Ronald Reagan was the oldest president to have been elected in the United States, a couple of weeks shy of his 70th birthday.
However, when challenged about how many birthdays he’d had, he unleashed this zinger in response: “I do not want to make age an issue in this election. I do not want to exploit for political purposes my opponents’ youth and inexperience.”
Reagan was a master of the comeback.
Communication specialist Dr Louise Mahler says humour is a great way to diffuse a difficult situation.
While most employers know some questions are off limits (age, children, and religion, for example), they still crop up in job interviews. This is despite the fact such questions open them to action through the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Fair Work Commission or the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Mahler’s tip for candidates faced with an inappropriate question is to reframe it, as Reagan did.
They can also empathise with the interviewer, reflect the question back to them, understand their concerns and then negate them.
Karalyn Brown, founder of Interview IQ, a career marketing consultancy, says these questions are no longer often asked in big companies, but in smaller businesses, managers may not have been educated about inappropriate or illegal questions.
First, you have to consider whether they are inquiring as part of “idle chit-chat” at the end of the interview.
BAT IT AWAY WITH TACT
“It could be that they are just getting to know you,” she says.
However, if you are concerned your answer may count against you in your application for the job, you will need to bat it away with tact.
Brown suggests adopting a quizzical air and saying: “I didn’t realise there was an age requirement on the job?
“Put the onus back on the interviewer, focus on your experience.
“People do slip up, but if you interpret something as discriminatory, ask some questions and see where it is going to go.”
Being able to counter inappropriate questions without being seen as defensive or “difficult” requires some social skills.
“The interview will end pretty quickly if you are aggressive about it.”
The managing director of Adage, a mature age job site, Heidi Holmes, suggests job seekers try rehearsing answers to those questions.
Holmes says people should tackle the questions head-on to find out what the concern is.
Ask: “Is age [childcare, gender] an issue in this job? Why would that be?”
Even if the question hasn’t been asked – but the candidate fears it may count against them – the job seeker can take the initiative and raise an issue at the end of the interview.
This means they can pre-empt any concerns about their ability to work around caring responsibilities, adapt to new ways of doing things, or get along with others.
“You could say that you have been adapting to new technology all your life,” she says.
Give examples of when you have worked well with people who are younger or of a different gender or background.
“[Raising it] shows the interviewer that you are willing to be frank and transparent,” Holmes says.
Mature age job seekers can also help themselves by making it harder for interviewers to discover their age.
They should remove any dates on their resumes that might indicate when they started their career.
“What you were doing in the 1970s and 1980s probably has little relevance to what you are doing now,” she says.
Adds Brown: “Whether you can do the job, that’s probably the bottom line.”