The most important piece of paper between you and the job applicant is the employment application. Yet the employment application is such a commonplace, routine document that we often overlook how vital it is.

This form not only helps us make the best hiring decisions, it’s also a legal record-keeping tool that can keep you out of hot water. More importantly, employment applications are far and away the best way to collect the information you want and need to know about each and every applicant.

Here are a few reminders about how best to use this important hiring tool:

It is an important ‘test’ in the hiring process. By instructing applicants to fill it out completely – leaving no blanks and not writing ‘see resume’ anywhere – you’re testing whether they follow instructions and read, write and understand English. If someone fails this test because of an unwillingness or inability to follow instructions, why spend any more time with this applicant?

It’s a legal document. You’re required to have a completed application form for each applicant and to keep it on file for at least one year. In some cases, it’s up to three years, so be sure you know your state’s law.

Don’t write on it. Since these are legal documents that have to be kept on file, any notations on them about the applicant could later be held against you in court. Delete any ‘comments’ section on your application form and never write your impressions or thoughts on them.

Make sure it doesn’t include any illegal, discriminatory items. For example, asking for the date the person graduated from high school leaves you vulnerable to age discrimination suits. Asking for marital status may suggest a preference; stating that employees become ‘permanent’ after a 90-day probation raises contract issues. It’s easier to leave such items out rather than defend yourself in court.

Make sure applicants complete them on site. Don’t mail out applications or allow people to take them home. If you do, you have no way of knowing if the applicant was the person who filled it out.

Give an application to everyone who asks. If you give out applications only to some people, you’re leaving yourself open to discrimination charges.

Require every applicant to complete your application. No matter what job they’re applying for – even if they’ve already submitted a resume – get a completed application. This ensures you have orderly and consistent information on all those who do become employees.