The general climate among HR and staffing professionals is that pre-employment assessment is a complex and confusing matter that is not really worth the hassle. Why is this so? My own research and experience has led me to the following plausible explanations:
Assessment can be complex: There is no one magic bullet and the choices to be navigated make constructing good testing programs a blend of both art and science.
Assessment is often oversold or mis-sold: Vendors often fit round pegs into square holes because they only sell the round pegs and their motive is to hammer as many pegs in as possible.
Testing is not fun: Let’s be honest. Most applicants don’t really enjoy doing complicated math problems or answering questions about how outgoing they are at parties. It is not hard to see why many firms would want to spare applicants from these forms of mild torture!
Where’s the beef?: Many companies totally ignore the value proposition for assessment because they don’t make a game plan for testing that directly allows them to see the ROI it can deliver. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat? You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat!
Consumers do not follow best practices: When the consumer is not aware of the steps required to ensure success with assessment, they make it harder to achieve success. Failures often represent the end of the line when it comes to testing programs.
The reasons go on, but all of the above issues can be overcome more easily than you think. I don’t want to downplay the complexities of assessment — they are real and they are many. However, I do feel that if you use the following four steps as your mantra, you will come out on the good side when it comes to assessment.
Above all, the key ingredients to making these steps work for you are:
- Make sure you complete each of the four steps together as part of a process that has sponsorship from the top of the organization.
- Partner with an expert. Be it a vendor, a consultant, or an internal resource. You need to be sure that you have someone in your corner who knows each of the four steps and who can shepherd the organization through them.
So without further adieu, here are my four simple steps for successful assessment programs.
Step 1: Understand what you are looking for
Before you even begin working on an assessment solution, understand the problem at hand. Take this investigation as high as you can, reaching toward the key strategic drivers for the organization.
Make sure you know the goals for the coming years and how talent provides the raw material for meeting them. Once you have checked in with the big picture, get down into the details. Create a solid blueprint of what performance looks like at a given job or group of jobs. Don’t just go off a job description either! Clearly outline the knowledge, skills, abilities, values, behaviors, competencies, etc. that drive success. If you don’t have the full picture of what value is, how the heck can you know what to look for in a candidate? You can guess if you want to, but the payoff is not going to make you a hero with the boss.
Don’t get too hung up on vendors who suggest you use their test to set a profile benchmark either. While these solutions do have some value, letting the test drive your performance profile is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. When you build a house, you usually approach the contractor with a full set of blueprints in hand. Assessment programs are no different!
Step 2: Choose assessments that measure the things you value
Nothing more, nothing less. Questions and content that cannot be tied directly back to the things you define in Step 1 of your process can be considered nothing but waste.
What is the value of an irrelevant question? It is only noise, and this noise can obstruct the truth. The classic best practice for choosing assessments is to create a test plan that grids out all the key things that you defined in Step 1 and identifies test or assessment content that measures each of them as part of a hiring process.
This step is fraught with peril. Vendors do not always make sure you create as little waste as possible during this step. They have a set of pegs and they are going to sell them even if some of them just don’t fit.
So the key to this step is finding a vendor or partner that can provide thorough coverage of your value model with little waste. Listing all the vendor selection guidelines to be aware of is a whole different article. At a minimum I suggest the following:
- Don’t hire a testing vendor with no I/O psychologists on staff
- Demand technical validation reports
- Check references from industries that are similar to yours, ask for stories of ROI and value
- Take any and all tests recommended by a vendor, and view the results from the perspective of the candidate. How would the test make you feel if you were an applicant?
- Don’t focus on tests that leave huge spaces for inferences between test questions and job performance. Why not simplify things and use assessments that look like the job and feel like the job? Math tests and personality tests do work but they are so far removed from what is being asked of employees behaviorally while on the job that they introduce room for noise, error, and ill-will among applicants.
