How to stay in the game

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By Paul Keegan, Money Magazine contributing writer

"I feel like I've been reborn. The old place was getting stale." Tom Bassett, 51, a V.P. of finance, laid off nearly a year ago
How to tell if your dismissal is discrimination
It's illegal for employers to discriminate against anyone 40 or older on the basis of age. Proving that's whats going on is hard. Heres what to look for:
  • Your boss is unlikely to say you're too old, but listen up for code words: You're not flexible, you can't keep up, you're not proficient with technology.
  • Are you being replaced by someone "significantly younger?" The courts haven't put a firm number on that gap, but a good rule of thumb is that if your successor is seven to 10 years younger, you may have a case.
  • If you are being laid off in a group, find out what percentage of pink-slipped employees are 40 or older and compare that to the number of older workers at the company. A big discrepancy can signal a problem.
  • If your employer's hiring policy has a discriminatory impact - no one with more than 10 years of experience, say - you don't have to prove intent, the Supreme Court has ruled. The burden of proof is on the company to show that its policy is based not on age but on a reasonable factor, such as cost cutting.
  • If you believe you've been a victim, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (800-669- 4000). Even if you waived your right to sue, you can file a complaint (though your relief might be limited). The EEOC can launch an investigation. "We might also find a case of discrimination against others who didn't sign a waiver," says Ernest Haffner, an EEOC attorney.
  • Despite the grim news, you can emerge from this challenging period happier and more successful. First, remember that you have considerable assets: a record of success, a network of contacts, maturity, professionalism and years of wisdom to share. That's a great place to start as you devise ways to harness those skills.

    If you're already in a job, says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, tell your boss that you plan to be there for a good long while and would like to be considered for promotion, job training and new assignments. "You have to show them you're in the game," she says.

    If you've already been laid off, make job hunting full-time work and apply the same professionalism, discipline and ingenuity to this new task that you demonstrated during your career.

    Your search should be thorough and systematic. Start by creating a spreadsheet of companies in your field to help you plan and keep track of contacts, leads and the status of your applications.

    Avoid expensive career coaches, who can charge $5,000 to $10,000. Instead, find a local chapter of the Five O'Clock Club, a career-coaching firm with 40 chapters nationwide that will give you a detailed battle plan and make sure you stick to it no matter how tough the market gets. The cost starts at $360 for 10 weekly sessions, and the average client finds a job within 10 to 12 weeks.

    The vast majority of jobs - 70% - are filled through networking, says MENG's Guha, and less than 5% through ads or postings (recruiters do the remaining 25%). That's why it's especially important to find a contact within the company.

    The digital age has made networking easier. Use sites like LinkedIn and Facebook to ask colleagues and friends for advice and expand your contacts. Join a networking group - the Financial Executives Networking Group (FENG) or MENG for marketing execs are good ones - and attend their get-togethers and scour their job lists, which often advertise positions before they are public.

    Knowing how to work your contacts is also critical. "Don't just ask people for information - you have to tell them things you've learned about the industry too," says Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club. "And it's not just one shot. You've got to stay in touch because something might materialize later."

    As embarrassing as it can be to let friends and family know that you're looking for work, Tom Bassett, 51, is a perfect example of how it can pay off. He couldn't find a job for four months after losing his position as vice president of finance for a high-tech manufacturer in February. The low point was when a headhunter told him to lose 20 pounds, dye his hair and whiten his teeth.

    Then his brother-in-law mentioned that a job notice for a financial executive was about to be posted by his employer. Four days later, Bassett was hired. Not only does it pay the same six-figure salary as his old job, but it's located a quarter-mile down the road in Manchester, N.H.

    "I feel like I've been reborn," says Bassett. "I'd been at the old place for 20 years and it was really getting stale. My wife says I'm a different person."

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