Online assessments – is it fair for everyone

With no face-to-face customer contact, Intelligence Finance realised early
on that staff development had to be central to it operation

Internet-based assessment is now widely used in recruitment, selection and
development, and with good reason. Technology allows more efficient and
innovative processes to be delivered consistently and cost-effectively across
different parts of the organisation – a major benefit for global employers.

It is also easier to customise and brand processes and design assessment tasks
to closely resemble everyday working practices, giving candidates a better
insight into whether they are suited to a particular culture and job role.

However, fairness and equality remain an issue, both in terms of attracting
a diverse range of applicants and avoiding bias, and web-based processes have
been criticised for creating ‘unequal opportunities’ as users have tended to
have a particular socio-economic profile.

Although this is beginning to change, the ownership and usage of PCs can
represent part of a lifestyle and culture. By using the internet as the only
application method, organisations run the risk of marginalising a significant
number of suitably qualified applicants.

Research suggests, for example, that:

– Indian households are nearly 60 per cent more likely to own or use a
computer than black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or white households (FRS/Mintel)

– There is a digital gender divide – only 25 per cent of internet users in
the EU are female (Cyber Atlas)

While employers are becoming more aware of their obligations under the
Disability Discrimination Act, there are still many which fail to make
reasonable adjustments to their selection processes for people with
disabilities. By building in adaptations at the front end of the online selection
process, employers will ensure fair access and a potential broader talent pool
in which to recruit.

There are other ‘best practice’ guidelines that will help to make online
assessment effective and fair for everyone:

– Computer proficiency will vary, so offer practice questions and time for
familiarisation (especially if job simulation exercises are included). Not
everyone has ready access to the internet, so allow plenty of time to organise

– In internal assessments, inequality of technology and access to equipment
is likely to be an issue because of different software and hardware levels.
Carry out bottom line benchmarking, then design the assessment for the most
basic technology

– There is also the question of whether or not online assessment should be
timed. The worry is that reliability of technology is not yet of sufficient
high quality for bias to fail to be an issue. Ensure that adaptions are built
into the front end of the process rather than once completed

– Content of assessment material should be valid, clear and unambiguous as
candidates working online will have little or no opportunity to query the test

– Unless your target population is computer-literate, ensure the system does
not disadvantage first-time users. Include simple, well-signposted navigation,
help files and technical support

– All assessments, exercises, competency frameworks and indicators need to
be culture-sensitive. Also, check that the level of English required to
undertake the assessment is not higher than that needed to carry out the work

– Alternative assessment procedures should also be available

Jon Whiteley is head of diversity at occupational psychologist Pearn
Kandola which specialises in assessment, development and diversity.

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