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What’s the Big Deal About Attention to Detail?

Written by Emily Peirce

Look between “self-starter” and “excellent communication skills” on nearly any list of job requirements and you’ll find it: “attention to detail a must.”  Almost every job post across almost every industry lists some variation on being “detail oriented” as an important skill.  And true perfectionists are in luck, because this seemingly perfunctory requirement is actually critical to success in a ton of positions.  But what does attention to detail mean at work, and how should employers go about measuring it in their candidates?

How can one trait be so universally vital to so many different jobs?  Simple: mistakes are bad— in any job.  Attention to detail can translate into your ability to identify and solve problems, particularly small issues that aren’t immediately obvious.  After all, little mistakes can have large consequences.  Imagine if an administrative assistant couldn’t properly proofread a document or an accountant frequently misplaced a decimal point; a few errors can mean a lot of headaches.  Employers want someone who’s going to get it right the first time.

So, we understand why employers seek out the most meticulous of applicants, but how do we go about identifying them?  Outside of making sure they’re on time for an interview and scanning their resumes for typos, there isn’t an obvious way to determine how attentive a potential employee will be when completing everyday tasks.

One way to assess attention to detail in an objective way is through pre-employment tests.  For many entry-level positions, assessing basic math and grammar skills can give strong indications of whether someone can identify and resolve inconsistencies in their work.  For mid to high-level positions, there are general aptitude tests that measure closely related abilities like problem-solving and overall critical thinking skills.  These tests have consistently shown high predictive validity when evaluating potential success in “upper level” roles that also require focus and attention.  For other jobs where attention to detail is truly critical, like pilots, security guards, and air traffic controllers, there are also tests that more precisely look at concentration and the ability to focus in the face of distractions. 

When it comes to interviews, there are also ways of assessing if someone can pay appropriate attention. Are they actively listening to your questions and responding appropriately?  Do they recall and utilize information from earlier interactions?  Many of the soft skills employers value in an employee are related to how well they notice and recall details.

There are also more amusing ways to learn about someone’s level of attentiveness. JobFlare is a mobile app that uses fast-paced brain games to assess attention to detail among other traits employers look for in their employees.  For instance, the game “Robot Inspector” asks users to carefully examine two robots made up of distinct parts.  The goal is to determine if the robots are identical or different as quickly and accurately as possible.  This seemingly simple game evaluates attention to detail in a very direct way and is part of a growing trend: gamification as a recruitment tool.

All things considered, the most important thing to remember when selecting a method of evaluation is understanding job requirements and the true level of attention required for the work.  We guess you could say the devil’s in the details.

Emily Peirce

Written by Emily Peirce

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