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Job Interview Advice Older Women Don't Want to Hear

A career coach offers insightful, sometimes blunt, tips to help women over 55 look younger when applying for work

By Julie Shifman | February 1, 2013
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Julie Shifman is an inspirational keynote speaker, career coach and the author of Act Three: Create The Life You Want. Her website is actthree.com

Although unemployment is at its lowest level in the last four years, many of those who’ve been hired recently are in their early 20s. It still takes a little more than one year for people over 55 to find a job, on average.

Appearance-related age discrimination may be against the law but it's still a fact of life for older female and male job hunters, particularly for women. Some interviewers don't take the time to get to know a candidate once they’ve met her face-to-face and reach an initial, knee-jerk verdict of “too old" based on her appearance and length of experience. As George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air says, “I stereotype; it’s faster.”

Of course, your experience and skills are the most important factors when looking for work. But my colleagues and I at Act Three, my career consulting practice based in Cincinnati, also discuss appearance issues with our job-hunting clients over 55. I realize some women don’t want to hear this advice and may even take offense. But it’s based on the realities of today’s job market and could help you avoid losing out on an offer for a superficial reason.

Update your do Gray hair is the most obvious sign of age, so consider dying it — but be smart. “In a quest to stay on top of multiplying grays, one can become overzealous with permanent color," Holly Crawford wrote in a recent More magazine article, "Six Hair Mistakes That Make You Look Old." "The result? Hair that is monochromatic, potentially inky-dark.” She recommends coloring gray with highlights and lowlights, not just one color. 

Hair style is just as important as its color. Many women find a look they like at a young age and stick with it. Decades later, times have changed but their haircut hasn’t. Even snipping an inch or two can make a dramatic statement without appearing too trendy.

As Linda Dyett noted in her Next Avenue article, "The New Job-Interview Dress Code," meeting a prospective employer is the perfect occasion to try a new style or smart cut.

“A tired or outdated hairdo may age you visually," says Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. "A simple change and a slightly new look also have the potential to boost confidence.”

Rejuvenate your skin Dr. Katie Rodan, a board-certified dermatologist in Oakland, Calif., and co-founder of the anti-aging Rodan & Fields skin care line, says an even-toned, uniformly pigmented complexion advertises health, youth and beauty. “Start a daily skin care program that's medically designed to include exfoliation, brightening and sun protection,” she says. Give it at least one to two months.

Some women are turning to plastic surgery and injections to remain employed or land work, a trend that is likely to grow. Phillip Haeck, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, predicted to CNNMoney that as the economy improves and hiring picks up, surgical procedures will be increasingly popular.

But, generally speaking, a major facelift is probably way overboard. “Most of my patients," says Dr. Tracy M. Pfeifer, a board-certified plastic surgeon in New York, "are doing injectable treatments, such as Sculptra, which creates a very refreshed look.” Some are going for eyelid or neck surgery, too.

“I generally see people concerned about this starting in their 40s," she adds. "They are in all types of careers, from teachers to business executives to real estate agents.”

Refresh your wardrobe Clothes can immediately date a job candidate. Lisa Johnson Mandell of Los Angeles found this out the hard way when she was looking to re-enter the workforce. 

“I invited over a 26-year-old media-savvy girlfriend,” she recalls, “and as she pawed through my closet, I heard her snicker. My friend said, ‘No offense, but this fuchsia blazer with the massive shoulder pads — you need to get rid of it before you’re ever tempted to wear it again.’"

Ultimately, Johnson Mandell says, she junked everything that was painfully outdated. “I learned to create fresher looks with items I already had and picked up a few choice pieces to add to my wardrobe,” she said.

After this experience, she went on to write Career Comeback: Repackage Yourself to Get The Job You Want, chronicling her successful job search and offering employment advice. 

Johnson Mandell has one other clothing tip for job hunters. “I hate to tell you this, ladies, but heavy, nude pantyhose are 100 percent obsolete,” she says. “Nothing says old, frumpy and out-of-it faster than opaque, flesh-colored stockings. Take your cue from talk show hosts and news anchors — if they wear any stockings at all, they're either colored, or the sheerest, most invisible type available.”

Lighten up that smile Age, smoking and coffee cause teeth to yellow and become spotted, which can make you look older in an interview. Fortunately, it’s easy and inexpensive to counter this problem. Over-the-counter teeth whitening products ($25 to $50), brighten up a smile dramatically. Gennaro Cataldo, a professor at Boston University's School of Dental Medicine, offers some smart advice about buying and using these products in the article "The Truth About Teeth Whiteners."

Watch your weight I’ve found that this is the toughest issue to address with a client. But here’s something important to know: It is statistically harder for a significantly overweight person to get hired. A candidate’s excessive weight added to her advanced age might lead an interviewer to assume she’ll lack the energy for the job or might even be lazy.

If you could stand to lose a few pounds, try to start getting in shape at least a few months before beginning your job search. You'll feel healthier and will probably be so pleased with yourself that your self-confidence might help you land a terrific position.