NEW YORK (MainStreet)  — Christina Panczyk was filling out an online job application when she was asked a question that surprised her. “Do you belong to AARP?“ the computer screen prompted.

"This question came up a couple of times!" Panczyk, who is, in fact, older than 50, recalls. She instantly wondered whether it was legal to ask this question of potential employees, as the answer could result in age-based discrimination.

MainStreet consulted experts to find out.

As it turns out, an employer who puts that particular question on their job application is negotiating a slippery slope.

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“It is most likely an unlawful practice and it’s certainly not a recommended one,” Joshua Zuckerberg, a labor lawyer at the firm Pryor Cashman tells MainStreet. “The question can easily lead to a charge of unlawful conduct.”

This is primarily because a question that involves AARP, an organization that only extends membership to people 50 or older, could easily be viewed as a veiled attempt to learn how old an applicant is and, under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, an employer may not ask your age or age-related questions during the hiring process.

This means essentially that it’s not just questions about AARP that can be potentially problematic.

“Any attempt to elicit information about a person’s age is a bad idea,” Zuckerberg says. He explains that the only hard exception to this rule is a question that addresses whether or not an applicant is a minor, since employers need to make sure they aren’t inadvertently violating any child labor laws.

An applicant who is asked a question that spans beyond establishing their work eligibility can pursue legal action. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the company asking the question will be found in violation of the law or, even, severely penalized.

Zuckerberg cites an incident in New York where an employer was sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after it advertised that the company was looking to hire “young” employees on Craigslist. Ultimately found in violation of ADEA,  Zuckerberg says the company resolved the suit simply by “taking down the ad and agreeing not to run it again.”

Of course, ageism isn’t the only reason that the AARP question is problematic. 
According to New York based attorney Lisa Fantino, many states also have laws that say an employer cannot ask you about membership in any organizations unless such trade organizations are relevant to the position for which you are being hired.

This, incidentally, is why Fantino suggests that anyone who is asked that question respond by asking if they would be working with that particular organization in the position they have applied for. Or, as other experts advise, you can embrace the question and run with it.

“Instead of being very worried that a question like the AARP one will screen you out, be focused on bringing out your value and positioning yourself as the right person to tackle this job and build success for the company,” Carrie Krueger, job search specialist who runs the blog, says. “If you can do that, your age is irrelevant.”

What else do older job hunters need to know? Find out in MainStreet’s roundup of resume tips for older workers.

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