Assessing the Assessments: Expert Advice on Avoiding Missteps

Rachel Stewart Johnson, Ph.D.

Head of L&D | Psychologist | Driven by communications about human behavior in Work

When first discussed, the word “assessments” is not likely to inspire enthusiasm among many audiences. In everyday conversation, the word might make you recall exams taken during your student days. Or perhaps it makes you envision a medical diagnostic that delivers a cold dose of reality. Whatever we might think of “assessments” at first pass, the concept is one that’s prone to misconceptions.

An “assessment” is really just a way to learn more about a person, whether that individual is a business partner, an applicant for a spot in a college’s freshman class, or even oneself. In the employment marketplace, anything we do to gauge a candidate’s suitability for a role is an assessment. If I screen a resume, that’s an assessment. Same for conducting an interview. Of course there are also the measures we might think of most readily when we think “assessments” -- the standardized psychometric tests designed to measure any number of characteristics, from adaptability to personality.

Analysts at McKinsey and Company recently reported on what they call “the most pervasive and detrimental myths” that influence the use of assessments in hiring. Their take-home point is that giving job applicants an assessment for the sake of an assessment is wrong-headed. There are better ways to use these tools. Without strategy behind them, an assessment can be little more than filler. But when well-chosen, they provide actionable insights about candidates and streamline the hiring process.


Less is more

We’re in an era in which we toss around the word “data” a lot. And we humans have a tendency to think that if a little of something is good, a lot must be better. McKinsey’s view is that this is not true when using data to guide hiring decisions. Throwing more data points at the problem doesn’t have an additive effect. As the McKinsey team explains, “Using additional assessments that do not meaningfully distinguish who is best suited for the job will result in worse hiring decisions than if these additional data points were not used at all.” Why?

One issue might be that the information doesn’t match the need. Let’s say I’m searching for an executive chef to guide the opening of a new restaurant in development. I find out that candidate Danielle has four years of experience as a chef. I learn that Danielle has an average ability to discuss culinary philosophy one-on-one. I learn that she spent a year in Belgium. I learn that she has above average understanding of database software. I learn that when reading, Danielle chooses answers that indicate she has a more dominant personality. I discover that Danielle has slightly above average numerical ability. I learn that she can type 60 words per minute.

As you can see, only some of this data will be relevant to Danielle’s performance as a culinary leader of a new facility. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Danielle has had to devote a lot of time and energy to this one position, assuming she didn’t quit in the middle and move onto another one. Again, McKinsey’s team cautions: “Too many lengthy assessments can negatively influence the candidate experience and decrease the size of the candidate pool.”


Tried and true is still the gold standard

While new tech is often exciting, the fact is that assessments need to be validated, science-based materials to have demonstrable and widespread value. Game-based assessments, for example, while creative, aren’t backed by precedent in personality psychology. Any assessment should have not only a specific set of reliability and validation data, but should also be based on a theoretical framework with its own firepower. McKinsey’s experts affirm this: “Decades of research have shown that traditional assessments of cognitive ability and personality traits (e.g., conscientiousness) are still some of the best predictors out there.”


Data doesn't die

Compiling a store of assessment data from a candidate, hiring that individual, and then deeming that pre-hire data suddenly irrelevant represents a wasted opportunity. McKinsey cautions that “once the hiring decision is made everyone forgets about this data.” Pre-hire assessment results can guide onboarding, early training, and ongoing professional development. Platforms that allow for quick capture of assessment data can be reused post-hire and adapted to changing needs. Assessment data has a place across the employment lifecycle, not just at stage one.


Assessments are for everyone

Assessment data can be useful for entry-level workers who lack the education credentials and employment history to really inform the evaluation process. But the power of assessments doesn’t stop there. An applicant for a management position can complete an assessment to help determine whether they are a good fit for the position’s needs and the company culture. McKinsey again provides insights: “Concrete information about leaders’ interpersonal and working style may be worthy of exploring in a short personality assessment or structured interview.” When personality data is easy to collect and is engaging in its own right, it provides an ideal entry point into a conversation that can make every other step of the candidate experience more efficient and enjoyable for all.

With their use widespread, pre-hire assessments are here to stay. Those that will enjoy sustained use will be those that are backed in science, well researched, and relevant across job roles while sacrificing nothing in candidate experience. In fact, the best assessments are engaging and informative for all candidates. They’re an advantage of applying for a position, not a hurdle to be cleared.


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