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The popularity of pre-hire assessments is growing among companies that want more predictive accuracy in their hiring processes. The best of these tests go beyond screening past experience or education to measuring a candidate's aptitude, fit or potential in scientifically validated and reliable ways, adding more rigor to hiring decisions.
The data support the growing appeal of assessments. According to the Talent Board's
2016 Candidate Experience Research report, 82 percent of companies are using some form of pre-employment assessment test, and how they use assessments is evolving. Two types of popular screens are job simulations (54 percent of respondents are using these, according to the Talent Board study) and culture fit (51 percent using, a 22 percent increase from the Board's 2014 study.) While assessments once primarily were used for executive and mid-level leadership positions, today they're commonly used for hourly and entry-level jobs.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Pre-employment Testing]
Many organizations are seeking more of a "whole person" gauge of candidates, experts say, assessing not just skills or intellectual horsepower but also personality traits, cultural fit and motivational drivers that can prove the difference between candidates who thrive over the long run and those who quickly derail.
"People can have all the skills and knowledge in the world, but if they aren't motivated to do the job or aren't the right personality fit for the work, they won't last," said Gayle Norton, director of talent strategy for assessment provider DeGarmo in Bloomington, Ill. She points to customer service roles as one example, where candidates might be technology-savvy, but if they don't possess the right personality profile for dealing with customers—exhibiting empathy, patience and resilience—they likely won't succeed or endure in the role.
Other vendors have seen growing interest in assessing the interpersonal or "soft" skills of those in roles where those competencies historically haven't had high priority.
"We've seen a rise in companies wanting to test the soft skills of information technology candidates, which usually has been a certification-only assessment of hard skills," said Mike Hudy, vice president of selection science at Shaker, an assessment provider in Cleveland.
One oft-overlooked criterion in evaluating assessments is versatility, said Eric Hanson, director of assessment and succession services at Development Dimensions International (DDI) in Pittsburgh. "Companies are changing faster than ever, which means that job roles are morphing or disappearing faster than ever."
Organizations pivoting to new business strategies or adopting new technologies need different types of skills and knowledge in the workforce, and assessments should be able to flex to account for those changes, he said.
"Tests should be versatile enough to be able to answer a different set of questions as to what roles candidates are best suited for."
Balancing Speed with Science
The arrival of a bevy of new vendors to the field and recruiters' push for shorter, more user-friendly assessments means buyers should ratchet up their scrutiny of the validity and reliability of tests, experts said. Many assessment vendors have shortened the length of their assessments, added features like gamification and made them mobile-accessible, acknowledging that top candidates can often view such tests as a barrier in the job application process.
"For tests to be truly predictive of individual performance and business outcomes, assessment providers need to have done their research," said David Solot, vice president of client services at assessment provider Caliper in Princeton, N.J. "It's not as simple as creating a short, mobile-friendly quiz where you've only done three or four validation studies with a few hundred people. Personality testing in particular is something that needs to be normed over time, where you collect a large enough amount of data to be able to say with confidence that certain personality traits predict certain performance."
Recruiters should evaluate assessments for how well they've proven to correlate with actual job skills and job performance over time. "Ensuring that companies are investing in the science is a critical differentiator between assessment programs now," said Steve Picarde Jr., president of assessment provider PI Midlantic in Annapolis, Md. "Technology is moving faster and faster, so recruiters have to make sure vendors invest in the science as well as in the software."
While many assessments continue to rely on multiple-choice questions, the emergence of new technologies has allowed vendors to introduce new methods in assessing candidates. Assessment provider HireVue, for example, uses artificial intelligence to extract thousands of new data points from candidates' video interviews.
"Recruiting teams can evaluate candidates based on words they choose, the intonation with which they use them, facial expressions and more," said Kevin Parker, CEO of HireVue. "In a 25-minute video interview recruiters can get in-depth information on how empathetic, customer centric or risk-averse candidates might be, for example, based on specific types of jobs they're applying for."
Shaker is another provider offering open-ended testing formats. A candidate might be asked to respond to a text message, for example, rather than answer multiple-choice questions. "Instead of just receiving choice B as an answer, you're getting several sentences on what a candidate thinks about a topic or how they respond to a certain situation," Hudy said.
Rise of Candidate-Friendly Assessments
As the move to more candidate-friendly job application processes has gained steam, assessment vendors have worked to create more applicant-friendly tests. Top providers understand the importance of moving desirable candidates quickly through the hiring funnel while preserving the validity and reliability of their tests.
Parker said while speed of hiring always has been important, it has taken on a new priority in many talent markets. "It's not a war for talent today but a race for talent," he said. "Speed and agility matter more than ever in landing top talent. The data shows that the best talent is off the market within 10 to 15 days for roles in many industries."
Many organizations continue to be plagued by high candidate drop-out rates during their application processes, and pre-hire assessments can contribute to the problem. "I was talking to a customer recently who said, 'We don't know we are getting top talent. We only know we're getting the talent that will take our assessment,' " Parker said. "They had a 50 percent applicant drop-out rate during the assessment phase because it was seen as cumbersome and a hurdle by applicants. Top candidates with multiple job options will turn their nose up at an onerous assessment."
HireVue's video interviews let candidates respond to questions on their terms without needing to synchronize schedules for a phone screen. The company says 60 percent of its video interviews take place outside of office hours.
"It's about prioritizing where you can get the most predictive bang for your buck in the short amount of time you have with candidates," Hudy said.
Organizations using assessments for executive and middle-management positions also are increasingly looking to go beyond measuring competencies and experiences to getting a better read on candidates' personality traits and motivational drivers. When these candidates derail, it is often due to a lack of political skills, emotional intelligence or ethics, not technical skills, assessment experts say. Recent high-profile ethical breaches in the leadership ranks of companies like Wells Fargo and Volkswagen have corporate boards more attuned to these factors.
"When it comes to hiring senior-level people, we've seen more concern about how well a candidate fits a culture of ethical responsibility, transparency or diversity," Solot said. "So in a sense we're doing multiple matching not just for skill and knowledge but [also] for what the candidate's values are, what matters to them and how they align to a profile of the ideal corporate citizen."
Hanson of DDI has witnessed a similar trend. "Companies and boards of directors want to know up front the things that could potentially derail an executive candidate in a role that will often be bigger, more complex and more ambiguous than many of them have ever had before," he said.
AI Comes to Testing
Assessment vendors also are introducing artificial intelligence [AI] to their operations in new and innovative ways. One such use is in the scoring of answers to unstructured questions on tests. Scoring of closed, multiple choice responses is straightforward, but it's more difficult to score nonconventional data like a candidate's free-form response to a text message.
"Machine learning makes this more advanced form of scoring more efficient and practical," Hudy said. "It would take humans far too long to score that kind of data in high-volume hiring situations."
Caliper uses AI as a supplement to human judgment about candidates. "Candidate recommendations used to be done by humans alone, but now we get advised by different machine learning algorithms as well," Solot said. "The algorithms can tell us, for example, that given certain test results of a candidate, this is the likelihood of their success based on past performance of similar individuals in the same industry."
Don't Forget the Legal Factor
Assessments must abide by equal employment opportunity laws to avoid any discrimination or adverse impact on candidates. "It might sound good to measure someone in a particular area, but if you can't demonstrate the skill or competency being measured is required for the job, you're opening yourself up to legal and ethical challenges," Solot said.
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer in Minneapolis.
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