Finding the right person to fill a position at your company and keeping them over time are age-old challenges for HR leaders. Add in the complexity of changing work expectations, and it has become supremely difficult to determine what makes an employee ‘good’ at their job and how to identify candidates with those abilities. To address those challenges, about half of all organizations today leverage talent assessments as part of their hiring and retention programs. Some of them plan to expand their use of assessment types.
Assessments provide a powerful way to achieve results … if you use the right one for the right purpose. The problem is, there are many different talent assessments out there. All of them measure one or more constructs. The questions HR leaders need to ask are: What is this assessment measuring? And do those metrics help me address the challenge I need them to?
To help answer those questions, the Wonderlic content team sat down with Wonderlic Principal Psychometrician Michael Grossenbacher to talk about the most common measurement types and what each is good for.
Why should HR leaders pay attention to the different talent assessment types?
Assessments support different talent goals, but no one assessment can support everything. A common mistake organizations make is assuming assessments offer a one-size-fits all value proposition.
“One of the biggest issues that occurs around assessments is when companies use one for a specific use case, like it, and then leverage it inappropriately for another use. Success starts with matching the tool to its purpose”, says Grossenbacher.
The three most common challenges employers use assessments to solve are:
Recruiting high-quality candidates
Organizations are constantly hiring for new roles or backfilling empty ones. At a minimum, pre-hire assessments help de-risk and speed up the hiring process. The best assessments go a step further to predict which candidates will be the most successful on the job and which ones are likely to have the most staying power.
Assessments do a better job at predicting success than other common recruitment techniques, such as resumes and interviews. These traditional evaluation tools frequently fail to catch the qualities candidates need. They also miss non-traditional candidates that nonetheless have the right profile or capabilities for the job. Assessments can provide comprehensive, job-specific insights into a candidate’s fit for a role, improving selction processes by generating objective comparable data.
Developing existing employees
As important as hiring great employees is to organizational success, so is helping them improve their performance over time. That’s not just good for business, it is also good for reducing turnover. That’s according to data showing that job training and development increase employee in-role satisfaction.
An assessment-based development strategy helps give employees self-awareness about where they need to improve to fully succeed in their current role and suggest a plan for them to pursue those improvements.
Identifying potential leaders
Leadership pipelines are a challenge for most companies. One way they miss the mark is that they frequently overlook strong, in-house talent. Assessments help identify employees with the characteristics that leaders require to be successful in their roles.
The ideal assessment is different for each of these three use cases. To understand why, let’s dig into more detail on the four most common talent assessment types.
The 4 most common hiring assessment types
Companies often choose assessments based on the size and the maturity of their talent management practices.
“While some organizations now have full-time industrial organizational psychologists (I/O) who are involved in strategic planning and determining how they’re going to staff, that‘s not the norm yet”, says Grossenbacher. ”With a nuanced understanding of their assessment options, however, HR leaders can still leverage I/O science to their advantage in regards to talent selection”.Their options include:
1. Cognitive assessments
Cognitive ability refers to a general mental capability to understand complex ideas, reason, solve problems and learn from experience. Many of the first talent assessments, including Wonderlic, sought to measure this. Of all assessment types, cognitive capability has received the most focus in the talent assessment space. Simply put, the results from a cognitive assessment tell you whether a candidate can do the job you’re hiring for.
Assessing a candidate’s general intelligence, reasoning ability, facility with numbers etc. tells HR and hiring managers whether the candidate has the core ability to problem-solve, think in abstract terms, learn from experience, and work their way through complex ideas. (Note: Whether they will do those things on the job is a different question measured by a different type of assessment—coming up!)
No assessment type is a cure-all and cognitive assessments, despite their history and effectiveness, have their pros and cons. For example:
- Historically accepted as the best single-measure predictor of job performance.
- Precise and reliable, enabling organizations to objectively compare internal and external candidates for the same role.
- Can be matched to the specific cognitive skills most needed in certain role types, as the capabilities for a rocket scientist may be dirrefent compared to the capabilities needed for a customer support represtentiative.
- Used in isolation, cognitive assessments will show you if someone is capable of doing the job, but won’t provide insight on skills, personality or motivation.
- If based on outdated science (scoring methods) or data collection mechanisms (paper vs. digital or proctoring), your results will be suboptimal.
- Candidate experience can vary significantly depending on how the test is designed and administered.
2. Personality assessments
Personality assessment became more common in the 1960s as a way to identify the traits people are likely to exhibit in different kinds of situations. Do they, for example, push for innovation? Are they willing to make difficult decisions when necessary?
When used to assess candidates for specific roles, personality measures also help provide quick insight into whether a candidate has the right personality to handle, say, the extraversion and stress associated with a high- volume call center, for example.
By themselves, however, personality assessments are less helpful as a predictor of success and therefore are less helpful in making hiring decisions.
