The Future of Pre-Employment Testing

(This article originally appeared on HR Daily Advisor.)

Pre-employment testing has been around in some form for decades, helping recruiters and HR staff pre-screen candidates prior to the interview process. However, after a long period of relative stagnation, pre-employment testing is now evolving. There are a number of reasons why, from new research to new technology, and both employers and candidates are benefiting from the changes.

The Science

One of the reasons that pre-employment tests haven’t—until recently—evolved very much in the past 2 decades is that the science that many of them are based on is relatively settled. Much of the basis behind pre-employment testing stems from studies that are decades old. For example, it has long been known that cognitive aptitude tests are one of the best predictors of work performance. These tests tend to focus on long-recognized categories for classifying cognitive abilities:

  • Logical and reasoning-based problem solving, including identifying patterns, making sound judgments, and regulating emotions while moving towards a goal
  • Perception and interpretation of external stimuli
  • Ability to sustain focus on a single task in a distracting environment
  • Short- and long-term memory
  • Verbal comprehension
  • Processing of spatial distances and differences

Because of their ability to predict performance outcomes in a wide array of organizational settings, it makes sense that they are a key part of pre-employment screening: they represent the skills you want in any employee. They demonstrate a person’s ability to thrive in a high-stress environment, their growth capacity, and their ability to develop independence across tasks. A person with poor cognitive abilities is often screened out early on because they demonstrate that they lose focus, can’t comprehend complex instructions, or lack logical problem solving skills. As these have been identified decades earlier, they remain a key part of pre-employment screening.

New Research

While cognitive ability tests are important in terms of identifying key employment skills, new research in the study of personality is beginning to find its way into behavioral tests designed for employers as certain behavioral traits are attracting particular attention.

  • Emotional Intelligence: The concept of emotional intelligence is somewhat hard to define, and even those who study it cannot agree on exactly what it entails. Inc. recently summed it up as “the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.” To that end, emotional intelligence is essentially about being self-aware: knowing your emotions during a situation and understanding them so that even in heated situations, you don’t lose your cool. At the same time, it’s the ability to empathize and to read other people so that you know when and how to react most constructively in a given situation.
  • Grit: Grit may be known by other colloquial variations including “stick-to-it-ive-ness”; from a more clinical perspective, this may simply be seen as a rebranding of the term “conscientiousness” — a known quantity when examining the textbook “big five” personality traits. Whatever you want to call it, this trait demonstrates a methodical perseverance that works to tirelessly get the job done through hard work, organization, and deliberate goal-setting.

Despite the relatively nascent fields of research on emotional intelligence and “grit,” these two areas are gaining more interest from employers who want to assess for these qualities. It will likely be a long time, however, before the science in these areas catches up with that of cognitive ability.

Another area that has fueled renewed interest in objective, standardized pre-employment assessments is the growing awareness of the potentially detrimental effects of unconscious bias. To combat this, pre-employment test results–or any other selection criteria– can be presented using blind practices, where names, emails, and other personal details are masked so that HR staff can truly assess a candidate through objective and standardized measurements.

The Technology

Ultimately, the biggest change in pre-employment assessments in the years ahead may come in its delivery method. Gamification—a technique currently being adapted into marketing techniques—is a path that holds much promise for pre-employment testing, and has only become increasingly viable through the rise of smart devices and cloud computing.

By turning assessments into an environment that feels more like “brain games” than HR forms, candidates tend to perform better and provide more data points, thus giving more metrics for employers to objectively assess. Because of the widespread use of smartphones, gamification also allows more candidates to be brought into the fold, even strong ones that may not have traditional backgrounds but have outsized potential.

That may be the biggest change to the HR industry regarding candidate screening – the idea that through technology and gamification, it’s possible to pre-identify a candidate from a non-standard pool, allowing employers to hire based on talent rather than experience. Talent, after all, is what wins out in the end, and by allowing talent to move laterally across industries, this new age of pre-employment screening may help power innovations no one could have predicted.