know if they bothered to do a lit search. More on point, I try not to get jaded about the age thing, even when I'm asked -- as in a recent interview -- whether I can match the pace of a staff largely in its twenties. If someone ignores my track record of managing across ages and backgrounds, and focuses on such a superficial difference, it's a strong sign that I'm not going to be happy there anyway. The short-term loss of income may be mine, but the long-term loss of expertise is most certainly theirs.
  12. Seth Ulinski from AdTech Advisory, LLC , April 3, 2014 at 11:52 a.m.
    Great write-up, Cory. The folks getting plastic surgery should also consider potential wear and tear from client "entertainment" (i.e. neverending happy hours, martini dinners, etc) with these start-up's. Unfortunately, it's still a popularity contest to earn business in many digital circles. Botox, liver transplants...what's next?
  13. Jim Downing from . , April 9, 2014 at 9:46 p.m.
    Hey Cory, that cut both ways in 1997! I remember bringing a suit-wearing boss into that start-up, and his slight discomfort in sitting across from a meeting leader who was dressed in shorts & flip-flops :) Fast-forward to last week, when I was told by an objective industry participant that some companies eliminate candidates immediately because of age. Surprise, surprise, I said in so many words, and then went home to find out that, for the second time in six months, a parent/acquaintance in my community had passed away, way too soon. Sorta cemented my belief, a la Mike D. above, that these companies might not be the best environments anyway; as it's said, life's too short. Lastly, how about applying a couple of Pearl Jam analogies; I bet you would put Pearl Jam up against any younger band when it comes to drawing the most rabid fan base to a show, because they still bring it just as well as they did twenty years ago. And Pearl Jam learned some of their craft from the wise "godfather of grunge" :)