8 Common Pitfalls to Avoid When Using Assessments

Hiring is perhaps the single most important driver of success in organizations. For decades, organizations have known that top performers generate 40% – 67% more value than their peers (Cascio, 1979Schmidt & Hunter, 1998McKinsey, 1998). Given that many of the traits needed for success in a role – such as intelligence, work ethic, integrity, and empathy for others – cannot be taught, selecting for them is the only path to getting there. Despite this fact, many organizations make unnecessary and completely avoidable mistakes when hiring and using assessments. Here are 8 no-nonsense ways to make sure you’re not one of them.

Mistake #1 – Not Using Assessments

Some organizations avoid testing candidates because they fear adding friction to their hiring process. However, the reality is that tests are the only objective, accurate, and viable means for efficiently narrowing the candidate pool to identify top performers. Given that organizations do not have the bandwidth to interview every candidate, testing empowers them to identify candidates with the greatest likelihood of success. It’s these candidates who should advance to the interview and ultimately be hired.

Given that today’s cognitive assessments last only 10 – 15 minutes, and personality can be tapped in about 5 – 7 minutes, the commitment being asked of candidates is shorter than ever. Today’s assessments are also more engaging than ever before, affording your candidates a brand positive experience that presents your organization as leading edge. Data matters, and if a candidate won’t invest 15 – 20 minutes to vie for a coveted role with your company, what does that data tell you about them? And would you really want them working with you?

Mistake #2 – Not Assessing Cognitive Ability

Cognitive assessments are the single strongest predictor of job performance in the world. More than 22,000 studies across more than 5 million participants over more than 100 years, have demonstrated that cognitive assessments predict job performance better than anything else for every job, level, industry, and region of the world (Schmidt, Oh, Shaffer, 2016).

The benefits of cognitive assessment are indisputable, and organizations who avoid them do so at their own peril. In fact, I can think of nothing that gives your competition a greater advantage than your avoidance of cognitive testing. Some companies avoid cognitive assessments because they fear the potential for score differences across demographic groups. While subgroup score differences are a reality that need to be addressed in any selection process, pairing personality assessments with cognitive can increase the overall predictiveness of the selection process, and dilute any subgroup score differences that may arise from using cognitive alone (Ones & Viswesvaran, 1998).

Mistake #3 – Avoiding Personality Assessments

Work ethic is the next best predictor of job success after cognitive ability. Work ethic as a personality trait is critical to successful performance in every role, level, industry, and region. There are also many personality traits that are critically important to one job or another. These include traits like customer service orientation, sales ability, teamwork, safety awareness, rule abidance, willingness to follow directions, creativity, innovation, and more.

In recent times, the press – who seem to love to write about assessments – have raised concerns about employers using personality assessments to identify and diagnose mental health issues. This is incredibly farfetched. While some personality assessments have been specifically designed to diagnose mental illness (like those used by clinicians), the personality assessments used in employment settings are typically designed, validated, and intended for use with the general population. They are incapable of identifying or diagnosing any mental illness. The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and related legislation does not consider these latter assessments to be part of a mental health examination, and permits their broad use in selection processes.

Mistake # 4 – Using the Wrong Assessments

I went to school for Industrial Psychology and spent 25 years dedicated to the assessment space. I know nothing about astrophysics, gardening, or how to fix my car. When I go to the mechanic, they could tell me anything, and all I have is Google to tell me if they’re being honest.

If you don’t have the same background as me, there is no way that you could know all the ins and outs of assessments – and that’s unfortunate, because the upside potential in making great hiring decisions is enormous, and the downside risk if you don’t know what you’re doing is real.

When thinking about using assessments – and you absolutely should use them – talk to the consultant or test provider. Here are some questions to consider asking:

  • How do you know this test will predict job performance at my company for these jobs? Show me the technical manuals.
  • How do you know these assessments are job related?
  • Do these assessments result in score differences for different demographic groups, and if so, how will you mitigate that?
  • Who else is using these assessments?
  • What’s your track record for litigation, EEOC complaints, and OFCCP audits?
  • Why are these scales on your assessment relevant for these jobs? At a high level, how does the scoring work?

If they cannot answer these simple questions to your satisfaction, then move on to another provider.

Mistake #5 – Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Assessments are interesting and sometimes draw curiosity from hiring managers. They love to look at score reports and read into tiny details on which they may place undue importance. An example might be that a candidate’s overall score – the deciding factor in terms of whether to advance candidates to an interview, is great. However, on the score report the hiring manager sees that candidate scored low on a scale that the manager feels is important (e.g., they scored low on cooperativeness and the manager thinks they won’t be a good team player). Though these concerns may appear reasonable on the surface, the overall assessment score is far more predictive of job performance than any one scale or trait.  So in most instances, reading into these smaller details may actually reduce the accuracy of hiring decisions. Further, doing so creates inconsistencies in the selection process that can lead to unfairness and bias.

