Pre-employment testing for job candidates

Hiring people who are unsuitable costs time and money. Pre-employment testing can help your recruitment process succeed. Pre-employment testing that is properly designed and administered can systematically and accurately reveal information about a job candidate’s potential to perform well in the job.

To be useful, and more importantly, legally defensible, pre-employment tests must be both reliable and valid.

Reliable pre-employment testing yields consistently similar results. In other words, the measurement mechanism is reliable. For example, if a job candidate writes a job knowledge test and three managers grant three widely divergent scores, then the test is not reliable.

A valid employment test is one with strong predictive power. This means that there must be a strong association between test results and job performance. For example, if most of those who score highly on a test of extroversion perform well in a sales job, and most of those who produce a low score perform poorly in the job, then the employment test has some validity. In this example, there is a strong correlation between extroversion and success in sales.

Pre-employment personality/values testing

Often used for leadership or service industry positions, personality/value testing is designed to detect certain qualities. These qualities could include creativity, a customer-service orientation, honesty, integrity, reliability, or a predisposition to being influential, or accepting of authority.

Although there exists some evidence of a correlation between extroversion and success in sales and management positions, the predictive power of personality tests can be suspect if questions do not appear to be job-related or if they allow candidates to easily respond dishonestly.

Intelligence/aptitude testing

Intelligence/aptitude testing typically uses questions or problems to measure a job candidate’s ability to learn quickly and use logic and reasoning. It also gauges reading comprehension and other cognitive abilities fundamental to job success.

Although evidence suggests a correlation between IQ and job performance, many believe these tests to be culturally biased. Note that custom versions can be time-consuming to develop.

Pre-employment job knowledge/skills testing

Assessments of job knowledge are often incorporated into interviews. If job-related knowledge or skills are particularly important or difficult to gauge in an interview, employers can administer a separate, more formal pre-employment test.

Computer-based tests might assess basic skills such as typing or proficiency with presentation software such as PowerPoint, or more advanced skills such as programming or coding. Paper-based employment tests might assess candidates’ knowledge of relevant legislation or professional practices.

To ensure maximum validity, the knowledge and skills being assessed should be closely related to the job. These pre-employment tests may require frequent updating in order to remain current and relevant for the job and may not be applicable for positions where knowledge may be acquired through on-the-job training.

Work sample/job simulation testing

Work samples, similar to job knowledge testing, enable employers to assess a job candidate’s relevant skills. Work samples require the completion of a task common to the job.

For example, a bookkeeper candidate might be asked to prepare a financial statement, while an engineering candidate might be asked to produce a set of drawings. Because they tend to be closely linked to the job, work samples are among the strongest predictors of future performance.

Nevertheless, these tests may not assess a job candidate’s ability to do complex tasks or the ability to learn new tasks and may require some level of knowledge only attainable after starting the job.

Advantages of pre-employment testing

When recruiting, pre-employment testing can make the decision process more efficient because less interview time is spent with job candidates whose characteristics, skills and abilities do not match what is needed.

These tests can yield information about an individual that is difficult to obtain (or much more costly) using other methods. Use of pre-employment tests ensures job candidates are treated consistently in a standardized way, with the same information gathered on each individual and used in a similar way in hiring decisions.

Disadvantages of pre-employment testing

Startups do need to consider potential drawbacks to using pre-employment tests. These can include:

  • Cost: While expenses will vary, developing customized tools costs more than purchasing off-the-shelf products
  • Risk of legal action by an applicant: As with any other screening method, tests can be scrutinized if there is a perceived discrimination. Keep clear documentation regarding any tools used in the hiring decision
  • Practicality: Pre-employment testing may not be practical if the applicant pool is small, the resources to properly administer the test are scarce, or if the logistics of the decision-making process preclude the use of an appropriate test

Deciding whether to use pre-employment testing

Despite the benefits pre-employment testing can offer, you may find that your current decision-making process would not be improved with the addition of a test. If you feel confident in the accuracy of your existing selection process, then no employment test may be necessary.

Concluding whether testing is the right solution in a given situation may require professional advice from someone with knowledge of both testing and employment situations. Industrial-organizational psychologists may prove helpful in such a situation.