Testing and selection: The pros and cons of online assessment

At a time when companies can ill-afford to make the wrong hiring decisions, it’s perhaps not surprising that online assessment has become more appealing to employers. But they must be mindful of the pitfalls, as Nick Martindale reports.

A recent survey by Personnel Today found that 22% of companies have increased their budget for e-recruitment technology over the past year and a further 32% have maintained figures from 2008, at a time when 46% have decreased their overall recruitment budget and just 8% have raised spend.

Online assessment systems allow companies to attract applications from all over the world and filter them in a time- and cost-effective way. More importantly, they offer a tangible way of assessing an individual’s skills for a particular role and how they would fit within an organisation.

Assessments tend to be divided into normative tests, which measure intellectual ability – usually based around verbal and numerical reasoning and emotional intelligence – against a pre-established group, and personality – also known as ipsative – tests, which assess values and motivations, says Roger Philby, founder of recruitment firm The Chemistry Group. Shorter assessments can be used at the very beginning of the process to filter out unsuitable candidates, points out James Bywater, head psychologist at SHL.


“You’d expect a salesperson to come across well in an interview because they can sell themselves,” says Andrew Groves, head of national resourcing at Yell, which uses such tests extensively for those in sales positions. “You need a tool to tell you if the basics of that personality are there so you can probe the weak areas and explore the strong areas as well.

“When you’ve done a personality profile, ability test, a solid behavioural interview and some kind of role play or presentation at the final stage with a hiring manager, you’ve covered all the bases that you need to make a reasoned decision.”

For potential employees, meanwhile, online assessment can be done at a time and location that suits them and can give them a better idea of what the job is likely to involve before deciding whether to proceed with the application.

The use of such tests, though, has drawn criticism over the potential to exclude certain groups.

“Aptitude tests can discriminate against certain ethnic minority groups, such as Hispanic and African American candidates, who [tend to] perform less well on these types of tests,” says Jordan O’Connor, principal consultant at talent consultancy Chiumento. “This has huge implications for diversity and inclusion.”

Older or less IT-savvy candidates could also be deterred, and the inconsistent internet access in some – mainly rural – parts of the UK could also inadvertently discriminate against some people, suggests Simon Draycott, director at occupational psychologist Mendas.


Questions over just how effective the tests are also remain, says Dr Paul Englert, international development director at psychometric assessment provider Psytech International. “The accuracy of psychometric tools in predicting job performance has not increased over time, so, given some of the claims of a direct relationship between testing and large-scale financial benefits, scepticism may still be warranted.”

Then there’s the fear that candidates will simply cheat, either by asking someone else to sit the test for them or by giving the answers they think employers want to hear. One way of overcoming this is to make it clear that candidates will be retested under controlled conditions later in the process, says Tim Drake, head of talent management at recruitment firm Hudson UK, while including ‘lie scales’ – questions designed to see if candidates tend to respond in a socially desirable way – can flag up any profiles that should be treated with caution. Using a forced-choice format is another option here.

There’s also a risk that candidates could feel disengaged by having to take lengthy tests before they have had a chance to discuss the position with anyone or if the questions are not perceived as directly relevant to the job. While graduates might be prepared to put up with this, those applying for senior posts are likely to be less accommodating, warns Draycott.

“The best way of ensuring that disengagement does not occur will be to provide feedback to candidates,” suggests Psytech’s Englert. “If candidates understand that they will be getting something out of the process even if they are not successful, they are far more likely to engage.

“Reputable test providers will only sell tests to those who are Level A and Level B trained,” he adds. “Those who receive this training are ethically obliged to provide feedback wherever possible.”


But the need to keep tests within reasonable timeframes has had a negative effect on the market, says Chemistry’s Philby. “The current trend is that assessments are being diluted to the point of worthlessness,” he says. “Providers are now trying to develop products that measure too many factors in such short time that the effectiveness of the test is impaired. We would rather use separate tests that go into more depth than all-in-one assessments, which do a bit of everything but have no depth.”

Mendas, meanwhile, reports a growing trend in using such tests in the private sector, as well as their traditional public-sector base, even for senior applicants. It also predicts a greater emphasis in the future on individuals’ techniques – such as how long people take to complete the process and the number of web pages visited during this time – when taking such tests, as well as the actual results.

Yet while online assessment has yet to win over everyone, it is likely to become an even more important part of the recruitment process in the future, especially as prices continue to fall.

“As more people undergo test accreditation as part of their professional development, their comfort level with such tests will increase,” says O’Connor at Chiumento. “This will give employers the confidence to view tests in a more positive light. But users will demand a more sophisticated product. They want better quality, well-researched tools that are still cost-effective.”

Case study: How one recruiter embraced online assessment

When DHL Supply Chain wanted to update its graduate recruitment process, it decided to devise an online application and selection process.

Candidates now initially sit SHL’s Talent Screener test, which is tailored around the role for which they are applying, to produce a job-fit score before successful applicants progress to an inductive reasoning test and SHL’s Occupational Personality Questionnaire. Only then do they move on to more conventional methods such as an assessment centre and competency-based interview.

“There’s always a fear that you might have rejected someone who’s really good, but if they haven’t passed the test then they’re probably not the candidate we were looking for anyway,” says Alison Bending, graduate programme manager at the logistics firm.

Most graduates tend to be technology-savvy, so not having the ability to apply for jobs online could count against DHL Supply Chain as an employer, she says. “The only negative feedback we get is when they feel they’re being tested for testing’s sake, so we’re been very careful to make the testing relevant to the jobs for which they’re actually applying.”

The new system went live in September 2008, and during that period the number of applications rose from 500 to 3,700, with anything up to 7,000 expected in 2009-10. “Without online testing there is no way our small central team would be able to administer or manage that volume,” adds Bending.

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