Employment Applications: What Every Employer Should Know

by Laura Pokrzywa

applications5The hiring process has been compared to dating. You usually have to talk to a lot of people before you find the right one. Unlike dating, however, when you are considering candidates for an open position, there are some things you just don’t want to know. In fact, you only want to know what is necessary for you to determine if that person is qualified and would fit well in your organization.

One of the best ways of starting that process is with an employment application. A good employment application will ensure that your hiring managers are comparing apples to apples. By having each candidate fill out a standard application, you will be able to gather consistent information about all your prospective employees.

applicationsCover letters and resumes are not a replacement for the application. These documents are as varied as the people that create them. They frequently include information that reveals personal details employers should avoid learning. In addition, candidate-generated documents often leave out, or gloss over, the important details that are most relevant to your company and/or the position.

In addition to standardizing information about your candidate’s qualifications, here are three key advantages a proper employment application offers your hiring managers:

  1. It allows you to collect past or present supervisor names and phone numbers, along with permission to call them for employment verification.
  2. It allows you to obtain the applicant’s signature, attesting to the fact that all the information presented is true and factual.
  3. It allows you to communicate certain key policies to the applicant. Your application should include a brief statement about your anti-discrimination policy. This is also the right time to let all candidates know that they will be required to pass a drug test or criminal background check if they are offered the position. Once again, that signature on the application verifies that your candidates understand this will be required of all successful applicants.

That being said, a poorly crafted application may do more harm than good. As stated earlier, there are some things you just don’t want to know about your applicants – especially not while you are in the process of deciding if they will be given an offer of employment. You must be able to ensure that your hiring decision (or any employment action) was not based on the candidate’s status in any of a number of protected classes.applications7Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants or employees based on protected classes including race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disabilities, veteran status, and genetic information. Many states have laws that add still more protected classes including citizenship, sexual orientation, marital status, AIDS/HIV, political affiliation, lawful use of lawful products when not at work, creed, use of guide or service animal, status as victim of domestic violence, etc. All this means you need to be very careful when gathering information from your applicants. It is best to ask only what is needed to make a decision to hire.

Here are some of the questions or information it is best to avoid:

  1. Social Security Number (SSN): Unless another law requires it, you should not request that a candidate includes his SSN on an application. This exposes the company and the candidate to unnecessary risk, since applications frequently end up on several desks throughout the company. You usually don’t need that number until the applicant becomes an employee.
  2. Citizenship: You can simply ask if the candidate is authorized to work in the United States of America. You do not need to know if they are a citizen.
  3. Age or Date of Birth: You may ask an applicant to state his or her age if it is less than 18. Other than that, unless it is directly related to the job, you do not want to know the age of your candidate.
  4. Physical traits or disabilities: Such questions would only be appropriate if it was directly related to the essential functions of the job.
  5. Race, national origin or religion: Though most employers would not put such a request on their applications, some do include questions about social activities or organizations. Your applicant’s answers to such inquiries may reveal information about race, religion, or national origin. Again, certain employers (faith-based, for example) may have job-related reasons for asking about a candidate’s religion. This would be the exception to the rule.
  6. Criminal history: Many states and municipalities now have laws barring employers from asking about criminal history until the interview stage or after a conditional offer of employment is made (see our previous blog post about “Ban the Box”). In general, it is best to remove this question from your applications.
  7. Marital or family status: You don’t need to know if your applicant is married or if they have children. Though most employers would not ask such a question on the application, many do ask applicants to provide emergency contacts. Such information is not needed until after employment. Asking for it on the application forces the candidate to reveal the nature of their personal relationships. For these same reasons, don’t ask for “maiden name” on the application.

It is also important that employers retain applications appropriately. Your applicant’s completed employment applications will become a permanent part of his/her employee file if hired. Applications of unsuccessful candidates should be kept for at least one year past the date the position was filled. This will allow you to defend your decision should one of the unsuccessful candidates file a claim of discrimination or foul play.

applications3We all know the warnings by now: just because you found a template on the internet does not mean it is your best option. It is always a good idea to have your job application, regardless of who created it, checked by a qualified attorney to ensure that you are not at risk of inadvertently violating any federal or state laws.

If you have concerns about your employment application, or any other HR issue, drop us a line at hrhelpline@eastcoastrm.com. If you’d like email notifications of blog postings, be sure to subscribe to our blog by clicking the “Subscribe” button to the right.

Disclaimer: The information provided on this web site is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Use of and access to this web site does not create an attorney-client relationship between East Coast Risk Management or our employment attorney and the user or browser.

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