Pre-Employment Screenings

Employers use pre-employment screenings to quickly and effectively qualify an applicant to determine if the applicant can be advanced as a candidate for employment.

While application forms serve to collect basic applicant information, written and/or oral questions asked during pre-employment screenings provide additional information to determine if the applicant’s qualifications meet job requirements. With appropriate questioning, a pre-employment interview provides an objective basis from which to evaluate the skills, knowledge, and abilities of the applicant, work history, and experience.

The concern of some employers is how to develop questions for screening that meet permissible guidelines for business necessity.


There is reasonable assumption that all questions asked of the applicant during a pre-employment interview have a specific purpose and that answers to these questions will form the basis of a hiring decision. The employer should make only those inquiries necessary to determine the applicant’s eligibility for employment. All questions asked by an employer should be asked of all applicants.

The operating guideline behind any questions asked of an applicant on employment application forms or during pre-employment interviews is whether there is a legitimate business necessity for asking such questions. Employers should ask themselves:

Is the information being asked necessary to evaluate the applicant’s qualification to perform the job?

Is this question permissible on the basis of bona fide occupational qualification?

Would this question screen out a qualified candidate because of a disability before he/she can demonstrate ability to perform the job?

Will the answer to the question have a disparate effect in screening out members in a protected class?

The intent behind the questions and how the information is used by the employer are important criteria in determining whether the questions are appropriate for the initial screening process.

As a general rule, employers should not ask questions if they don’t intend to use the answers, but the overriding rule is that all questions asked should have business necessity.

Many employers develop their screening questions from the job description that details job functional tasks and responsibilities and the job specifications that describes the personal qualifications required for job performance.  The following information may be helpful in determining key requirements questions.

Requirements for job performance list minimum skills, knowledge, and abilities, also known as competencies, which the individual should already have or can be expected to have. A job specification may include requirements for the type of and minimum level of work experience and education, special skills such as foreign language or computer hardware/software expertise, industry training, certifications, or licensure.

Required skills as used in the work context may include physical abilities; technical proficiencies; vocational abilities; language and communication skills for reading, writing, and speaking; mathematical reasoning abilities; and self-management capability.

Job specification statements for competencies should clearly define the skills or abilities, the level of skill required, the range of experience required, if equivalencies may be considered as acceptable substitutes, and what context and purpose these requirements serve for work performance.

Since the screening is conducted pre-employment, the employer should determine the key requirements of the job and initially develop no more than six or seven questions relevant to the job duties and requirements. Too many questions may cause the applicant to lose interest or return a canned response. However it is in the employer’s interest to determine upfront if (1) the applicant is still interested in the job and available for work and (2) the salary range is acceptable to the applicant. If the answer to either question is no, there is no point to continuing the screening.


Discrimination can occur during pre-employment interviews as a result of direct, purposeful disparate treatment between applicants. This means that applicants are treated differently because of their race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or age. For example, disparate treatment occurs when employers do not ask the same questions of all applicants.

Discrimination can also occur when employers engage in hiring practices that have the effect of excluding members of protected classes. While it may not have been the employer’s intent to discriminate, the employment practice has an adverse impact on members of a protected group with the effect of a disproportionally higher percentage of applicants being rejected from employment consideration.

Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ)

In certain narrow circumstances, employment practices that would constitute discrimination against individuals with protected characteristics of religion, national origin, sex, or age are allowed when reasonably necessary for the normal performance of duties in the normal operation of that particular business. This bona fide occupational qualification exception is an employer’s defense to acknowledged discrimination. It is the employer’s responsibility to prove that the qualification required for the job is necessary for job performance and that there is no reasonable alternative with a lesser impact on the protected classes.

Employment Laws

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. The most familiar federal laws are Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended (Title VII), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Title VII and ADEA specifically prohibit discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and age. Pre-employment inquiries that express, directly or indirectly, any limitation or discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or age unless based on a bona fide occupational qualification are therefore prohibited. Accordingly the employer must not ask any questions of the applicant whose answers would identify the applicant as having protected class characteristics.

Employers are prohibited under ADA from asking applicants during pre-employment interviews about a disability, including its nature or its severity. ADA requires the employer to isolate an employer’s consideration of an applicant’s non-medical qualifications from any consideration of the applicant’s medical condition.

Employers should also research their state and local laws regarding equal employment, employment discrimination, and employment screening restrictions and prohibitions. Some states have more restrictive requirements than the federal laws.

Preliminary Assessment of Candidates

The pre-employment screening is a preliminary assessment of candidate qualifications.  Screenings can be conducted by telephone interviews, face-to-face interviews, team interviews, or video interviews or a combination of screenings.

Telephone interviews are usually conducted as pre-employment screenings and are low cost alternatives to a face-to-face interview. However a phone interview can provide a great deal of information about the candidate in just a short period of time. It is an efficient tool to quickly pare down the applicant list into a shorter list of qualified candidates. Those candidates advance to the next step in the hiring process, possibly a personal interview.

Personal interviews are usually structured to allow the candidate to elaborate on his skills, knowledge, and abilities. The employer‘s goal is to discover as much as possible about the candidate’s work history and experience. The employer is also assessing what the candidate will bring to the organization and how the candidate will assimilate into the organization’s culture.

A bad hire is a costly hire. An employer will use all available screening tools to adequately assess that the applicant/candidate competencies meet job requirements and specifications.

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