The term “background check” brings to mind a familiar mix of investigative components like criminal searches, employment verifications, education verifications, reference checks, Social Security Number verifications, credit checks and motor vehicle record checks. But one integral component is too often left out of this mix: the employment application.

The employment application’s potential value in the pre-employment screening process should not be overlooked. This document represents the employer’s opportunity to investigate the applicant’s past. Done right, the employment application can reveal telling information about the candidate, and supplement or qualify information from a background check.

When a candidate mails or hands in in his or her application, that’s the first chance security has to conduct a complete pre-employment screening.

Omissions say something

Well crafted questions on the application can yield information at the outset of the hiring process that could be used to make an immediate decision about the applicant, or at least as a basis for further questioning. The background check can then be compared to the application to gauge an applicant’s honesty. The right questions will gather details that maximize the effectiveness of this comparison. The more information that can be verified during the background check, the clearer the applicant’s suitability or unsuitability for a position will become.

Too many times, key warning signs about an applicant’s past that emerge from the application are ignored. These signs can be apparent from the way questions are answered or because of omissions in answers. A good example is an applicant who indicates the reason for leaving a past job as “disagreement.” This response is a red flag for a problematic work history that should be probed by the employer. While the previous employer may or may not reveal the applicant’s true reason for leaving during the background check, an employer could miss a key screening opportunity if the applicant is not questioned directly about it even before the background check is done.

The following questions and techniques for the employment application can often help enhance its value in the pre-employment screening process.

A good application should ask about the applicant’s criminal history (as allowable by law). The EEOC does not permit employers to ask about arrests on the application, due to potential discrimination that may result. However, employers can ask about convictions. They can capture an even broader range of potentially relevant criminal information by asking, “Have you ever pled guilty, no contest or been convicted of a crime?”

A good application should ask clearly, under work history, for the name of the actual employer. If the applicant was a temporary worker, that information should be indicated on the application. An employment check at a company will show nothing if the applicant did work for the company, but was actually employed by a temp firm.

As illustrated in the example above, a good application should also ask, under work history, for a reason for leaving each previous position held.

A good application should ask for other names used (maiden, married, AKA, etc.). If the applicant fails to reveal prior names that are later found through a Social Security Number check, it could indicate that the potential employee is trying to hide something. The same may be true if past addresses are omitted, yet show up in a Social Security Number check. Be sure to ask for other addresses used on the application as well.

A good application should ask, under education history, if the applicant graduated from each institution listed and, if so, what degree was received. Applications that take a more vague approach may allow the applicant to indicate the “highest level” of education completed as a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, etc., when they didn’t actually obtain the degree.

A good application should ask for full contact information for references, including a complete address, home phone number, work phone number – even a cell phone number. If the applicant is unable to provide this information, the employer may want to question how well the applicant knows the reference. Complete contact information is also very useful in successfully reaching the reference during the background check.

After an application is mailed, data can provide valuable information for background screening. Photo courtesy of Canada Poste.

Ask for confirmation

A good application should contain an attestation statement, in which the applicant certifies the information provided is complete and accurate, and confirms an understanding that any falsification of information may constitute disqualification from consideration.

To combat potential omissions by applicants on their employment applications, many companies are moving to the use of online applications that technically force the applicant to complete the required data fields before the application can be successfully submitted to the employer. An electronic application not only speeds up the hiring process, but also ensures applicant data is clear and legible.

If designed correctly, the employment application is a free pre-screening tool that can reveal telling preliminary information about an applicant and ultimately improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the potential employee’s background check.