A frank discussion of a career limiting issue rarely mentioned. Hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Were you passed over for that promotion you feel you deserve? Are those younger than you being dismissive and not giving your suggestions or projects their due?
Ageism is not a pretty thing to confront in a career. And while we can rail against it ad nauseam, the facts don’t change. Some people, some companies, discriminate against the older worker.
How is it that some people with more than a little grey (covered by chemicals or otherwise) are promoted, sought after for jobs and opinions and revered by their colleagues? What is it that they do that you don’t?
Are you ready for a harsh reality check? An after-interview conversation with Peter Clayton of Total Picture Radio, on overcoming the grey ceiling reminded me of the single-most damaging age discrimination issue and which we agreed is rarely discussed.
Now, don’t shoot the messenger and send me all sorts of flame mail on what employers ‘should’ do, or how they ‘need’ to change because we are talking about what IS, not what it would be in a perfect world.
How do you look? There it is, out in the open. If your belly sags below your belt line and you have trouble rising from the conference room chairs, your younger, more fit colleagues notice. While not all younger employees are fit, when an older person is unfit, they are flagged as lacking energy and stamina. They are subconsciously or otherwise considered unable to keep up.
It is my firm assertion there is more weight discrimination than age discrimination in the workplace, especially for executives. But you don’t need a blog from a career coach to tell you your fitness matters. I am not going to tell you to lose weight. You already know you want to and have probably tried any number of ways to do so, some healthy, most not.
What can you do to combat the perception that your weight means you are not able to tackle the hardest projects, promotable or hirable?
The gorilla in the closet: If one of the most career-limiting aspects of a job search and career advancement is your appearance; your energy level and fitness, what can you do to minimize the affects? Employers won’t tell you this, but they rule you in or out almost immediately upon seeing you in person and your colleagues’ attitude towards you is often tainted to the point they simply don’t take you seriously, akin to the common attitude about smokers. (Not my opinion, this is information gathered confidentially from various sources over many years.)
If your posture is poor and you are out of breath with normal exertion, it is hard for hiring authorities to see you as hirable, promotable or worthy of retention during layoffs. It isn’t about insurance premiums, it’s about stamina and ability to keep up.
Cheat sheet for improving your appearance:
- Men, wear braces to keep your britches from lingering under your belly.
- Make sure your shirt passes the two finger test.
- Whatever you do, don’t imitate youthful attire. Be proud of your stature as an experienced professional and dress the part.
- Wear properly fitted slacks, not denim or khaki.
- Wear shirts, not tee shirts. Send the message you take yourself seriously and others will.
- Nothing detracts from the older worker’s credibility more than acting or dressing in ways that are not age appropriate.
- Women, stay away from loose fitting boxy clothing that masks your curves.
- Chose instead tailored clothing that has darts that allude to a waist.
- Watch that hems are just a bit below the knee and be careful how you sit.
- If a you wear slacks, view yourself in a three way mirror to see if the butt is too tight or sags.
- Take special care with undergarments and consider shapewear if appropriate.
- Avoid, at all costs, those fads the younger set embraces.
- Create your own style and don’t be apologetic.
Make up and hair: Men or women, if you decide to color your hair it is imperative to keep to a schedule that doesn’t allow the roots to show. No sense drawing attention to the very thing you are trying to take out of the equation.
For women, makeup is a minefield. If you go to the department store for advice, the typical makeover is oriented to the twenty something. Look for a mature person behind the make-up counter and invite her to assist you. Check her own make-up to ascertain if it is natural looking and reproducible. Can’t find one? Go to another store. Buy the products that seem to work for you in the makeover but first, go outside and use a mirror to make sure you also look good in natural light.
Among the most important aspects for perceived stamina is your posture. Growing up you heard, “Stand up straight” and “Sit up straight” constantly. Now’s the time to reap the rewards of that nagging.
- Practice the straight back and sitting for prolonged periods without slumping and resting on the desk or conference table.
- Elbows off the table.
- Check out your walk in a glass door. Do you duck walk? Most over-weight people do. It is almost a cartoon. You can correct this with practice.
- Standing straight with shoulders back gives the appearance of wakeful attention.
- Practice rising from a chair without using the table or arm rests for assists.
- If the chair is soft and rising is a challenge, be careful not to utter those inevitable grunts.
- Stairs can be a challenge, especially if someone else sets the pace. Slow your pace to a rhythm you can maintain effortlessly while talking and without pausing. Whomever you are walking with will more than likely slow down automatically.
Don’t ever let them see you sweat. Really. Many overweight people heat up faster than their slimmer compadres. It is so associated with lack of stamina that even the cartoon world has embraced sweating as an icon for out of shape.
- Wear socks that breathe. Silk socks are expensive but they do the trick nicely. Another less costly approach is hiking sock liners that are advertised to breathe. REI and other athletic resources feature them.
- Shoes must be natural. Women be especially vigilant since ‘man made uppers’ are guaranteed to make your feet hot. When feet are hot, the body is hot.
- If you wear a tee shirt under your shirt, buy silk and vee neck. Again, breathable is the key.
- Wear only natural fibers and select the most light-weight versions of suits and dresses. Again, they breathe.
- Keep and use something to wipe hands with inconspicuously available for all those hand-shaking opportunities.
The part you don’t want to hear. Ok, I did say I wouldn’t invite you to lose weight, but you knew it was coming. Ask your friends who have lost significant weight. Are they treated differently now they are slimmer? Facts are facts. Is it time to revisit that weight loss struggle? There is no doubt your career will benefit. I suggest you do it long and slow and don’t tell your work-mates. Not only does it draw attention to an issue you are trying to overcome, it forces them to focus on your progress, or lack thereof. Once you do lose the weight, get a new wardrobe so clothing fits properly. If you don’t again, it draws attention to your appearance/weight.
In sickness and in health. Last, but not least is the issue of health. We all get sick but no one really want’s to hear about others’ illness or road to wellness. For the older worker, it damages your image. Keep all conversation and pill taking to yourself. Don’t advertise time off to see the doctor or other medical practitioner and above all, be well.
POST SCRIPT: Sarah just called to say she accepted an offer to run a $100 million organization. She is 60 years old and ageism never entered into her job search. New in town, she started networking immediately. During her first three months, she found four viable opportunities for which she was seriously considered. Ask me how she did that.
Rita Ashley frequently writes on ageism, careers for executives and job search. Her career and job search coaching is custom tailored to fit the needs of clients, many of whom are 45+. In the last two years, 98% of her clients reached their career goals within six months. Is it your turn? Contact her to discuss your challenges to see if coaching maps to your needs.