Testing & Assessment
Employers Should — and Often Do — Apply Rigid, Unforgiving Criteria When Screening Applications.
While reviewing a set of about 30 employment applications for one of his clients facing an EEOC allegation of hiring discrimination, George started seeing patterns in the mistakes that the job applicants were making that led to their being disqualified.
Sadly, the disqualifying factors George saw — such as failure to provide all information requested or even to sign and date the application — were often reflective not so much of the applicants’ true unsuitability for the job as of their failure to treat the application form with the necessary care.This post is a direct result of George’s observations while doing that work, presented with hopes of helping employers and job seekers alike.
Because of laws governing the hiring and firing of workers, employers must pay close attention to how they read and act upon job applications.
Hiring one applicant despite an unexplained two-month gap in employment history makes it much harder to defend not hiring another whose application shows an unexplained five-month gap. And if the latter charges discrimination, the employer has a problem.
Is the difference between two and five months significant? What about three months?
Far easier to have a policy of not hiring anyone whose application contains any unexplained gaps — period.
Bottom line: seemingly minor errors, omissions and discrepancies acquire an importance many applicants fail to appreciate — becoming “red flags” and thus automatic reasons for rejection. This is nothing personal — it’s what the company feels is necessary to protect itself.
The following discussion, which tracks the parts of a typical employment application, should be equally valuable to employers processing employment applications who need some tips on what to watch out for and to applicants who can’t afford to let stupid or careless slipups on an employment application torpedo their chances of getting the all-important interview.
Tip to Applicants:
Be prepared. Employers expect it. Here’s how:
- Before you begin applying for employment, complete a standard job application form completely. Prepare your responses to questions about your job history, gaps in employment, or anything else that may appear unusual or to be a “red flag” to employers.
- Have someone review the form for completeness, and for proper grammar, word choice, and spelling.
- Don’t forget to bring this form with you whenever you go to apply for jobs — and to use it when you complete written or online job applications at home.
Telephone Numbers and Addresses:
Applicants who provide post office boxes instead of a residence address may be victims of our weakened economy, or they may be covering up information or hiding from someone. Thus this must be explained.
Likewise, providing an 800-number or someone else’s telephone number may have a valid explanation, but it is unusual, so must be explained.
Applicants who fail to respond to questions about criminal convictions often are concealing facts that could be detrimental to their efforts to land a job. They could just be understandably embarrassed or nervous about prejudicing interviewers, but they could also be covering up information that could lead to major trouble down the road if they’re hired.
However, criminal arrests alone cannot legally be used as a reason for rejecting applicants, and convictions should be used only where sufficiently related to job duties to cause unacceptable risk, so the informed applicant should feel free to disclose this information — and should do so.
Applicants must complete this part of the application. Criminal background checks conducted by employers will disclose omissions or discrepancies.
Ironically, applicants are often rejected for dishonesty on this part of the application even though the employer would have been prepared to hire them despite a conviction — had it been honestly disclosed.
A Resume is Not Enough:
Accepting a resume in lieu of an application puts the employer at risk. Why? Because resumes generally do not include negative information about the applicant.
The job application is designed to seek potentially negative information that the employer must know before making a hiring decision. Resumes are great pre-screening tools, but they are not enough.
Employers should not accept “see resume” responses to questions on the application form — and applicants should never use this shortcut. Many companies have very specific hiring and reference checking procedures that are based solely on the application form, and the needed information may not be on the resume. Plus, the employer may never even check the resume, but instead simply reject the application as incomplete.
Employment gaps of over ninety days are a red flag for employers. George believes that gaps of one month or more should flag employers to question applicants more thoroughly.
Why? Because substantial gaps could indicate that the person was unemployable, simply didn’t look for work, or spent some time in jail. Long gaps may mean the applicant has become rusty on necessary skills for the job.
Regardless of the reason — employers need to know, and applicants shouldn’t give them reason to be suspicious by leaving unexplained gaps.
Most employment application forms ask why applicants have left their former positions. Both applicant and employer must pay close attention to this portion of the employment history. Just a few words can say much.
For example, a response that merely says “personal” is suspicious. Often that is a red flag — maybe the individual was fired, and if that’s the case employers need to know why.
Also, “stock” answers for leaving such as “better opportunity,” “wanted advancement,” “needed a change” and the like may sound fishy, especially if repeated often by someone with a pattern of short job tenures. (Of course, they may also be perfectly true, but in any event must be explained.)
And finally, answers that imply the applicant views him or herself as a victim (such as “company didn’t appreciate me”) can be a red flag, especially if they appear repeatedly.
Employers pay attention to frequent job changes — an applicant who frequently moves from job to job may not be someone they can expect to be with their company for long either, and keeping turnover low through careful hiring may be an important goal.
Granted, very few people stay at either one position or one company for their entire careers these days, and especially with today’s challenging economy it’s necessary to relax hard and fast standards on what constitutes a “job hopper.” But employers should be prepared to ask, and applicants to answer, the reasons for every job change — and especially for frequent ones.
Believe it or not, the most common thing job candidates omit on employment applications are the last names of their references.
Yes, their references. The people who are supposed to know them well enough to answer a potential employer’s questions.
Legibility, Neatness, and Following Directions
The ability to provide legible responses, as well as the ability to follow instruction and pay attention to basic details, should be minimum requirements for most jobs.
Someone who lacks the basic ability to write legibly may not be qualified; someone who is too sloppy to do so, or too careless to follow basic instructions (like the one saying the employment application should be filled out completely) may not be a good hire for those reasons alone.
An application with several answers scratched out or otherwise changed may suggest sloppiness, but also may raise concerns about the truthfulness of the information provided.
For example, scratching out original answers on the job history section may indicate the applicant changed the information to make his or her time line fit together without exposing gaps, disclosing certain employers, or other potentially negative information.
Failure to sign the application, or an at-will or arbitration statement on it, may be a simple oversight, or it may be deliberate.
An oversight suggests carelessness or lack of attention to detail. The deliberate failure to sign may indicate the applicant is not who the applicant says he or she is, or may indicate the person does not want to be bound by the agreement and releases set forth in the application.
Such an unwillingness to accept standard policies may suggest the applicant will be non-compliant in other areas. If interviewed, the applicant should be questioned about this significant “oversight.” Additionally, the signature is likely to be essential for legal reasons, so its absence may prevent the applicant from ever progressing to the interview stage.
- About.com: Job Applications - How to Complete a Job Application
- eHow.com: How to Fill Out A Job Application Form
- EmploymentSpot: Filling Out a Job Application
- Epinions.com: How To Fill Out An Employment Application
- Overcoming Common Job Application Problems
- Sample Job Applications
George Lenard, the originator of George’s Employment Blawg,has over twenty years of experience in all aspects of labor and employment law, including preventive law as well as litigation. His special interests include employment discrimination, sexual harassment, and noncompetition agreements. He is currently a managing partner with Harris, Harris, Dowell, Fisher & Harris, L.C.,., in St. Louis, Missouri, and lives in the suburb of University City with his wife, one daughter and two sons.
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