How to Test Candidates (or How to be Tested in a Selection Process)

How to Test Candidates (or How to be Tested in a Selection Process)

When you are recruiting for a new employee, most organizations advertise the responsibilities of the job and the technical and behavioural competencies required for success. The intention is to share as much information with potential candidates as possible with the hope that people who are likely to be successful in the position will apply, and those who aren’t, won’t apply.

This is not always what happens. Quite often people like the looks of the job and just send in their application. It is up to the hiring committee to develop and conduct a selection process that provides the candidates with the opportunity to prove that they are likely to be successful in the job. The selection process begins as soon as the first resume or application is received.

Test Number One

If there is a requirement for written communication and/or attention to detail, the hiring committee may decide to score the resume and/or cover letter. No matter what you are “testing” for you always begin with the end in mind and determine what the candidate would need to do or demonstrate to receive a perfect score. As a hiring committee you should also document what would deserve each of the lesser marks or scores. You want your selection process to be based on logical, objective criteria as much as possible.

Test Number Two

Once I have screened the applications/resumes & cover letters, I typically have three piles. One group (NO pile) contains all of the candidates who I could not screen in because they did not meet the minimum technical qualifications as indicated in the job posting/advertisement, as per their resume and/or cover letter. Before evaluating each resume and cover letter, the hiring committee develops the selection criteria. Some of the technical competencies are must haves and some will be nice to haves. The must haves can be assigned a numeric value or a pass/fail value. Assets or nice to have competencies are awarded “bonus” points. This can include additional years of experience or a set of skills or knowledge such as a second language or level of relevant education. A pass mark is determined as well.

One group (YES pile) contains all of the candidates who clearly indicated that they have the minimum technical competencies for the job. Each applicant in the YES pile will have at least the required or must have competencies.

The third group (MAYBE pile) contains the applications from candidates who did not clearly indicate they have the minimum technical competencies for the job. These are the candidates that will have to be contacted to determine whether or not they do. If there are a large number of candidates in the YES pile, it is unlikely that they will be contacted. If there are only a few, it is more likely that they will be contacted. Usually a telephone conversation or an online questionnaire will provide the missing information.

There was one time when the panel members decided to “fail” all candidates who did not follow the submission instructions. We disqualified almost half of the applicants. Fortunately over 300 people responded to the advertisement leaving us with lots of excellent qualified candidates to move forward with.

In contrast, there have been times when I’ve recruited for candidates when the labour pool was very shallow. We gratefully accepted every application, and contacted the candidates who had not included the information we needed to enable us to screen them into the competition. That was a lot of work!

Test Number Three, Four, Five….

The applications in the YES pile are reviewed to create the short list. Sometimes, the short list is prepared by HR, and sometimes, all members of the panel work through the applications and together create the short list. From the short list comes the invitation list of candidates who will be invited to the selection process. I recommend inviting 3 – 5 candidates when recruiting one person for the vacancy.

The selection process is designed to specifically test the most important attributes that the candidates must bring to the job. The hiring manager and/or panel must decide what needs to be tested during the selection and what will need proof of a certain level of competence and what will be assumed.

Some examples:

  1. Valid driver’s licence, a diploma or degree, a swimming certificate, etc.: a photocopy of this could have been something that was sent with the application or brought to the selection process. The selection process could include an actual test of their skills and/or abilities.
  2. A specific level of proficiency with a specific software product such as MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.: interview questions can be asked that can give the panel an understanding of the candidate’s level of proficiency. The selection process could include inviting all of the candidates to complete an online (there are many available) or in-person proficiency test of the software. The most import aspect is the test used must be valid, reliable and directly related to the work required in the job on a regular basis. One of my pet peeves is testing candidates’ typing speed knowing that the incumbent will never get the opportunity on the job to type that fast due to the many interruptions.
  3. A test of their knowledge: can be conducted with the interview questions asked, by giving them a written test before or as part of the selection process. A diploma, degree or certificate from a recognized educational institution may also suffice. Role plays and “what if” scenario type verbal or written questions can help to see if they can actually apply the knowledge.
  4. Typical behaviours: can be explored and evaluated by using behaviour-based interview questions. These are based on the notion that if, for example, you typically pay attention to details or you typically are a good team member, you will easily be able to provide “stories” about when you did this in the past. Typical behaviours can also be explored by using role plays and “what if” scenarios in verbal or written questions. A presentation is a good way to assess their communication skills – either one that they have prepared for, or a spur of the moment one, again, whatever would most closely replicate what they would experience on the job.
  5. Physical abilities: can be tested by replicating the physical tasks required for success -for example: walking up 30 stairs while carrying a 20 kg load. You can also hire specialists to do this testing for you. Again, the testing must be valid, reliable and specifically related to the job requirements.
  6. Written communications skills: as mentioned, these written skills can be assessed on their resume and/or cover letter, keeping in mind that you do not know for certain that they are the candidate’s work. It may be more appropriate to give the candidate a written question as part of the selection process. This is a good way to assess their grammar, spelling and/or handwriting legibility if required.
  7. “Personality” tests: there are a variety of “personality” tests on the market. Some of these tests, even though they appear very simple, have been proven to be really quite accurate in predicting the candidate’s success in a particular industry. You are encouraged to conduct thorough research so you can clearly understand what you are “testing” for. As a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) administrator, I know that the MBTI is not designed and should never be used to screen someone into or away from a position. It is not a valid screening tool. It has many purposes, and is used around the world but should never be used as part of the selection process.

These personality tests or assessments or indicators can be very helpful but they are relatively expensive. If you are hiring many people for the same job, it is likely that using one of these tests would be well worth your while as the expense is largely in gathering the information to set up the testing. If you are hiring for a key position in your organization, again it may be worth your while. If you have a lot of positions but one or few incumbents in each one, it is not likely that you will be able to afford to invest in these tests for each posting.

No matter what tests you use, or their sophistication or cost, the most important activity is making sure you and the hiring panel clearly understand what technical and behavioural competencies are required for success before the job is posted. Once you have them identified and ranked, it is then just a matter of designing, developing, identifying the most valid, reliable, and cost effective way to test.


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