Employment Applications: The First Step in Hiring Right

Many contractors take employment applications for granted, but it really is the most important step in the hiring process. A well-crafted application helps you get the information you need to make the right hiring decision — and it actually protects you from liabilities in the hiring process. First, let's cover the basics.

Every application needs to ask for basic contact information so you have a means of reaching the applicant. You'll also want to inquire about SSN, date of birth, transportation to work, years in the community, etc. Be careful not to be too intrusive and be alert that your state may prohibit use of some information (e.g., SSN).

You may also want to measure your recruitment efforts and ask how the applicant learned about the job, who the applicant knows in your company, and if the applicant has friends or relatives who also work for you. All of this is helpful to you in identifying more sources of information about this person.

For some jobs, contractors will want to know about the applicant's education. This may include years of schooling, degrees obtained, majors or concentrations. For most contractors hiring rank and file workers, education may not be as important. In such cases, it is okay to have two different applications — one for casual labor and one for supervisors/managers.

In any case, you will almost certainly want to know about prior experience. You should ask the name of the employer, the name and contact number for prior supervisors, period of employment, job title, and ending pay. This should give you enough to assess whether or not the experience is relevant and how to get more information if necessary.

You also want to ask about any gaps in employment, any convictions in the last 7 years and whether the applicant has ever been fired before. You can also ask the applicant to state what makes the applicant the best candidate for the job. You almost certainly want to get job and personal references.

Your application should have some legal disclaimer language. This is especially the case if you are going to do background checks or drug/alcohol tests. Specific legal language is necessary to protect you. Applicants should also be told that the employment is "at-will" and that any misrepresentation can result in failure to hire or termination. The applicant should sign and date the application.

Assessing the data

Okay, now let's look at how to analyze the application. First, make sure it is complete. If there are gaps, hand it back. Don' t ever accept "see resume" on an application. The candidate needs to complete your application in every case and answer your questions.

Second, look for obvious problems. For example, failure to answer the question about convictions or being fired from a prior job is almost certainly an admission of guilt. Similarly, if an applicant is reluctant to let you talk to prior employers, there is probably a reason.

Third, you should be alert for scratch-outs or edits that suggest that the applicant doesn't really know the answer and is making it up on the fly. Look for P.O. boxes or toll free numbers in contact information, as this is unreliable and may be misleading. Be wary of vague or inconsistent answers about prior jobs and the reasons for leaving, such as "Disagreed with policy," "Personality conflict," or "Working conditions." These all indicate that the person was probably let go. Finally, make certain the applicant signed and dated the application.

These suggestions should help you identify the best candidate using the best tool at your disposal — your employment application. Of course, you still need to follow the best practices approach to hiring and make sure you use good sources of recruitment, interview carefully, and check references. Remember that the application is not the end result, but simply a great starting point in the selection process.