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Letís Talk about the Three Aís: Age, Appearance, and Attitude

by Dr. Stephen A. Laser

Dr. Stephen A. LaserWhile probably not politically correct, the fact is the Three Aís ó age, appearance, and attitude ó have a major impact on the plight of the older, unemployed worker. If people think that these characteristics donít really matter when evaluating an applicantís chances of success in finding a job offer, they are mistaken. Studies have shown that, for better or worse, personal appearance and the ability to communicate clearly and convincingly are probably the two factors that predict best as to whether a person will ultimately land a job.

First letís talk about age. There are a number of reasons companies discriminate against older workers Ė some of them based on financial reasons and others grounded in deeply held biases lacking empirical support. On the financial side, employers are often worried about paying older, and likely more experienced, individuals higher wages. Obviously, the longer people have been in the workforce with greater education and job knowledge, the higher they expect to be paid for their talent and expertise. Hiring a younger person lowers a companyís labor costs. There is also the widely-held notion that older workers are more likely to get sick, costing a company money in the face of fast-rising, healthcare expenditures. On the other hand, there is the misconception, unsupported by hard data, that older employees take more sick time. The opposite has been proven to the case as more mature employees are less likely to call-off sick and abuse personal time to take a long weekend or recover from a late night of partying. 

Besides economic considerations there are prejudices about older employees and their ability to contribute in a changing world. Many companies feel that with increased reliance on technical skills, especially the use of computers and social networking tools, older workers are from another era and age Ė more specifically, the Stone Age. While those who entered the workforce before computers were so prevalent might be behind the learning curve, computer skills and being savvy about social networking tools can be learned, often quickly and inexpensively at a local community college.

Among the issues biasing employers against older applicants are the concerns surrounding personal appearance Ė another unmentionable, taboo topic in todayís politically correct climate.  Whether we approve or not, studies have shown there is a bias in favor of thinner and more athletically fit applicants versus those that are overweight. In sum, attractiveness, in general, plays a significant part on the selection process. Despite all of the statements that appearance is on the outside and itís whatís on the inside that counts, the fact remains that personal appearance has a great deal to do with whether a person is hired, or even called back for a second round of interviews.

Does appearance matter? Well, it depends. For jobs where there is a high degree of contact with the public or a companyís customer base, it can be more of a factor than some would like to admit, especially when first impressions count in furthering a companyís cause, like getting a foot in the door for a sales rep. For example, my cardiologist looks like an Olympic high hurdler leaping over desks and examining tables as he sprints into the waiting area to greet the tall, leggy blond offering the latest samples of the her companyís cholesterol-reducing medicine. However, for jobs that would be classified as individual contributor roles, physical appearance is not terribly relevant. Unfortunately, job interviews involve making favorable first impressions, and hence no matter how isolated the position being advertised, the ability of the applicant to impress an interviewer is an important factor in getting hired.

Finally, there is the matter of attitude. Angry, resentful, and bitter job applicants do little to help their cause. All too often the interviewer or HR representative at the company gets the full brunt of the applicantís anger and annoyance with their raw deal from a previous employer along with the natural frustration of a personís prolonged job search. While at the end of the meeting the candidate might feel relieved and momentarily purged, the poor company representative is bewildered, not knowing what to think. 

In other instances a personís attitude is primarily a reflection of their sense of defeatism over the whole job search process. There is no question that it is a grind. A hang-dog attitude that fails to inspire a sense of energy and optimism in the employment interviewer will likely lead to a self-fulfilling prophesy and another rejection letter or rebuff by email or voice message. It should come as no surprise that one of the leading causes of burnout with any activity results from trying so hard to succeed with little return for oneís efforts. Thus, it is important to find ways to keep your spirits up and maintain a positive attitude in the face of rejection. 

Counterproductive attitudes can also be apparent when an applicant makes it clear that the job being offered is far beneath the personís experience level and expertise. On other occasions, bad attitudes emerge when older workers find themselves being interviewed by people the same age as their children, and their resentment is palpable. Remember, it is not the fault of the interviewer or the entry-level HR rep that he or she is young. It obviously becomes a red flag to a potential employer if the job candidate cannot seem to get along with younger coworkers. Finally, it is easier said than done in terms of maintaining your cool when the applicant draws interviewers or HR reps who are arrogant, disrespectful, or harboring obvious signs of ageism in their attitudes. 

Of course age, appearance, and attitude are not all unrelated to each other. The older worker may or may not have made an effort to stay fit. Moreover, those same effects of aging and appearance also hurt oneís self-esteem and adversely impact a personís attitude. Furthermore, extra weight or graying (or no) hair make a person look and feel older. Finally, feeling defeated and depressed can add years to your personal appearance and also lead to unhealthy behaviors like overeating. In other instances, there are even unhealthier behaviors, like alcohol abuse which deteriorate appearance and take its toll.

While no sure-fire ways exist to eliminate all of the effects of aging, appearance, and attitude, there are proven techniques that can mitigate their impact. The key, of course, is to maintain a level of self-discipline to feel better about your appearance and have a healthier and more productive attitude, which, in turn, will allow you to be viewed as a more viable job candidate.  In the end, the onus is on you to show that you can contribute to an organizationís survival and growth in a period of difficult economic times.

Stephen A. Laser, PhD has over 30 years of experience as a business psychologist. He founded and manages a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in advising clients on hiring employees. Over the past 10 years, Dr. Laser has been a guest speaker to various groups of unemployed individuals, typically over the age of 40, and previously taught courses in business psychology at Northwestern University, Roosevelt University and the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management.

Dr. Laser is the author of Out-of-Work and Over-40: Practical Advice for Surviving Unemployment and Finding a Job. He is a regular contributor to The Weissman Report, has written articles for top media outlets and industry publications and has been quoted as an expert by BusinessWeek.com, CBS MoneyWatch, Huffington Post, Black Enterprise and the Chicago Tribune. For more information, please visit www.laserassociates.net.

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