New Hire Testing: When and How Should You Evaluate Candidates’ Skills?

Time to Read: 7.7 minutes

Updated: August 23, 2022

A strong resume will always stand out in the pile. But these days, especially with technically demanding positions, testing candidates for relevant skills is key.

Hiring managers who want to find the best fit can employ various testing means. These include tasks and challenges, but it also requires finding new types of interview questions to elicit how candidates would approach specific scenarios.

Getting these things right early on is what’s going to mitigate attrition and ultimately save money for the organization. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that employees who were hired after being tested for their skills were likely to stay 15 percent longer in their positions than those hired without testing.

Keeping employees happy and at the company for a long period is not just about the bottom line; it’s also good for team morale. In this post, we look at key insights from industry players about how to challenge candidates in a way that benefits them as well as the company.

Ask Candidates Questions That Demonstrate How They’d Use Their Skills

It’s important to look inside the organization before crafting the relevant questions for candidates. Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ, says that distinguishing between more-innovative and less-innovative candidates will provide a powerful metric against which to weigh job seekers.

More-innovative candidates are team players who enjoy high-risk goals and tight deadlines, requiring little input from management. In a busy working environment, these are the kind of candidates employers and line managers can depend on to drive the business forward.

Less-innovative candidates, on the other hand, need affirmation and guidance. They lack confidence to try new things and question why they need take on certain tasks. These are the candidates who need micromanaging, often becoming a drain on time and patience.

Murphy says once this categorization is done, hiring managers can ask questions to determine whether a candidate is more likely to be a high performer or a low performer. Those questions need to be open-ended to compel unscripted responses. An example he gives is: “Could you tell me about a time you lacked the skills or knowledge to complete an assignment?”

Candidates who admit to a lack of skills and knowledge while also revealing a creative way of overcoming this shortfall tend to signal themselves as innovators and top performers.

Whether hiring managers choose to focus on innovation or not, they need to ensure the questions they ask are not fluffy. Ryan Graves, former head of global operations at Uber, tells Fast Company how hiring managers should put candidates in scenarios resembling the demands of the job.

They need to “create a real-world and real-time conversation” about how candidates respond to problems, Graves says. Once the right questions have been asked, hiring managers can issue challenges and tests to gauge creativity and analytical thinking. This also allows employers to move away from candidates’ previous experience to focus instead on skills displayed during the interview.

Test for Soft Skills Even in Technical Roles

However, before testing for technical skills is underway, co-founder of Silicon Valley Recruiters Association Alison Mackay advises employers to test for soft skills, too.

In an interview at MightyRecruiter, Mackay gives the example of a lead data scientist “knee-deep in data all day every day” still needing to share insight, lessons and business decisions.

That same employee will be required to collaborate with peers, managers and other stakeholders. Consequently, hiring managers should always be asking candidates: “How do you work in a team?”

Mackay says situational or behavioral questions are best. It’s a good idea to get hiring managers to pose a few for pre-screening calls with candidates. This helps shift hiring managers’ thoughts into the right space as to what kind of candidate they are looking for.

Of course, answering these pointed questions requires creative thinking about role-specific problems. Answers will give insight into how candidates are likely to take on the job.

Try Video Interviewing

Holly Wade, at Green Job Interview, says a resume is not enough because candidates could be exaggerating or even lying about their career histories. Testing beyond the resume reduces bad hires and also allows only the best of the bunch to get face time with hiring managers.

Wade notes the value of pre-employment tests but says employers can learn a lot from recorded video interviews. She suggests putting top applicants through a one-way video interview and have them respond to questions through text and video.

Video-response questions can have candidates act out mock situations and participate in activities to verify their knowledge and skill level. Hiring managers can screen candidates by watching video responses before bringing them in for a formal interview. This saves valuable time for companies and candidates.

Give Candidates Tasks Removed From Traditional Interview Spaces

The informality of meeting candidates in community- or industry-based settings, or testing them via video, is valuable. It removes candidates from predictable, stress-inducing and perhaps even boring contexts.

Coding camps or hackathons are now also popular ways of testing skills of candidates outside of the formal hiring process.

Cisco has hosted CodeSprint hackathons that have attracted 6,500 engineers. They have also helped test candidates skills in real, measurable ways especially for highly specialized cybersecurity roles.

A bold practice comes from Buffer, the social media management tool. That practice takes testing candidates to new and creative levels, even beyond the excitement of hackathons. Prospective employees at Buffer are paid to attend a 45-day boot camp.

The idea is that serious candidates will need to commit to the challenge, making sacrifices in their current roles or job searches. These job seekers would then be able to test whether the company is a good fit for them. About 70 percent tend to think so.

Buffer’s community champion, Arielle Tannenbaum, tells Open Work,

“Boot camp is an opportunity for both sides: for us to see if the person will be a good fit for our culture and for them to see if they enjoy it.”

Buffer’s bootcamp, coding events and other such challenges ties into a bigger trend of testing candidates outside of the normal interview process. It’s less about resumes and experience than skills, both hard and soft.

This broad trend of informality and early testing helps guide the way organizations try to cultivate a loaded candidate pipeline. Genesys, for instance, not only forms relationships with universities and colleges to connect with new candidates, but also has programs in place with high schools.

These relationships allow the company to connect with students, who in turn receive continued support from it. The high school kids get to know about the company, test some of its products and provide feedback. While this is not strictly testing candidates for skills, it is a way to build relationships with a potential future workforce and monitor students’ aptitude as time progresses. This helps build a replenishing reservoir of potential workers.

Test Candidates Early On

There is a major focus on testing skills early on in the screening process. To facilitate this, companies have grown increasingly fond of using psychometric tests.

Daisy Jing, owner Banish, which sells products to reduce acne scarring, uses Myers-Brigg and Disc tests for personality assessments. The value, she argues, is not only the insight she gains into candidates’ attitudes, strengths and weaknesses, but how to lead them better while utilizing their strengths.

Building a sophisticated hiring strategy that emphasizes testing candidates skills is indicative of a greater overarching trend: Companies treat recruitment as an investment rather than a purchase.

This is how Lukas Pesa, owner of an eponymous speaking and consultancy business aimed at helping companies reach millennials, defines it at Forbes. When companies build relationships with potential candidates even before there is a job available, he says, this allows those companies to find compatible candidates with the right skills and experience who are likely to stay with the organization for longer.

Remote Roles

With the way many roles are going, candidates will need to be tested for their suitability for remote roles.

Nicole Fallon at Business News Daily writes how this requires a slightly different approach from hiring someone who’d be working in the office with a team. Testing for communication and self-management skills become vital. Fallon suggests issuing a test project or assignment that is easy to complete in a short space of time. This shows how accurately candidates can respond while staying on schedule.

Additionally, more so than with on-site roles, employers should look past work experience and references. Previous freelancing work is a good sign of self-management. Hiring managers will be well-served to request a candidates’ portfolio to judge their suitability for the role.

Finding the best candidate is every hiring manager’s goal. It’s essential to test potential employees’ skills early on to ensure only the best candidates make it to the final interviewing process.

Whether it’s through psychometric testing, video interviewing or online hackathons, it’s important to remember technical skills are not enough on their own. People still need to know how to connect and collaborate with colleagues. Combining tests and tailored questions to assess soft and hard skills will help find the perfect employee.

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Shanil Kaderali

Shanil Kaderali is a strategic talent acquisition leader with global experience. He's managed and led recruitment functions at companies like Cisco Systems, Symantec, WellPoint, as well as having worked for several Baker's Dozen RPO winners.

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