Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Age Bias: One Executive's Thoughtful Account

We've often taken note of hiring managers' unconcealed preference for candidates in their 20s and 30s – which sometimes prompts readers to chime in with horror stories of their own.

Recently I came upon the best first-person account I've seen yet. It's a May 2006 article by Sheleen Quish, a well known information technology executive. Although Quish's story appeared in CIO, a magazine for corporate chief information officers, it seems equally applicable to finance.

Quish was eased out as global CIO of U.S. Can Co. in 2005 as part of a major management transition. The exit was amicable, giving her ample time to prepare her next step. She writes:

Anticipating changes in the air, I had begun letting people know I was back "on the market" in mid-2005, confident that I would be recruited into another great opportunity in just a few months. And it started out just like the old days: interviews with executive search firms, and the follow-up interviews with key people at some very interesting companies.... Then I found out that the other candidate was selected. Hmmm, this was a new phenomenon for me.

As the scenario repeated, Quish came to realize that something fundamental had changed. Her skills were in fighting shape, her management style had always possessed the now-fashionable focus on communication, and she was better qualified than ever for a senior role.

Upon analyzing and comparing her attributes with those of the successful candidates for each role she had sought, she reluctantly concluded:

It is not about the skills or qualifications. It is not about industry experience or being overqualified. It is about age.
Quish's response to that unsettling realization will resonate with many a Baby Boomer. Like her, we know our capabilities have never been greater and we have never been more alive. Like her, we have built our careers and, perhaps, our self-esteem, around successfully tackling problems, challenges and turnarounds. Yet being rejected as too old is one challenge that cannot be overcome by working either harder or smarter. "I hate to think that age is the issue, because there is nothing I can do to change it," Quish writes. "Age is the most irrefutable thing in our lives."

Turning to her peers, she discovered her experience wasn't unusual. She found a huge number of former IT managers "in transition" – and all were over 50. Her message to colleagues who are still employed is: "Stay at your current employer as long as possible because once you leave there is nowhere to go."

There is a happy epilogue to Quish's story. In June 2007, about a year after the article appeared, she was named chief information officer for Ameristar Casinos Inc., a publicly traded gaming and entertainment company based in Las Vegas.

Job Opportunities: The New Glass Ceiling [CIO]

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