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Asking applicants about age: When is it legal?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Background Check,Hiring,HR Management,Human Resources

Q. I work as an HR generalist at a large hospital. My supervisor told me to ask a certain applicant for her date of birth during the hiring process. Isn’t it illegal to ask for an applicant’s birth date? — K.G., Philadelphia

A. Many employers (and their lawyers) mistakenly believe that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) creates an absolute prohibition against asking an applicant his or her age. This is not true.

An employer can ask for an applicant’s date of birth if there’s a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for doing so, such as conducting a background check. You should, however, exercise discretion and ask for birth dates only when truly necessary.

Also, as an additional precaution, conduct background checks and ask for the birth dates after you’ve made a conditional employment offer (i.e., after you tell the applicant “the job is yours pending satisfactory results from your background check”). That way, applicants will be hard-pressed to argue that age was a consideration.  

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