Pre-Employment Assessments: The Ultimate Guide

Published by:
Evan Forman
October 11, 2023
min read

In this article:

In an increasingly remote world, HR teams are finding it harder to assess which candidates are right for the job.

And recruiters' confidence in new hires is shrinking. Monster's Future of Work Global Report found that in 2020, 95% of recruiters were optimistic they'd found the right candidate. But in 2021 that decreased to 93%, and it shrank again in 2022 to 91%. This lack of confidence might be why candidates are being asked to go through more and more interviews, leaving them with a poor impression of employers and increasing time-to-hire.

If you can't confidently assess candidates you're going to spend more time hiring, waste more resources onboarding the wrong people, and see turnover increase. All of this hurts the bottom line and stifles the company's growth.

Pre-employment assessments can help you objectively, scientifically assess candidates before you make the hire, even before you commit to an interview. They'll speed up hiring, improve the quality of your hires, and restore confidence in the process.

But some of these methods are more predictive than others. With that in mind, let's go over what methods aren't working and which ones actually will.

Which pre-employment assessments don't work?

Assessing a candidates' potential isn't rarely an exact science. In fact, many of the methods employers use today are biased, subjective, and not predictive.

So how are companies assessing candidates today, and what are these methods missing?

1. Personality assessments

Traditional personality assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Caliper Profile might lend your hiring process an air of objectivity. Actually, they introduce all sorts of bias into the process that distorts your picture of how candidates might really perform in the job.

For one, candidates can just provide the answers they think you want to hear. That's much easier to do on a personality test than a question assessing their real skill for part of the job.

With their emphasis on social and emotional situations, these tests also bias against people who are neurodiverse, speak English as a second language, or from cultures that do things differently from you. This isn't what you want when these tests can cost hundreds of pounds per candidate!

Ultimately, hiring for personality is subjective. If you want to find the right candidate, there are more effective ways we'll discuss below.

2. Non-anonymised CVs and Cover Letters

When you're assessing candidates, cover letters are your first stop. If they haven't included one at all, it's usually an instant pass. If it jumps out at you after you've skimmed a hundred of them, that's supposed to be a good sign. If you have certain qualities you're looking for, you're hoping that candidates can get them across in one page.

But the quality of a cover letter has almost no correlation with the candidate's success. 93% of candidates hired through our platform are still in their role after one year, but the traditional method of sifting through cover letters and CVs for hours would have missed 60% of them. That suggests that for all the time you put into it, assessing cover letters means you're missing the best candidate 40% of the time.

CVs that have not been anonymised and cover letters fail on two main counts: the potential for bias to creep in at every stage, and their lack of predictive validity. When you're looking at these, you're filtering for things like a candidate's years of experience, where they went to school, what references they might have provided up front. These are overdetermined by factors like class and age that have little to do with how good they'd be in the role, which might explain why they're some of the worst ways to predict candidate success.

3. Unstructured, background-based interviews

Your last chance to assess candidates is in the interview, so why give different candidates different tests?

The average interview is unstructured and free-flowing. Interviewers will have some questions written down, but they'll usually go off on tangents based on the candidate's CV and where they take the conversation. The casual approach to interviews makes room for unconscious bias to distort employers' perceptions of each candidate:

  • Stereotype bias: We believe certain traits are true of a certain group of people, and assign those traits to candidates without thinking about it.
  • Confirmation bias: We look for information that confirms what we already believe.
  • Halo effect: A good first impression determines how we remember an experience after it happened.
  • Contrast effect: We look to compare candidates rather than judge them on their own merit. In assessments and interviews we want to compare candidates, but we can't do that objectively when each candidate's interview took a completely different course.

Unstructured interviews are often rooted in the candidate's background: education, experience, etc. This biases towards candidates who could go to the best schools and had the best professional networks, and it doesn't predict candidate success.

Which pre-employment assessments actually work?

So what works? How can you do pre-employment assessments in a way that reliably selects for the people who will take your company to the next level?

1. Cognitive tests

Cognitive tests are one of the most popular ways to do pre-employment assessments. HR Magazine found that 81% of organisations believe that cognitive ability tests have played a role in making less risky hiring decisions.

We think they're an effective way to test for skills like numerical reasoning, reasoning about data, analytical thinking, and attention to detail. It's why we measure those in our own platform's cognitive ability tests.

In the finance sector, they'll help make sure a candidate can think through complex numerical data. They'll help screen candidates for a technical role to make sure they have the problem-solving skills.

Where personality tests are a lousy measure of culture fit, cognitive assessments give you an objective measure to assess whether candidates have the skills for the job. That makes them a great pairing with skills-based work sample questions.

2. Work sample questions

Work samples are the single best predictor of candidate success. They've proven to be 3x more effective than CVs for a first-pass screening phase. On our platform, a work sample assessment is usually 3-5 open questions asking what the candidate would do in certain situations.

You can think of these like a less formal middle-ground between a cognitive assessment and a personality test. While the questions are open-ended, Applied anonymises the answers and assigns all the Q1 answers to one member of your team, all the Q2 answers to another, and so on.

For example, a nonprofit hiring a Fundraising Manager might have a work sample question like:

"It's your first week on the job and you've been given a list of fundraising prospects interested in supporting us. How do you spend your week?"

We also provide scoring criteria to each member of the hiring team so that answers can be scored objectively against the specific qualities you're looking for. So in the example above, someone would be scoring all answers to this question on Prioritisation, Organisation, and Strategic Thinking.

Teams will score each answer with 1-5 stars, based on how well they demonstrate the skills they're looking for. Once all assessments have been sifted through, we combine each candidate's answers into one complete picture with one overall score for the candidate.

What this gives you is a provisional, but highly predictive ranking of how well each candidate might do in the role. Instead of spending hours skimming CVs and cover letters for people who look good on paper, work samples give you a quick, objective measure of which candidates are worth taking to the interview stage. When they are in that interview, you can take this scoring method with you to assess them more fairly than in unstructured interviews.

3. Structured interviews

Structured interviews improve the interview in two ways: every candidate is asked exactly the same questions, and their answers are scored with the same 1-5 stars as their work samples. This turns the wandering interview into another data-backed assessment.

And instead of putting candidates into boxes like "INTP" in Myers-Briggs or "82% Assertiveness" in the Caliper Profile, you're scoring each question on whether candidates fit the traits you're actually looking for.

And those traits aren't limited to specific skills. You can also test for specific values, which is a much fairer and more predictive alternative to looking for someone who "fits the culture".

If you're a nonprofit that values Trust, Empathy, and Ownership, why not test for those qualities and not someone who seems like they'd "fit in" to the office's social life? The latter is the kind of subjective judgement that's prone to unconscious bias, whereas scoring based on values means everyone is evaluated on exactly the same metrics.

Pre-employment assessments with Applied

Pre-employment assessments give you a standard that helps you sift through hundreds of applications quickly. But not all of those standards are predictive of the candidate's success in the role.

We built Applied to reduce bias in the recruitment process, and we found the way to do that was by making it as objective and predictive as possible. We found that work sample questions, structured interviews, and cognitive tests were all more predictive of candidate success than other forms of assessment.

That's why recruiters using Applied have seen…

  • 3x as many suitable candidates for their roles
  • 66% reduction in time spent hiring
  • 93% employee retention rate after one year, compared to the UK national average of 80%

They've made their hiring process faster, fairer, and more predictive than ever before. With our data-driven approach to pre-employment assessments, they're confident they're making the right hire every time.

Applied is the essential platform for unbiased, predictive recruitment software - purpose-built to reduce bias and reliably predict the best talent.

Start transforming your hiring now: book in a demo.