“Human behaviors are notoriously difficult to predict, as anyone in marketing or sales will tell you,” says Grossenbacher. “As a stand-alone, personality assessments are less useful than cognitive ability.”
A major personality assessment vendor goes so far as to state that it “is unethical practice to use results […] to screen job applicants’ employment or positions.”
Most personality assessments have standardized around the 5-characteristic scale that research has identified as the core meta-elements of personality. The five elements are: dependability, stress tolerance, cooperation, sociability, and open mindedness. Wonderlic integrated a personality construct into its multi-measure hiring assessment in 1972.
In sum, here are the pros and cons:
- Provides insight into how candidates will act on the job versus what their resumes say they have done.
- Assists with gaining deeper insight into a candidate’s potential for future leadership roles.
- Can decrease unconscious bias on the part of talent selection.
- Does not provide insight into a candidate’s skills or capabilities.
- Ineffective as a standalone assessment in a pre-hiring context.
- Low-grade personality assessments struggle with reliability and aren’t suitable for hiring asssessments. Other require a lengthy certification processes.
- Opens an organization up to legal risks and discrimination claims if used incorrectly—for example, can lead to discrimination against neurodiverse candidates.
3. Skills assessments
Certain jobs require candidates to have specific skills. These can be concrete hard skills like coding in a specific language or using a defined project management methodology. They can also be soft skills like mediation and conflict management. If an organization has identified specific skills their ideal candidate needs, they may choose to assess them in the pre-hire stage.
There are a number of ways to do that, including with work samples, role-plays or problem-solving tests. For example, a software developer might be asked to find and fix errors in a piece of code, or a copy editor may be asked to edit a piece of text.
The utility of assessments for hiring is obvious for specific roles that require specific skills. But what if those skills change? The half-life for job skills has shrunk to mere years, making skills an essential but insufficient measurement for determining the staying power of your candidates. No one wants to invest in a new hire and then let them go in 18 months because they can’t adapt or learn when the needs of the job change.
Given that, consider the pros and cons of skills assessments:
- Flags resume exaggerations quickly and early by verifying whether the candidate has the required skills.
- Can identify employees who could contribute greater value in a different rolee or are ready for promotion.
- Provides the basis for an effective, personalized employee development plan.
- Says nothing about how well candidates acquire new skills or adapt existing skills.
- Creates potential for HR to overlook high-potential younger or non-traditional candidates who haven’t had the opportunity to acquire those skills.
- May overvalue outdated or soon-to-be deemphasized skillsets.
The idea that motivation will influence what a person prioritizes has been around since before Freud. Scientists have similarly looked for ways to measure it since the 1930s. In the simplest terms, motivation assessments measure what a person wants to do.
In the context of hiring or developing for a specific job, understanding motivation lets HR leaders know whether a person’s ability to perform certain tasks (cognitive ability) would be matched with a desire to do them (motivation). If you have a candidate or an employee who rises to the top of their peer group in the cognitive measures but not the motivation, you’re more likely to see a lack of engagement and fast turnover in the role. No modern HR practice can afford that!
In the context of performance development, motivation helps managers understand how to tap into what their employee wants in order to get the most out of them and help them improve. Wonderlic added the motivation construct to its pre-hire assessment in 2016 and it’s been part of our Develop assessment since the beginning.
Consider the following pros and cons of motivation as an assessment construct:
- Enables better alignment of an employee or candidate with a specific role and development plan that fits their needs.
- A strong predictor of staying power—employees with strong motivational alignment to their role have lower turnover
- A highly motivated workforce correlates with higher organizational performance.
- Not as predictive of job performance as either cognitive ability assessments.
- Used alone, could point employees toward development areas that are a poor match with their abilities and personality
Multi-measure assessments — Why they are your best bet
The talent assessment market is dense with single-measure assessments built on one of the four assessment types highlighted here. As HR programs have gotten more mature and the scientific evidence for assessing prospective employees has deepened, more multi-measure assessments have become available. Their value-add is that they capture several aspects of the candidate at once to provide a single, more predictive assessment of a candidate’s likelihood of success.
“If you had multiple angles to approach something important to you, would you limit yourself only to one?” says Grossenbacher. “The more variables you have to work with, the higher are the upper limits of what you’re able to predict.”
Stacking multiple measures can deliver a reliable result, not only because it adds up the predictive impact of each but also reduces the impact of the weaknesses inherent in one. Wonderlic’s assessments have used a multi-measure methodology since 1972.
“The universe of job performance is broad,” says Grossenbacher. “We have always understood that personality, cognitive ability and specific job knowledge cover different spaces in the sphere of job performance but are all related to the performance of work.”
That does not mean that multi-measure assessments are always the right choice. Always keep in mind that the right assessment for your organization is the one that measures what you need to know for a specific use case and does so free of bias and with the highest predictive power the market can give you.