A recession can present the best of times and the worst of times for employers. On the up side, you get more applicants.   On the down side, you get more applicants.

A well-crafted employment application can help you to whittle down the pile. It can give insight into reliability, accuracy and long-term goals, helping you to create a career profile for the candidate.

But you've got to know what to ask. Some well-intentioned queries may run afoul of anti-discrimination laws while poorly-constructed applications reduce candidates to little more than names, contact information and a list of past jobs.

Even the federal government recognizes the value of clear and concise applications. President Barack Obama signed an executive order earlier this year to overhaul hiring practices for federal government jobs and streamline applications.

This guide will help you design an application that attracts the best of the best and keeps you on the right side of the law.

Improve the Employment Application: Know the Law

An application should focus on the job, its requirements, and candidates' skills and qualification. If you aren't careful, however, you may find yourself in violation of state and federal anti-discrimination laws related to:

•    Race/ethnicity
•    Religion
•    Gender
•    Age
•    Disability
•    Marital status/Child care
•    Financial status
•    Arrest record

Memphis employment attorney Tim Bland advises against asking questions about military record or union affiliation as well.

"There are many such questions that could cause problems for companies," Bland said. "I sometimes see applications asking for a maiden name, the date when someone graduated high school, etc. Those questions should not be asked on an application because they could reveal the applicant's gender or age."

Questions about an applicant's social and community affiliations could reveal information about race, religion, or national origin, he added. Some states also prohibit an employer from asking about an applicant's criminal record.  

So, what can you ask?

Consider questions that provide you with a good sense of the applicant:

•    Are you able to travel, relocate or work overtime?
•    Have you ever been fired or asked to resign because of a policy or procedural violation?
•    Give an example of when you worked with a team.
•    Are you able to perform specific job-related tasks?

Given the job climate, it's reasonable to ask an applicant if they were laid off and expect to be recalled to their former company, said Richard Reinhardt, a Memphis human resources consultant.  "You'd hate to bring someone to your organization and after you've spent money on them, they leave to return to the old job," he said.

You can also ask them to describe their relationship with a past supervisor, though Reinhardt said this is less common question, though no less valuable. "Sometimes you can learn about how they interact with direct supervisors. The immediate supervisor is the key to whether they will remain in their job."

Your best bet? Have an attorney review the application for potential legal snafus.

Dig Deeper: Sample Employment Application Form

Improve the Employment Application: Read and Review    

Reinhardt says it's surprising how many employers fail to properly review applications.

"They don't read what the person writes down," he said, "or leaves out."

More often than not, the application will reveal signs of potential problems down the road. Look for large gaps in employment history – more than six weeks, Reinhardt recommends. Their salary history may show wages that are higher than anything you can offer, meaning the job would unlikely be a good long-term fit.

"Time after time, managers will hire a person not recognizing the fact that they have had problems in previous jobs and that's why there are gaps," he said. "On the front end, we don't pay attention to the questions we do ask."

Dig Deeper: Employment Application Template

Improve the Employment Application: Be Social Media Savvy

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media allow employers to go where applications cannot.

When used properly, social media sites allow employers to better tap into the talent pool. LinkedIn profiles, for instance, may include recommendations from colleagues and managers in addition to extensive job histories.

However, with a few clicks of a mouse, an applicant's gender, race, age, marital status, political views and more could also be available faster than you can say "Google."  In addition to ethical considerations, you could be on shaky legal ground, Bland warned.

"Companies should make sure they do not violate any privacy rights in doing the research. This means that companies should not attempt to gain access to the private portions of an applicant's social media site," Bland said. "For example, a company should not ask someone it knows has access to the private portions of an applicant's site to access them so that the company can view them."

If you'd rather not use social media to fill in the blanks, consider creating an online application form. That way, applicants can provide more information about their career goals and interests and employers can keep candidates' information on file longer, said Laura Bellis, associate director of EMBA/MBA alumni services at the University of Notre Dame.

"(Applicants become) a long-term candidate for a company. You can look for very specific wording and skills," she said. "You can do a quicker sort."

Dig Deeper: How to Use Social Media as a Recruiting Tool

Improve the Employment Application: Put the Firm First

Hoping to avoid ugly lawsuits, more companies are including statements on applications that address matters such as harassment, falsified information and unethical behavior.

"A lot of applications have now included some statements where you are agreeing to certain conditions," Reinhardt said. "If you're ever harassed by someone in the company, you will report it to management, or there will be statements that if you see any unethical behavior by any employee, you will report it to management.

"The company is trying to avoid people going to government agencies or filing lawsuits without ever saying there was a problem," Reinhardt said.

Employers may want to include the following:

•    statement related to equal employment opportunities practices,
•    consequences for including information not requested on the application,
•    instructions for disabled applicants to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act,
•    notice regarding the length of time the information will be kept on file,
•    request that applicants certify the accuracy of the information

Though signing such applications means that employees relinquish some of their rights, it's to a company's benefit, he added.  "Let us know before you tell someone on the outside that we've got a problem."

Dig Deeper: How to Improve Your Hiring Practices

Improve the Employment Application:  Additional Resources