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How to Make the Most of Pre-employment Assessments

How to Make the Most of Pre-employment Assessments

Does this scenario sound familiar to you?

An opening comes up for a key leadership position.  Like everyone else you know,  you’re not hiring many people these days. So every person you do hire has to be absolutely right. You spend thousands of dollars on executive search services. You bring busy employees into hours upon hours of panel interviews. You think you found the right person. You make the offer. You wait until you can welcome that person aboard.  And then, what the heck?  Did this person undergo a personality change between “you’re hired” and “welcome aboard?”

That congenial, collaborative, eager-to-please candidate has quickly transformed into another pain-in-the-butt employee with a bad attitude and an unmistakable streak of empire building. You now have the added job of having to manage that person – and all the people whom he’s offended. Including your customers. Including his supervisor, who is now wondering how you could have made such a mistake. This guy behaving badly is making you look very bad.

Because every new hire has to count for a lot, and each new hire must be found in an environment of dwindling resources, recruiters are under increasing pressure to get it right the first time.  And fast.  Is there any wonder that this pressure has resulted in a 48% spike in the use of assessment tools in the last year alone?

This spike made me begin to wonder if perhaps there are way too many “new drivers on the road.”  Thousands of recruiters have this tool in their hands for the first time.  Are these assessments being used properly?  Or is it possible that their misuse is resulting in a whole new set of hiring mistakes?  So I had a chat with Windridge Consulting founder, Lindsay Colitses, who is licensed in providing the Winslow Behavioral Assessment series of tests, as well as a certified coach by the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara.

To differentiate Winslow from the other test services, she first describes the Winslow assessment as one that measures behavioral traits – those integral parts of who the candidate is that would affect the way the candidate performs while doing the work.  This test doesn’t measure whether the candidate has the skills (which is determined in other phases of the selection process), or even whether the candidate is likeable.  Winslow uses 24 traits to determine whether the candidate has the desired behavioral qualities necessary to “bring it” to the job – even when the heat is on.

Those qualities include very specific measurements around how well they’re likely to work with coworkers; their commitment to integrity; how they handle stress; how they organize their work; how they organize their thinking around their work; how likely they are to go the extra mile; how likely they are to lose their composure under pressure; can they work as part of a team.

“Internal recruiters find assessments extremely valuable in that they provide insight into a candidate that they’ve identified as someone they might want to follow up on and pass along to the hiring team,” she says. “They can spot potential areas of concern early in the process. This extra knowledge equips the hiring team to perhaps delve into additional questions to explore with the candidate.  Or save everyone time and pass on the candidate altogether.

“What’s important to remember here is that the assessment test is just one piece of the selection puzzle,” she says. “But it is a very important one in that not only does it save recruiters and hiring managers time by spotting the unlikely candidates early in the process, I’ve also seen incidences when the assessment actually prevented the hiring team from rejecting really terrific talent who just didn’t do well in the interview process itself.”

To make the most of your investment in the assessment phase of the selection process, Colitses has these suggestions to offer based on her experience working with clients:

Look for performance, not perfection.  This test isn’t a pass/fail situation. It’s about identifying potential strengths and weaknesses that could affect how well the candidate does on the job.  Colitses says that every candidate will have a few areas of concern (“we’re all human”). That should be expected. The question for the recruiter is to determine whether those particular areas of concern would get in the way of the candidate’s being able to perform the work.

Areas of concern aren’t even necessarily indicators that the candidate is a poor choice for the job.  “Obviously,” she says, “you don’t want an EMT who scores poorly on composure or conscientiousness.” But she also tells the story of a CFO candidate who scored very highly on the Assertiveness score.  This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that the CEO was also highly tough-minded.  But otherwise the CFO was the perfect candidate. So the two used the insight that the assessment gave them to plan ahead for those inevitable times when they wouldn’t see eye to eye. The CFO got the job, and the two worked fantastically as a team, thanks to that advance insight.

