Background Review

We are using the term Background Review to describe the three most commonly used methods of learning about a candidate’s background - application forms, résumés and reference checks. As is identified in Exhibit 7.1, research has identified various levels of reliability, validity, etc. for each of these methods; however, given the prevalence of their use (particularly in the case of résumés and application forms), it is important to learn what can be done to improve these methods, particularly their validity19.

Assessment Centres

Pioneered by AT&T in the United States in the late 1970’s as a method for identifying high potential managers and executives, assessment centres have become a desired selection method for many organizations. Typically, candidates in an assessment centre spend two to three days undergoing a number of tests, simulations and exercises aimed at evaluating their knowledge and abilities. As they go through the assessment centre process they are observed by trained raters who are either line managers or industrial psychologists. At the end of the process the raters provide an evaluation of each candidate. Although expensive to operate, companies who use assessment centres like them because they provide an opportunity to see the candidate “in action” as he/she goes through the various exercises and simulations, thus providing actual behaviour to use as a basis for assessment. If the exercises and simulations replicate actual situations on the job, there is a high level of content validity. It has also been found that candidates respond favourably to the assessment centre process because of the job-relatedness of the activities in which they are involved.


6.1 Application Forms

Most organizations use a standard or generic application form that, in many cases, has been designed by their legal department or law firm to ensure they are not violating a Human Rights Code provision by asking for prohibited information. Although this approach is justifiable in terms of preventing legal action, it does not take advantage of the potential of the application form as a selection method. With the advent of modern word processing technology it is relatively easy to create an application form that represents a “best practice.” Exhibit 7.3 outlines the information that can be collected using the application form and suggestions as to how to improve upon the generic approach.

The application form can serve as a very useful selection tool if regarded assuch and if properly designed. Due to fear of prosecution on human rights grounds, there has been a tendency to minimize the information gathered through the application form. In other words, the operative approach has been “if in doubt, leave it out.” However, following this approach denies a potentially valuable and cost effective opportunity to gather relevant knowledge and ability information on candidates. In addition to giving us more relevant information that is valid in terms of our selection process, the application form can send a strong message to candidates about the expectations of the job and, therefore, allows for “self-selection” to take place. In this regard, there is value in informing candidates at this stage of the fact that any offer of employment they receive will be conditional upon their satisfying certain medical and, if applicable, drug testing and criminal record check requirements. If it is determined that, as a condition of employment, candidates must have a certain driving record, criminal record or credit rating, they should be advised these kinds of background checks will be carried out as part of the selection process.

Application Forms can be designed to gather relevant knowledge and ability information.

The only caveat with expanding the form as suggested is that it requires candidates to have a reasonable ability to write in English/French, a factor that can work against those for whom one of the two official languages is a second language. In addition to the information the candidate provides on the application form, candidates should be asked to provide copies of relevant documentation related to the qualifications for the job such as driver’s license, proof of bondability, proof of citizenship, or ability to work in Canada and relevant certificates.

The application form is the first “screen” in the selection process and as a highly cost effective methodology should be used to its fullest to identify candidates who do not have the knowledge and abilities to perform the tasks of a bus operator.

6.2 Résumés

With the advent of computer-based word processing, virtually everyone has a résumé. Despite their universality, as a selection tool they have limited usefulness. They have low validity and impracticalities for handling and coding the information into a format that allows for comparisons. There is also some question about the accuracy of the information contained in many résumés (see the above note on “faking good”). If résumés are to be used then the most useful way in which to use them is with the National Occupational Standards. As suggested in Table 3 below, the Standards should be examined and the key (i.e. must have) knowledge and abilities identified. Candidate information can then be pulled from the résumé and “matched” with the key knowledge and skills by using a form such as shown in Table 3. In order to facilitate the process of using such a form, the candidate can be asked to complete it. Similar forms can be developed, as suggested previously, for training and work experience and completed by the candidate as part of their application.

