When Applying for Jobs Online, You Can Skip Certain Questions, Benefit from Others

By Perri Capell, CareerJournal.com


Question: When completing online job applications, I’m asked to provide my college graduation date and Social Security number. Does this give the HR department an opportunity to discriminate against me? Also, if I don’t answer the voluntary question about my ethnicity, will my application be excluded?


Answer: Good questions. With so many companies requiring job seekers to complete online employment applications, many other candidates probably wonder the same things.

I’ll address the ethnicity question first. Federal law prohibits discriminating against job seekers because of race or gender, so being asked to volunteer such information in a job application may seem odd. However, companies ask the questions to collect data for the government showing they are attempting to interview and hire diverse candidates.

If a company’s data-collection system is designed correctly, these details go into a database used to track sources of diversity and not to recruiters, says Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXroads, a Kendall Park, N.J., staffing-strategy consulting firm. Since recruiters aren’t supposed to receive this information, it shouldn’t affect your interview chances, he says.

“The recruiter doesn’t see it, so it can’t be used to discriminate,” Mr. Mehler says.

On the other hand, many recruiters still can detect race and gender from other information you may voluntarily provide. For example, the college you attended or organizations you have joined can be giveaways.

As for providing the year of your college graduation, it’s fine to omit this information if you believe it might be used to screen you out for age reasons. If you have the experience and skills the company is seeking, you’ll still be contacted despite not answering that question, says Patrick Dailey, director of human resources for TXU Energy, a unit of TXU Corp., in Dallas.

However, if it’s a question that you must answer be able to submit the application, don’t assume the company is biased against older candidates, Mr. Dailey says. Instead, view the question as a way for employers to find the best candidates, not to eliminate them.

“Recruiters use graduation dates more to determine the number of years of experience, not necessarily age,” says Mr. Dailey. “It’s to be discriminating, not discriminatory.”

Still, Mr. Mehler agrees that some older candidates should omit college graduation dates from online job applications. He also suggests that they include only their last several jobs on the electronic form. “Just list the last 20 years of your work experience,” he advises.

Your question about supplying a Social Security number concerns me most. Companies typically ask for the number so they can use it later to conduct background checks on serious contenders. But requesting Social Security numbers at the application stage is premature and threatens your privacy, says Mr. Mehler. I advise leaving the space blank if it isn’t mandatory. If you need to fill in the blank to submit the application, make up a number, Mr. Mehler suggests. Let the company know in a cover note that you supplied a false Social Security number due to concerns about your privacy and that you’ll gladly provide the correct number later in the process.

Since truthfulness is so critical in job applications, I questioned Mr. Mehler’s advice on this. He recently conducted a seminar for company human-resources and staffing professionals, and I asked him to poll attendees on the issue. He asked them if they objected to candidates supplying fictitious Social Security numbers on electronic job applications. No one he polled had a problem with it, Mr. Mehler said.

While some people find jobs by applying for them electronically, more often candidates are hired by talking with others and getting referrals. It’s possible that you’d find a new position more quickly by meeting people who will refer you for openings than by completing online applications.


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This article is reprinted with permission from Career Journal, the executive career site of theWall Street Journal.

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