Let the test validate your gut feeling.  As practiced as recruiters are in quickly sizing candidates up, they’re not mind readers. Nor can they see into the future.  But it’s common for a recruiter to get that certain feeling that the candidate isn’t right. But not be able to put his or her finger on the reason why.

Colitses tells the story of one candidate who was otherwise perfect for a position but was setting off vague alarm bells among the hiring team. No one could figure out why.   Just some vague feeling that everyone shared.  But the company really wanted this candidate’s package of skills and background. Then the results came in. The candidate scored low in trust, respect for management and conscientiousness – three traits that were critical for this job.

“It was a big triangle of ‘whoa’,” she says.  As part of her coaching service with her clients, she discovered directly from the candidate that he was indeed bringing some personal anger issues to the potential job.  “I told them that if they hired that person, they’d be bringing onboard a new hire with baggage.  Maybe this candidate would be great for the company one day, but certainly not right now.”

They reluctantly, but confidently, decided to keep looking.

Let the test override your gut feeling with additional perspective.   On the flip side, assessments can save great candidates who just don’t interview well. It’s said that in school settings tests don’t test much more than how well students take tests. The same can be said of face-to-face job interviews.  Some people just don’t shine in the interview setting. Shy. Awkward (one recruiter tells the story of how one otherwise great candidate inadvertently kept flipping her the bird every time he used his middle finger to shove his ill-fitting glasses back up his nose).  And unless candidates are interviewing for a job of interviewing people, how fair is it to really put so much weight on how well they perform in the face-to-face interview process?  (And let’s face it, we all know some recruiters who aren’t exactly well suited for that job either.)

The assessments can help you override recruiters’ first opinions to find true diamonds buried under excruciating self-consciousness.  The assessment scores will give recruiters some guidance around where to tap into that work passion that will make them forget themselves and talk about their excitement for the work instead.

Watch how the candidates behave around taking the test. Who likes to take tests, really?  And who welcomes the opportunity to give potential employers a peek under the mental/emotional hood?  Not me, that’s for sure. Still for almost everyone asked to take such a test, it’s their first assignment by their potential employer.  Watch to see how cooperative they are when given the task.   Are they resistant?  Judgmental about the reliability of the test design and results?  Just a little bit pissy?

Don’t overlook those behaviors.  If this is how they treat their first assignment with your company before they have the job, how cooperative and team-spirited are they going to be when they’re confidently ensconced in their new position and don’t have to worry about appearing eager to please?

Cut the candidates a break. Assessment tests have control questions to see if the candidate is being objective and reporting accurately. Some testing services will advise that you disqualify candidates automatically who try to beat the system. Colitses says that Winslow’s protocol gives the candidate another chance.

“We’re all nervous when we take these kinds of tests and we want to look our best,” she says.  “Give the candidate another chance to take the test, after you were able to identify that maybe he wasn’t as objective as he could have been.  This is the candidate’s opportunity to settle down, take the test seriously and try again.  If the candidate triggers those control questions yet again, that’s when you might want to consider searching for another candidate.”

Consider providing the tests to hourly workers as well as salaried candidates. Colitses says that behavioral assessment tests aren’t just for the senior level candidates. There are a variety of tests, levels of testing and price points.  And even if you’re hiring hourly works en masse with the intention of getting the necessary skills on the job quickly, wouldn’t you like to know what kind of strengths and challenges come with each new hire?  It helps you prepare for surprises – pleasant and un-pleasant. And, by offering this group of employees what might be their first opportunity for professional development, you could be securing their commitment to your company and the goal of achieving excellent results quickly.

Finally, schedule the testing between initial phone screening interview and the first face-to-face encounter.  Having the results in hand will help you focus on aspects of the candidate’s background and strengths that are of most concern to you and the hiring team.  Testing before you meet the candidate face-to-face helps you stay objective.


If you or your human resources group are looking for a solution to: talent acquisition, employment assessments, talent management, and succession planning contact Tresha at for more information.






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Martha I. Finney is the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People, and a consultant specializing in employee engagement. For a free consultation on how you can build a vacation-friendly workplace culture, email Martha at

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