Step 3: Evaluate applicants via a consistent process that relies on multiple types of user-friendly data
Some of the biggest issues limiting the impact of assessment come in their use as decision-making tools. Assessment info is just one of many data streams that support hiring experts in making consistent and accurate decisions. The key to using assessment data effectively is to be consistent and to know both its limitations and its value-adds.
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I see over- and under-reliance on assessment results happening in the decision-making process. End users either feel that the assessment can help remove any indecision they have, or on the other end of the spectrum, simply round-file the assessment results in favor of their own opinions.
As with most things in life, the sweet-spot lies somewhere in the middle. Implementing assessment requires some change management and some investment in an understanding of its value proposition as a decision-support tool. To the value an assessment program can deliver:
- Equip end users with user-friendly reporting tools. Many tests come from a clinical tradition that involves tons of narrative and obtuse nomenclature. Whenever you are considering an assessment vendor, look at its reports and make sure they make sense and are as simple as they can be for getting the job done.
- Ensure that key decision points are synced with your process. For high applicant volumes, there’s no problem using an auto screening tool at the top of the funnel. For low volume, high-touch hiring, this is not as effective an approach. The key is to provide decision makers with the info they need, when they need it. Process and assessment should be tightly linked or waste will surely occur.
- Train end users on the value proposition for using the assessments you provide in a consistent manner. Empower them to use the info to support their expertise. Assessment is an excellent way to confirm hunches or trends that an expert can see unfolding throughout the hiring process.
Step 4: Close the loop and evaluate
This is perhaps the step that is most often excluded from the game plan. It can be hard to collect the data required to show value from assessment. However, where there is a will there is a way. Nothing sells assessments like results. How do we show results? By making sure that there is a plan for “closing the loop” and evaluating the impact of an implementation on outcomes that are seen as important. Think about Six Sigma. Think about business intelligence. You will surely arrive at some examples from your own travels that clearly show the power of these tools for identifying waste and understanding the cause of trends in data.
Assessment has been offering business intelligence and process improvement opportunities for over 50 years, but many companies are not paying any attention.
As assessment becomes more of a strategic partner to organizations, it is doing so based on the success stories that it is providing via case studies and other tales of ROI. The companies that are paying attention are the ones that are telling the stories that the C-suite wants to hear!
It can be hard to track value because job performance measures are abstract or more qualitative in nature. However, if it is one thing that our present state of technology is providing, it is data. Billions and billions of data points are captured on a daily basis. Surely there is something we can work with here!
If you have followed the first three steps and leave the fourth one out, you are still leaving most of the value from assessment on the table. Here are some tips to help you avoid this unfortunate situation:
- Plan for proving ROI from Day 1. When selling assessment, go back to the organization’s strategic drivers and work to clarify what outcomes will have value to the bottom line.
- Plan for a data feed that will allow you to see the impact of hiring decisions on these valued outcomes.
- Don’t fully rely on your testing vendor to do the above for you. Many vendors have their own agenda, and statistics are easily massaged to feed an agenda. Use your internal resources or hire an independent third party to ensure you get the real story.
- Start small. Run a Proof of Concept or pilot study first to manage the process in a controlled fashion. Use the results as ammo to up the ante and gain leverage with the powers that be.
- Be creative. Don’t be afraid to think about things differently and to demand that your organization takes control and looks for new sources of value. You may be surprised at the interesting solutions you develop.
Assessment is not a risk as long as you use it properly. As with any power tool it is important to exercise caution, follow the instructions, use the right tool for the job, and wear the proper protective gear. Do these things and you are in the zone!
It is a jungle out there when it comes to choosing vendors but you will make things much easier on yourself if you educate yourself and see past the B.S. Simply do the work required to see if you are offered coverage for all four steps presented here.
If a vendor does not support all four of these phases, you are leaving money on the table. Many solutions you will find may skip steps in the name of speed and ease. This is not necessarily bad or evil; just don’t expect the same level of value. The more time you spend optimizing at each step, the more value is likely to return.