My job search has lasted, so far, an alarmingly long time - nearly eight months. You can hardly ever prove the problem is age discrimination – less than a third of such legal actions are decided in favor of the plaintiff, and that’s at the firing end of employment. It is all but impossible to prove what is called “failure to hire” based on age - no one ever says outright, “You’re too old for us.”
But you know in your bones when it happens.
Last time I was conducting a job search – from July 2000 until September 2001 – I came to believe that my age was a hindrance. Several times, recruiters and hiring managers who had been enthusiastic on the telephone and eager to meet me, were oddly subdued when I walked into their offices. One told me, when I arrived at 10AM, that the position had been filled. I had little reason to believe him as we had set up our appointment at 4PM the previous afternoon.
Angry, frustrated and scared about my future but with plenty of time on my hands, I decided to test if age discrimination was limiting my search.
To do so, I created an alter ego whose work experience matched my own, but who was younger than I was. I borrowed my mother’s maiden name, Jessie Banta. I gave Jessie my cell phone number, keeping the land line for myself. I signed her up for a Web-based email account in her name and then created her resume in a different format from mine with fictional, but believable employer names.
Jessie got the same job titles as my own, but I reworded the descriptions and accomplishments to avoid giving away the game to any sharp-eyed readers, and I jiggered the employment dates a bit for more variety.
With the inclusion of some of my television experience, Jessie’s resume became a close, substantive match to my own. The only real difference was that her experience began in 1988, making her appear to be about 33 or 34 years old if you did the math. Neither of us listed education information because I don’t have a degree and I wanted an equal test.
And thus, The Jessie Project was born.
Jessie’s first resume and cover letter went by email to a recruiter to whom I had sent mine, without response so far, a week earlier. To my astonishment, not five minutes after I hit the Send button, Jessie’s phone rang – it was the recruiter.
The conversation was a repeat of one I had run into as myself far too often:
RECRUITER: (at high speed) Hi-I’m-Jane-from-XYZ-Company-and-I-just-got-your-resume. Fantastic. What-salary-are-you-looking-for?
JESSIE: (slower) Thank you for calling, Jane. Could you tell me something about the position before we discuss salary?
RECRUITER: I need to know what kind of money you’re looking for first.
JESSIE: That’s hard to say without knowing more about the job.
RECRUITER: I’ll have to call you back.
In those 15 seconds, I learned two new things: A young-looking resume gets immediate attention, and young candidates are no less plagued by incompetent recruiters than older ones.