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Best Practices for Assessing Job Candidates | Gary Dumais | Select Human Resources

What is a “candidate selection assessment”?

When I moved to Philadelphia about ten years ago, I was surprised to find that many companies had never heard of a “selection assessment”.  Instead, they were using only traditional candidate screening methods such as interviews and reference checks.  I found this to be especially interesting given that surrounding cities like New York and Washington, DC were saturated with management consulting firms, and many of the best companies nationwide require a selection assessment for any candidate seeking to be hired or promoted into an important role.

Put simply, a candidate selection assessment uses certain “tests” or other evaluative measures to gauge how effective an applicant will be in meeting the demands of a role.  These assessments can take many forms, ranging from “paper-and-pencil” questionnaires, to online surveys, or live simulations where candidates are observed while engaging in staged scenarios that reflect job duties (e.g., like coaching an underperforming employee or responding to an inbox full of emails).

The idea of using psychological assessments to screen candidates has been around for much longer than most people think.  Many textbooks cite the United States Military during World War I as being one of the first to use personality assessments to screen out applicants unsuitable for combat.  The benefits of implementing such a practice (e.g., saving thousands of lives and countless other resources) goes without stating.

What are some best practices for assessing job candidates?

As alluded to previously, there is a wide variety of candidate selection measures, spanning written questionnaires to online surveys and role-plays complete with actors and trained observers.  An exhaustive review of every kind of assessment available could easily fill a book, and is therefore beyond the scope of this article.  However, I will provide some useful advice that Human Resource professionals and others (e.g., hiring managers) can utilize when considering methods:

Use a “multi-assessment” approach

Human beings are complicated.  In fact, the human brain is the most complicated “thing” ever known.  No single test could ever fully evaluate a person’s personality, talents, skills, and so on.

This is perhaps most evident in clinical psychology’s approach to measuring intelligence or IQ.  IQ tests are comprised of several smaller “subtests” that span math, vocabulary, non-verbal reasoning, etc.  A person’s performance on each subtest is taken into consideration when deriving an overall IQ score.  In comparison, it’s easy to see how making conclusions about people’s intelligence based only on their math skills would be inaccurate.

The same principle holds true when assessing a candidate’s suitability for a role; multiple assessment measures are needed to uncover the full story.  I typically include at least two different tests of peoples’ reasoning skills, two personality assessments, a measure of their approach to conflict resolution, and assessments of their motivation and emotional intelligence, among others.

Using more than one assessment may seem like overkill, but in my experience, it’s truly necessary for arriving at valid conclusions.  For example, imagine a person performs in the below-average range (in comparison to other managers) on a timed test of their problem-solving abilities (e.g., he’s given fifteen minutes to complete it).  Based on that one test result, you may conclude that the person’s problem-solving abilities are not very good.

Now imagine the same person is given an untimed test of his problem-solving abilities (e.g., he can take as much time as he wants), and he performs in the above-average range.  What would you now conclude about his problem-solving abilities?  Are they below-average or above-average?  The testing results seem to conflict.

Next, imagine the person is also given a personality assessment, and the results indicate he is much more meticulous, detail oriented, and concerned about making mistakes than the average manager.  Now the real story begins to unfold; the person likely has above-average problem-solving skills, but his tendency to be careful and meticulous slows him down and detracts from his performance when taking a timed test.

So, in conclusion, the person will be adept at problem-solving, except in situations when he must make decisions quickly.  -That’s very useful information to have when deciding the best role for a candidate, and it was found by taking a multi-assessment approach.

Clearly define the competencies required for success in a role, and use assessments that measure those competencies

It’d be impossible to know if a candidate is suited for a role without knowing what’s needed for success in that role.  With that in mind, it’s crucial to 1) define the competencies a position requires, 2) ensure the assessment measures used will provide sufficient information about a candidate’s proficiency in each of those competencies, and 3) have a summary report that clearly describes how a candidate performed in each competency so conclusions can be drawn about his or her strengths, weaknesses, and overall level of fit for the role.

In addition, it’s important to ensure that the number of competencies are balanced across job requirements and are not too numerous to be practical.  For example, I’ve seen instances where the job description lists only thinking-related competencies such as problem-solving (e.g., for an engineer role), or only results-related competencies such as delegating (e.g., for a manager role), or only people-related competencies like relationship building (e.g., for a sales role).  With that in mind, I recommend that each job description (and candidate selection assessment) cover competencies in the areas of Thinking, Results, and People to be comprehensive.  At the same time, however, it’s also important to ensure that the list of competencies is not excessively long.  In my experience, three to four competencies in each area (Thinking, Results, and People) is ideal.

Use an external consultant or consulting firm

While it may seem more cost-effective and convenient to do candidate selection assessments “in-house” (e.g., by using your company’s Human Resource department), it’s prone to result in complications and biased hiring decisions that end-up costing the company far more.

No matter how objective hiring managers, human resource professionals, and other people within a company may endeavor to be, they feel pressure to fill open positions as quickly as possible.  Likewise, organizational politics are always a factor.  For example, a Vice President or Director may favor a candidate, making it difficult for anyone lower in the organization to disagree, even if they have assessment information that indicates the candidate would be a poor fit.

In comparison, it’s easier for outside consultants to be objective and make recommendations that “go against the grain”, when necessary.  This is especially important because, most often, selection assessments are only conducted on finalists (e.g., candidates who have great resumes, passed the preliminary interviews, have been nominated for promotion, etc.).  With that in mind, it can be particularly challenging for an internal employee to advocate against hiring a candidate based on assessment results when their coworkers already favor the candidate and are eager to get the position filled.

In sum, outside consultants are less impacted by organizational politics, and are therefore better-equipped to make objective/data-driven decisions (which is the goal of using candidate selection assessments in the first place).

Leverage assessment information beyond the selection decision

Finally, I recommend that you use the wealth of information that comes from a properly conducted candidate assessment for more than the selection or promotion decision.

Just like many other aspects of the selection process, such as reference checks, no information is shared with candidates who are not selected.  However, after a decision is made to hire or promote, it can be tremendously useful to review the assessment information with candidates as part of their onboarding process (e.g., so they are aware of the strengths they can leverage in their new role and what weaknesses they’ll have to address).  Ideally, the assessment information would be incorporated into an onboarding plan or a development plan to maximize the person’s professional growth.

Moreover, selected candidates feel rewarded for the time and effort they put into the process by receiving the information and gaining helpful insights.  Likewise, they begin their new role knowing the company cares about their success and has equipped them to excel.

You can learn more about me by visiting garydumais.com.  Also, free tips and advice can be found at my blog (garydumais.net) and my YouTube channel (youtube.com/channel/UCmRvjywXN9_9f4F5GNl3Sqg).