Carrie Mason-Draffen Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen

Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.

DEAR CARRIE: I had to jump into a job search at the beginning of the year, and, frankly, I am appalled at the following: Having to submit to a background check before being offered a position and having to give my birthdate as part of the application process. Are these legal? And what advice would you have for countering automatic e-mail responses to sincere email inquiries? — Job-Search Angst

DEAR JOB SEARCH: Employers have a lot of leeway to ask for personal information, but they face restrictions about how they can obtain or use it.

“Except for certain restrictions related to medical and genetic information, it’s not illegal for an employer to ask questions about an applicant’s or employee’s background, or to require a background check,” said the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s New York District office in Manhattan. The agency enforces anti-discrimination laws in the workplace.

But when that background information figures into an employment decision, companies “must comply with federal laws that protect applicants and employees from discrimination,” the district office said.

For example, it’s illegal to check the background of applicants and employees based on their race, national origin, sex, religion, disability, genetic information or age, the office said.

“Asking only people of a certain race about their financial histories or criminal records is evidence of discrimination,” the office said.

Before requesting a report, your employer must ask for your written permission, the office said. Even then, employers have the upper hand.

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“You don’t have to give your permission, but if you’re applying for a job and you don’t give your permission, the employer may reject your application,” the office said.

If your prospective employer believes it might not hire or retain you because of something in a report, it must give you a copy and a “notice of rights” that tells you how to contact the company that compiled the report, the office said.

“This is because background reports sometimes say things about people that aren’t accurate, and could even cost them jobs,” the district office said. “If you see a mistake in your background report, ask the background reporting company to fix it, and to send a copy of the corrected report to the employer. You also should tell the employer about the mistake.”

Companies that obtain background checks through businesses that compile such information must also comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which the Federal Trade Commission enforces, the New York office said.

Among the requirements under that law, when companies ask such a business to provide an investigative report — that is, a report based on personal interviews about a person’s character, general reputation, personal characteristics and lifestyle — the employer “must also tell the applicant or employee of his or her right to a description of the nature and scope of the investigation.”

As for the birthday information, that request is legal, too, as long as the information is not used to discriminate.

“There is no law that prohibits an employer from asking date of birth from an applicant or employee,” the office said. “The request can be in relation to getting a background report.”

Regarding those irksome, automaton email responses, you have a better chance of avoiding that trap if you conduct your own “direct mail” campaign when applying for a job, said Bob Simmons, a career consultant and principal of Career Transition Associates, a Plainview career-counseling and resume-writing company.

“She has to find out the needs of an organization and then create a resume and a cover letter that addresses that,” he said.

He said too many job applicants fail to research companies they want to work for and wind up sending out the same letter to many companies. Those letters, he said, are destined to prompt automated responses.