Faking Good

Researchers have been studying the extent of deception by candidates in the selection process for several decades. Often referred to as “faking good,” they have found distortion on paper-and-pencil tests, application forms, résumés and skills inventories is relatively common and, in some cases, serious. These distortions relate to over-reporting length of previous employment, discrepancies in reasons for leaving previous employment and claiming skills that the candidate does not have. Furthermore, surveys of selection practitioners have revealed that there is a general belief candidate mis-representation is on the increase. Although most of the research has focused on deception in the provision of background information, there is evidence to suggest that “faking good” extends to test and inventory responses. In this case, candidates attempt to “psych out” these instruments by responding the way they think they “should” respond rather than providing honest answers.


6.3 References

References can be valuable sources of information on candidates; however, as is shown in Exhibit 7.1, there are problems with every aspect of this method. In order to improve the validity and reliability of reference checks, it is important to be clear as to why the check is being done. There are two reasons for performing a reference check:

(a) To confirm information on the candidate’s application form and attached documents (related to licensing, etc.) that can only be confirmed through the reference check.

(b) To gain greater insights into the candidate’s knowledge and abilities from someone who has actually observed the candidate perform. With respect to the second point, reference checks are normally performed by telephone and take the form of an interview. Notwithstanding the difficulties in the modern voice-mail era associated with making contact with a reference, a well-structured reference interview can be a valuable source of information. In a later section of this guide, we discuss the best practice requirements of interviewing. These guidelines on interviewing apply to reference checks and should be followed in conducting reference interviews.


Table 3
Résumé Coding Form (sample)

Sample NOS Knowledge and ABILITIES Relevant Information from RÉSUMÉ
• Ability to read route and road maps  
• Knowledge of the Motor Vehicle Act  
• Ability to ensure the vehicle is safe for service  
• Ability to identify unusual noises and vehicle behaviour occurrences  
• Knowledge of cause of accidents  
• Knowledge of stress-coping techniques  
• Ability to identify passengers who require special boarding assistance  
• Knowledge of what constitutes the safety of passengers in a moving vehicle  
• Knowledge of vehicle performance in all weather conditions  
• Knowledge of passenger requirements  


The above knowledge and abilities are only examples. It is recommended the company/organization review the National Occupational Standards (NOS) to identify the essential knowledge and abilities (K & A’s) it wants/requires the applicant to have. These K & A’s form the bases for reviewing application forms (Exhibit 7.3) and developing advertisements (Exhibit 6.3).


Other issues regarding references need to be considered. In an increasingly litigious world, individuals and organizations are reluctant to put themselves at risk. As a result, many are not prepared to provide information on former employees beyond confirmation of employment and dates of hiring and termination. For this reason, it is important, if references are going to be used, that candidates identify their references and confirm they are prepared to be interviewed. As long as the interview deals with questions regarding bona fide occupational requirements, i.e. knowledge and abilities described in the National Occupational Standards, there should be no concern with a human rights or common/tort law violation.

A second issue with conducting reference interviews is timing. It is the practice of most organizations to conduct the reference interview after all other steps in the selection process have been completed. Notwithstanding this practice, as a lower validity method, an argument can be made for conducting reference checks prior to undertaking interviews or conducting tests.

With respect to the first reason, i.e. we do reference checks to confirm information, the advent of electronic mail has simplified this process by allowing the information to be collected through the mailing of a form to the reference. The form can be sent as an attachment and would simply ask the reference to confirm certain information related to the applicant’s background.

The Background Review portion of the selection process has the potential for significant improvement through the introduction of “best practices.” This improvement, particularly in terms of validity and reliability, is going to come through the development of better application forms, better management of résumés and the effective use of references.


19 In the Tippens and Wunders study cited in a previous note, it is shown that over 70 percent of American organizations used résumés and/or application forms as a selection method but that references were used less than 30 percent of the time. A British study cited in Wood and Payne’s book shows similar patterns in United Kingdom based companies.



Motor Carrier Passenger Council of Canada (MCPCC), 10350 Yonge Street, Suite 206, Richmond Hill, Ontario L4C 5K9
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