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  • Ron Lilek

Ageism in Sales Hiring: An Age-Old Problem, Or An Old-Age One?

"Ageism - prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a person's age."

Recently, a good friend of mine lost the sales job he’d held for over 20 years because the company he worked for went under. He’s in his mid-fifties and extremely good at sales, but it took him almost a year to find work. “Nobody wants to hire the old guys”, he told me.

It’s kind of odd, that in a country where the three leading presidential candidates were 69, 70 and 75, the minority leader in Congress is 78, and the governor of the nation’s most populous state is 80 (and considering running for President in two years) that an experienced and skilled sales person can’t get hired because he’s too old. In the private sector, two of America’s most renowned and revered business persons are 88 year-old Warren Buffett and 82 year old Jack Welch. In sports, Buffalo Bills former coach Marv Levy led his team to a Super Bowl as he approached his 69th birthday, coached for four more seasons, then returned to the team as General Manager when he was 80.

Of course, age was never the reason he was given, but rather he’d get a stream of not-so-subtle euphemisms like “We’re looking for a more junior person” or “With your career record of accomplishment, we don’t think this position will be challenging enough for you.” In other words, “We think you’re too old, but it’s illegal to say so.”

I can’t claim innocence in this regard. I was once forced by my CEO to hire a retired 72 year-old friend of his to cover the entire State of Florida. “72?” I actually exclaimed, “Are you crazy?” He wasn’t crazy by any means. “Walter”, the man I was forced to hire, was 72 going on 30. He was smart, energetic and most of all, dependable (it was a remote position.) The customers adored him, his colleagues loved him and learned from him, as did yours truly, his manager.

Years later, while managing a loan production office for the fifth largest mortgage originator in the U.S., I encountered a candidate who, like my friend, had been laid off after several years with his company. He was in his late fifties, and had nothing close to experience in the mortgage industry. He “flunked” our aptitude test, and the professional assessment firm advised me that he was not suited for the mortgage business. They felt that his assessment indicated that he was “set in his ways.” However, I noticed something about his aptitude test results: he scored off the chart on integrity and optimism. This time, I didn’t need to be cajoled by management. I hired him, coached him and gave him regular feedback on the job he was doing. After a rough start, he began to “get it”, and two years later, he was the number one producer in the nation. The take home lesson: don’t judge a book by its cover – or its age.

According to Steven M. Martin, author of the Heavy Hitter Sales Blog hiring sales people over fifty can have advantages. For example, most organizations want sales people to sell to C-Level executives. Doesn’t the average CEO or EVP feel more comfortable buying from the sales person who’s fifty-six as opposed to the one who’s twenty-six? After all, it’s likely the C-Level executive is more than a few years out of college, and is prone to respect and relate to the experience of the older sales person. Martin also points out that sales is a mentor-oriented trade, and who better to provide mentor-ship than a professional who’s experienced the ups and downs and still keeps at it?

Martin also lists some of the negative things sales managers often assume about older sales people. They include things like lack of coachability (because they think they know it all) and poor work ethic (because they’re coasting.) But aren’t those the same assumptions people make about millennials?

One factor that Martin does not mention is literacy. When it comes to expressing oneself on paper (electronic or otherwise,) older workers tend to be far better than younger workers. They were raised in an age when writing skills were given top priority by teachers. Today, it’s debatable if the average teacher possesses them. But writing well is extremely important when one considers how much business communication today is conducted through email and text. Very few things create a more negative impression with a potential customer than a poorly-written proposal or sales agreement. Especially if you’re selling to the C-Level executive.

However, the responsibility for age discrimination is not all on the shoulders of the hiring party. Older sales people can contribute to it as well. As an “old gray mare”, you have to make yourself marketable. For example, if a person with 35 years of sales experience knows a lot about the craft but does not know what Instagram is, chances are that person is not tech savvy. Today, you have to be comfortable with your smartphone, adroit with your tablet and proficient with any software you will be working with. You don’t have to be an expert, but you at least have to know what digital marketing is. Likewise, you’ll increase your chances for being hired if you’re in good physical shape. You don’t have to be a senior version of Charles Atlas, but by eating right and doing a modicum of exercise you can keep yourself looking and feeling vigorous, if not younger. Being in good physical shape will also ensure that your endurance and energy are up to the task at hand. For sure, there are plenty of out-of-shape young workers, but they are not battling against the negative perceptions that hamper the older ones. Unfortunately, some potential employers assume that people over a certain age lack the vigor to get across the finish line, so it's best not to reinforce that idea by looking the part.

When all is said and done, there is only one thing that matters, and that is the quality of the individual. Millennial, Gen-X or Baby Boomer, there are certain individuals who have what it takes to be successful sales people and some who don’t. There are characteristics that belong to individuals of any group, both positive and negative, but they don’t define every member of that group. The challenge for hiring managers is to avoid stereotypes and generalizations about age groups. It’s forbidden by law to discriminate by age; in your company, it should be ruled out by common sense and best practices.

Have you or anyone you know ever been discriminated against in the workplace because of their age? Do you think that age discrimination is, unfortunately, one of the last acceptable prejudices? Email me at and share your story.

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