Whiteboard Tests Can Improve Your Hiring Results in Many Jobs

Improve Candidate Assessment by Adding Problem-Focused Whiteboard Tests

Let’s look at the data. The current state of hiring and candidate assessment is problematic because research shows that 46 percent of new hires fail in their first 18 months on the job. Because most firms don’t track this important “failure rate” metric, they can’t really know how weak the various elements of their hiring processes are. A significant part of most hiring failures can be attributed to relying primarily on interviews to assess finalists. Google research found that interview results weren’t any better than … “randomly selecting candidates.” As a first step in improving interviews, recruiters should work to make them more structured and objective. However, another option is to supplement finalist interviews with whiteboard tests.

For years, whiteboard tests have been widely used in the Silicon Valley primarily to assess the code and the problem-solving skills of computer coders. Whiteboard tests can be easily adapted to the problems faced by almost any professional, technical, or management job. Whiteboard tests have an advantage over other assessment options like online technical tests and even reference checking because they are “content valid.” Which means they predict new-hire success because they cover the job content and the actual problems faced in this specific job. Some of the other advantages of a problem-focused whiteboard test include the fact that they are quick, inexpensive, and they require no training or outside help from HR. They also excite top candidates because they can immediately see how what they are being assessed on relates directly to this job. And for innovators and top performers, they provide an opportunity to show off what they can, without the structure of interviews.

Problem-Focused Whiteboard Tests Can Assess Many Key Skills

The concept behind problem-focused whiteboard tests is simple. You ask the candidate to, extemporaneously, outline the steps they would use to implement a solution to a provided problem that they will face on the job. They are highly interactive because the idea behind a whiteboard test is to go beyond the actual solution that was outlined and to also assess other critical “soft” skills. The skills that will be assessed depend on what the hiring manager consider as critical. A determination of what skills to assess should, of course, be determined in advance. Problem-solving skills that are often assessed include:

  • Their level of problem-solving capabilities
  • Whether they are collaborative and if they are a team player
  • How they troubleshoot when they encounter a roadblock during problem-solving
  • How they act under pressure, especially when they fail to complete the steps to the solution
  • Whether they proactively seek out feedback during the process
  • Whether they identify and “connect the dots” between the interests of the team and those of other internal and external stakeholders
  • How they make decisions and think
  • How they find flaws in any solution
  • How they communicate
  • What key steps they omit that might cause their solution to fail (e.g., checking with the customer, performance metrics, or collaboration)

There Are Four Variations of Problem-Focused Whiteboard Tests

In addition to the historical approach covering coding, there are four other basic variations of whiteboard tests that can be applied to most professional, technical, and managerial jobs. Those variations include:

  • Outline your solution to this problem — this most recommended approach requires the candidate to “finish” the steps for identifying a workable solution to an existing problem. An added advantage is you get to keep any solutions or ideas that could possibly be implemented. One variation used by Google automatically rejects candidates that omit consultation with the customer and the team from their outline.
  • Find the flaws in an existing solution — this less time-consuming and lower-stress approach provides a candidate with a completed whiteboard covering a flawed outline of how to find or solve a problem. And then the candidate is asked to find errors or omissions in the provided solution outline.
  • Walk me through the steps — you can test an individual’s capability in the various areas by asking the candidate to “walk you through the steps” as to how they would do specific tasks from the job. Those tasks might include how you would develop a plan for your first six months on the job, how you would build your internal network, how you would continually learn, and how you would find hidden problems in your team.
  • In person vs. video — any of the above three variations would normally be done in person. But another alternative is to conduct them remotely using interactive Internet video.

The 10 Basic Steps for Implementing a Whiteboard Process

Problem-focused whiteboard tests can be offered either before or after the final interview. The process is intuitive, but here are some common steps that you should consider.

  1. Select the specific jobs — select the jobs where it is critical that you know how the candidate solves problems.
  2. Candidate education — Make the candidate aware that they will be going through a problem-focused whiteboard test and provide them with a one-page description of the process. Consider giving them a choice of problems if you want to reduce nervousness. Answer any questions that they might have in advance of the session.
  3. Pick a problem from the job — start with the hiring manager picking a real problem that the candidate will face if they are hired for this specific job. The solution to the problem should be outlined in less than 30 minutes.
  4. Select questions — make a list of the likely questions (and the acceptable answers) that you will ask during the test.
  5. Timing — find a quiet room with a whiteboard and allocate one hour to the whiteboard test. (Thirty minutes for outlining the solution and 30 minutes for questions). Consider, unobtrusively, videoing the tests so that others who could not be present can also review it.
  6. List the goals — on a separate section of the whiteboard, list the goals for the solution, any rules of engagement, and any assumptions.
  7. List the initial steps — get the solution outline started by listing on the whiteboard the three to five initial steps of the solution.
  8. Ask the candidate to take over — let the candidate take over. And as they list each new step of their outline, pepper them with questions that cover why this step is necessary, why it works, and any potential problems that they might expect within the step.
  9. Team assessment — afterward, meet in a conference room with the assessment team. Start by giving each member an assessment checklist for use in grading how well the candidate did. Remind them not just to assess the steps of the solution that was outlined but also how the candidate acted during the session. After discussion, the group should assign the candidate a final whiteboard test score.
  10. Validate — six months after your first hire, validate the whiteboard assessment process over several hires by checking to see if those new hires with the highest whiteboard scores performed better on the job. And then improve the process using that data and both candidate and hiring manager feedback.

Final Thoughts

Every major step of candidate assessment (resume screening, final interviews, and reference checks) is “win or go home.” And that, unfortunately, means that a single “mis-assessment” of a candidate will result in the permanent elimination of an individual of what could have been a great hire or the moving forward of a possible turkey. Because the assessment stakes are so high, it makes sense to supplement your current candidate assessment with approaches that better reflect what is actually required on the job. If you don’t use the problem-focused whiteboard approach, there are three other choices that I recommend. And they are giving the candidate real problems from the job to solve during or outside the interview process; job simulations; or hiring the candidate to work with the team on a weekend or holiday project.

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Dr. John Sullivan

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.