Most employers, large and small, have employment applications. The content of the applications and how and when they are used is what varies. Paying closer attention to these matters can help make the difference between a good and a bad hire, and the defense of the company in the unfortunate event you find yourself involved in related lawsuits later on down the road.
When you use a template employment application purchased through an established vendor, you are not necessarily doing your business any great favor. First, the application may contain questions that are not legal in every state in which you use it. For example, state laws vary on the types of information you can request regarding convictions and arrests. If you are not aware of what is and is not allowed and fail to customize the application accordingly, you could be asking for problems.
Second, most template employment applications have a box on the last page, near the applicant’s signature, where important notices are given and disclosures made. Things like at-will employment are usually included here. If you don’t customize your employment application to your company or industry, you are losing the opportunity to include other important information the applicant should know or that you will want to have on file with the applicant’s signature in the event of problems down the line.
Third, form applications can be either too long or too short. Or they may not be specific to your industry or the particular job. Applicants become accustomed to the standard questions on applications and their rote responses may not be particularly insightful as you consider the quality of their candidacy. Also, there may be some aspect of your corporate culture that you want to communicate through a question on the application so that the answer is a helpful indicator of whether the person may be a good fit. Or you may want to solicit certain information specific to a particular group of jobs. Regardless, creating your own job application is a good idea because you can write them with the goal that the questions and answers actually will help you make an informed hiring decision.
Apart from the content of application forms, much of the challenge is in when and how they are used. All too often, applications are treated as a mere formality and are not reviewed for the purpose of seeing what you can really learn from the answers. Was anything left blank? Are there scratch outs? Are the answers legible? Are the answers too rote? Do any of the answers indicate you should be reading between the lines? If you aren’t considering these issues, you are not taking advantage of what you can learn about the applicant.
Even more often, employers don’t ask for the application to be completed until a formal job offer is being made. The application is included in the new hire package and you don’t get to see it until the applicant returns the signed offer letter. There are big downsides with this sort of process. Suppose the applicant simply signs the application and attaches a résumé. Since you didn’t insist on having a completed application earlier, the odds are you aren’t reviewing it anyway. You’re just using it to complete your checklist of required documents. That means you’ve lost the chance to learn from what can be revealed through a formal job application. And if you conduct background screening, you’ve missed the chance to compare the disclosures on the application with the information in the screening report. These are lost opportunities all the way around.
What if the application returned with the job offer states that the person left a particular job because of “disagreement with management,” “not happy,” or “no career potential”? Statements like this are not uncommon but they are indicative of something you should be exploring with the applicant or the prior employer (if the prior employer will talk to you). If you aren’t getting a completed employment application until after a job offer is made, you haven’t done your homework and may not be making an informed hiring decision.
To be used most effectively, employment applications (even template applications) should be required on the front end of the application process. The applicant’s responses should be reviewed very closely because they can help form the basis of specific conversations going forward or action steps you may want to take as you consider the person’s candidacy. Of course, you need to have processes in place to separate the applicant flow data from the application itself. That’s because applicant flow data (questions soliciting certain demographic information from applicants) should not be considered in the hiring decision and hiring managers shouldn’t have access to it. But employment applications are a very valuable tool if used and reviewed properly.
Treating an employment application like it’s a pro forma document does not do you or the applicant any favors in the long run. Work with human resources or legal counsel to review your applications and the applicant flow data process. Be sure your applications solicit information that is substantively helpful to your decision-making process and are used at the appropriate point in the process. Find out whether the questions on the application are permitted under state law where you use them. Train your managers on how to review them properly. Using a well-written employment application the right way at the right time allows you to take advantage of another opportunity to learn about applicants before you make a job offer. Smart strategic hiring demands no less.
Barrie Gross is former Vice President and Senior Corporate Counsel (Employment Law) for an international Fortune 1000 company and is a regular contributor to AllBusiness.com. She is the founder of Barrie Gross Consulting, a human resources training and consulting firm dedicated to assisting companies to manage and develop their human capital. Visit www.barriegrossconsulting.com to learn more about Barrie and the services BGC provides.
Note: The information here does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you have a legal issue or wish to obtain legal advice, you should consult an attorney in your area concerning your particular situation and facts. Nothing presented on this site or in this article establishes or should be construed as establishing an attorney-client or confidential relationship between you and Barrie Gross. This article is provided only as general information, which may or may not reflect the most current legal developments or be complete.