When using an assessment, decide its use and related rules for the selection process, and stick with them. If you make a change, make sure it is warranted based on everything you and your assessment provider know about your business and the test itself. Be sure that any changes or new processes are used consistently going forward.

Mistake #6 – Basing Assumptions on Small Samples

Would-be test buyers sometimes like to take the test themselves and see how they score. When they speed through the test while multitasking and ultimately score poorly, this produces a challenge of the ego. Either the test doesn’t work, or they’re not [fill in the blank] – smart, hardworking, team oriented, etc. Given the option, it’s easier and more ego-syntonic to assume the test must not work, and move on.

However, there are two insidious effects at play here. First, they did not take the assessment with the same level of motivation as a job applicant, for whom getting that new job is a high stakes situation. And second, the law of small samples comes into play. Think about it like this: You have a coin in your pocket with a 50/50 chance of landing heads or tails. If you toss it 1,000 times, it will likely land on each side about 50% of the time.  However, what if you only toss it 10 times? You might easily get 7 of one and 3 of the other, or 6 and 4, or 8 and 2. In fact the odds of getting 5 heads and 5 tails is smaller than the odds of a very different observed outcome. Toss the coin 5 times and the observance of a 50/50 split is literally impossible to achieve. When you run a study, the observed results from a large sample are far more likely to represent reality and the truth, than trying it on a small sample.

Mistake #7 – Ignoring the Candidate

Companies can be so immersed in the day-to-day that they forget even basic things that create a positive and engaging candidate experience, such as being thoughtful and responsive. Returning candidate emails, letting them know where they stand, and giving them an idea of the selection process are incredibly important. Candidate time should be valued, and the assessments that you use deliver a clear message in this regard.  Accordingly, your assessments should be brief, targeted, relevant, and engaging.

Want to know if your assessments are engaging? Look at your candidate drop off rate. If a high percentage of your candidates start the assessment and don’t finish, they probably don’t view it as relevant and engaging. Shorter assessments can maintain or even enhance the accuracy of your selection process, while ensuring that more candidates complete it. Game-based assessments, in particular, can get the information needed, vis-à-vis their abilities, while amping up the level of engagement and interest candidates feel in your organization. This ultimately increases their likelihood of accepting a position with your company.

Mistake #8 – Not Valuing Diversity

I saved this one for last, because I wanted it to be memorable for you (capitalizing on the recency effect in learning). Diversity has gotten a lot of buzz as of late, and some raise concerns about selection processes and assessments running the risk of reducing diversity of candidates and new hires.

A few thoughts: Diversity adds true value for organizations – it speeds innovation, increases breadth of appeal to would-be buyers of your products and services, and makes for a happier and more engaged workplace. Hiring with an eye towards tolerance, empathy, and understanding is of core importance. This is often the basis of the cultures we all strive to create and nurture at our respective places of work. In fact, I think you’ll find it hard to come up with a single organization whose culture does not look to foster strong work ethic, integrity, teamwork, taking care of the customer, taking care of each other, and tolerance, empathy, and understanding in one form or another.

However, far too few of us really understand the power of diversity and what it can mean for our businesses. Years ago I had a great idea, and I pitched it to a peer, who in turn had their own very different idea – a solution to the same problem. As we discussed and debated our two very different ideas – coming from two very different places – we identified a third idea together that neither of us would have ever come up with on our own. It was a better idea and far more innovative, a true advancement that leapfrogged our business over competitors in a key area. The process initially annoyed me, until I began to see the result – the ingenuity created by our coming together from two different places and the way we initially saw the challenge – ways that we could only see it based on our diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Diversity is nothing new to the assessment space, and tests actually produce far greater diversity than other selection tools, like interviews, background checks, resume parsing, and education or experience requirements.  Further, assessments provide a clear means for measuring the diversity of your selection process, and enhancing it, while simultaneously enhancing quality of hire.

Assessments are the greatest means for enhancing the caliber of your most valuable asset – your people. Assessments enhance quality of hire, reduce your administrative burden, speed onboarding, increase tenure, and can lead to a more diverse and innovative workplace. They can enhance consistency of your selection process and mitigate undue risk, all while attracting and engaging top candidates. Avoiding these eight aforementioned pitfalls will help you make the best use of assessments to enhance your business today and for many years to come.