ageism.jpgIt’s a question that comes up often and it came up yet again yesterday: “Can an employer ask a job candidate how old they are?”

A colleague of mine at MSNBC.com, economy reporter Allison Linn, got this type of question from a reader on Facebook and we both pondered whether it was legal or not.

My gut feeling was this was a no no under the nation’s labor laws, but it turns out it’s not that cut and dry.

“You’d think there would be a simple yes or no answer, but there really isn’t,” said Justine Lisser, senior attorney at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“While it is not strictly illegal for an employer to ask someone’s age (that is, it’s not prohibited by the laws we enforce), we would look on an employer’s use of age questions in a subsequent charge of discrimination as evidence of intent to discriminate,” she continued. “So, it’s not a practice we condone, but it’s not technically illegal, except under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which does prohibit pre-employment inquiries about disability. Contrast this with help wanted ads, where it is illegal to specify a preference for a certain age, sex, race, etc.”

Sometimes employers ask job applicants their age if they suspect they’re under 18 and potentially unable to legally work certain dangerous jobs. But often, it’s just about age bias.

The number of age discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC have been above 20,000 annually since the economy tanked in 2007.

For those of you who want more information about your rights when it comes to age bias, Lisser suggested folks check out the agency’s website for more information. Scroll down to the last section titled “Pre-Employment Inquiries.”

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