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Pride, Not Prejudice: An Indiscriminate Look at Workplace Discrimination

By Mark Guterman and Dan King

Photo of multi-generational workersIf you don’t have your career on track by the time you’re 30, something is seriously wrong. So was the thinking not so long ago. Of course, people then were sporting polyester suits, shaking their booties under a mirrored ball and chanting “Stayin’ Alive, Stayin’ Alive.”

Today, if you think you’ve got your career on track by age 30, something is very wrong. It’s not uncommon to see people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, even 60s, looking for new jobs or careers. What seemed strange 30 years ago has become much more commonplace today.

This is not to say that age discrimination doesn’t exist. Of course it does — but it’s become harder to prove. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) makes it illegal to discriminate against an employee or job seeker because of age, but without a contact inside the company, you have no way of really knowing why you didn’t get the job.

Blinded by the very prospect of age discrimination, you can easily sabotage your job search efforts by ignoring needed adjustments to your interviewing style, networking approach or marketing strategy. These are issues that can just as easily derail a 20-something.

Discrimination is unfair. It’s mean. It’s just plain wrong. But it is a reality that must be managed if you’re going to find your way toward meaningful work. Whether you’re discriminated against on the basis of age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation – or simply being one of the unfortunate long-term unemployed, you can’t just “take your ball and go home.” The game will go on.

Our clients frequently make false assumptions about the discrimination they encounter. The first is that discrimination is something new. “I’ve never experienced this before” or “it’s worse than ever because of the economy.” The second assumption is that it’s personal. “They think I’m too old;” “I’ve been out of work too long;” “I don’t have the exact skill set they need” and so on.

If this is your experience, what can you do? How can you combat this injustice? Here are a few suggestions:

Ignore the barriers. You may not be able to change the narrow, intolerant, small minds of the people who doubt you, but you can change how you deal with them and move toward your goals anyway. Focus on what you can control: your attitude, your choices and your actions. Let the other stuff go.

Depersonalize the judgments. Even if you know that the discriminatory comments and rejections are illegal and insulting, you’ll disempower yourself if you take them personally, and you’ll fall victim to the vagaries of a capricious marketplace. Focus instead on your goal of moving toward meaningful work.

Clarify your value proposition. Become a master at telling your story — the culmination of your skills and successes. Some people may still discriminate, but if you persist and your story continues to get sharper and stronger, you’ll find increasingly that people will look past the concerns and see your energy and focus. If they can’t, then you probably wouldn’t want to work for them anyway.

Be principled. Know what matters most to you about your work and life and show it to others. Ground yourself in your deep drivers and motivators to bolster your confidence and offset negative, discriminatory perceptions of you. Optimism in the face of adversity disempowers bigotry and intolerance — and keeps your dignity intact.

We all know people who are 30 who act like they’re 70 — and we know people who are 70 who might as well be 30. But we only know this when we meet face to face, based on energy, enthusiasm and attitude. Left to our own human biases, we have preconceived notions about what a 70 year old is like — just as we might about what a 30 year old is like. Age discrimination swings both ways.

If you’ve been the victim of discrimination in the workplace, there are legal and political means to address it — and only you can determine whether that’s the right course of action for you. However, know that meaningful work is not achieved through the court system – it’s achieved through consistent, courageous movement toward your most cherished beliefs and values about your work and life. For that you can be proud.

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