Can Employers Ask Your Age?

They Can if They Don't Discriminate against Older Applicants

mature job applicant 175432454
••• nicolas hansen/Vetta?Getty Images

Age-related questions are common in my email since the job market is especially tough for older workers. Many employers appreciate the wisdom, grace, and experience that an older employee can bring to the workplace. But, others just see the shine of the newly minted employee who has well-developed technology skills, enthusiasm, energy, and a desire to quickly grow and contribute.

Reader Question: Recently I interviewed for a job - and the company asked me and the other three final candidates to complete a background authorization form before any of the four of us was offered the position. The requested information included Date of Birth (DOB), SSN (social security number), and Driver's License number.

I did not want to have such personal identifying information in the data base of a large background check firm unless I was being offered the job, which I was not at that point. Also, because I am 65, I feared age discrimination. Nonetheless I complied, concluding that not doing so would hurt my chances - either because they might think I was hiding something or that I was being uncooperative.

They did post a disclaimer on the authorization form: "Date of Birth is requested only for the purposes of identification in obtaining accurate retrieval of records and it will not be used for discriminatory purposes."

In other words, the request for the background authorization was step two in the process:

  1. First in-person interview: one on one,
  2. Request for authorization to perform a background check with DOB for the four final candidates,
  3. Second in-person panel interview, and
  4. Presumably, the final selection

Was it legal and appropriate for the company to ask for my DOB in a background check authorization before a job offer? I would like to know to handle such a request, should it arise again in the future.

My Response: There is no law against asking for age on a job application or background checking forms. That may vary from country to country or state to state.

That said, I encourage employers not to ask for information like age and social security number on an application because of potential discrimination issues.

I also don't want the responsibility for safe keeping that information for any but my final candidate or two. But, it is commonly recommended as a step to speed up hiring.

Employers do need it to do background checks, and you should consider it encouraging that your application has reached the point of a background check. Employers only background check their finalists for a position, and only with your permission.

Each employer differs about when they do background checks but as long as they keep their process the same for each candidate, their hiring process is appropriate. The employer already knows how old you are from application materials and the fact that you have already been interviewed. Yes, they may discriminate, but you would have a very hard time proving that age was a factor in their decision to hire you or not.

Human Resources offices with which I am familiar go to some length not to share potentially discriminatory information with their hiring teams. I have, for example, never shared a candidate's application with the hiring manager because of the information there. Nor would I ever share the background checking information that a candidate gave me to pursue the checks.

The hiring team receives a copy of the resume and cover letter only. Job candidates are advised to put only the last ten years of relevant job history on their resumes. They can also leave off the dates of their degrees until the employer needs to verify the degree. It is in the employer's best interests that employees are protected from potential claims of discrimination.

Employers may ask for whatever they think they need to make a legitimate hiring decision. If they are consistent and do not use the information to discriminate, they are in good standing.

I am not an attorney so this is just my personal opinion; you will want to check with an employment law attorney if you are troubled by the request. As you are job searching, you may find this helpful: Maintain Professional Relevance At Any Age - 9 Tips Will Help You Combat Age Discrimination No Matter Your Age