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!" says Panczyk, who is, in fact, older than 50. She wondered instantly whether it was legal to ask this question of potential employees; the answer could result in age-based discrimination.

When a potential employers asks about your age or even AARP membership, they're dangerously close to breaking the law.

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

"It is most likely an unlawful practice, and it's certainly not a recommended one," says Joshua Zuckerberg, a labor lawyer at Pryor Cashman in New York. "The question can easily lead to a charge of unlawful conduct."

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

It's not just questions about AARP that can be problematic.

"Any attempt to elicit information about a person's age is a bad idea," Zuckerberg says. The only hard exception to this rule is a question addressing whether an applicant is a minor, since employers need to make sure they aren't violating child labor laws.

An applicant asked a question that goes beyond establishing their work eligibility can pursue legal action. That doesn't 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 on Craigslist that the company was looking to hire "young" employees. 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 the AARP question is problematic.

Many states also have laws that say an employer cannot ask you about membership in organizations -- unless it's about trade organizations relevant to the position for which you are applying, New York attorney Lisa Fantino says.

This is why Fantino suggests that anyone asked that question responds by asking if they would be working with that particular organization in the position they have applied for. Or 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," says Carrie Krueger, a job search specialist who runs the blog Jobfully.com. "If you can do that, your age is irrelevant."

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