Work Advice: Elders edged out or denied entry, Part 1

By Karla L. Miller
Courtesy of the Associated Press

Special to The Washington Post.

Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.

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Reader: My firm recently offered buyouts to administrative staff, none of whom is under 46 years old. We have heard that management would like to replace older employees with younger ones making $20,000 less. At a buyout meeting, management insisted salary was not an issue, while acknowledging our industry's market conditions.

I am wondering if I would gain any job security by offering to take a pay cut. I've heard employers would rather fire older workers than cut their salaries. But why would a company prefer to train new hires when it can find out who really wants to work here?

A: From your details about the buyout recipients' age and rumors about management's goals, I get the impression you're wondering if this is age discrimination. But it's "difficult to prove an age case," says employment attorney Elaine Fitch, of the Washington law firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch. Employers simply have to prove that personnel actions with a "disparate impact" on those 40 or older were based on some "reasonable factor other than age." A voluntary buyout to reduce costs would probably meet that standard.

In a Machiavellian way, I can see how companies would rather have desperate new workers than veterans forced to accept a salary cut, even though sacrificing institutional knowledge seems penny-wise and pound-foolish. And I doubt offering to take a pay cut would increase your job security. For now, make yourself indispensable — and start scouting other opportunities while in your current income bracket.

Reader: I understand that it is illegal for a prospective employer to ask someone's age or birth date, but what about a graduation date? That would also seem illegal because most people earn bachelor's degrees in their early 20s.

A: Er, hold up: It's not "illegal" to ask for ages or birth dates, just inadvisable, Fitch says. An employer may have valid reasons for asking, such as running credit checks. Similarly, an employer may want a graduation date to verify academic credentials.

Organize your resume around skills and positions held rather than chronology. If asked, you might politely inquire why the information is necessary, but refusing to give a date could look shifty. Better to be open about who you are and focus on your selling points as a seasoned professional: experience, proven record, depth of perspective.

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Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.

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