Better Employee Selection with Digital Aptitude Tests

Dr. Benjamin Haarhaus advocates evidence-based employee selection. In an interview, he explains how that works and what companies gain from it.

Mr. Haarhaus, why are aptitude tests needed? Aren’t application documents and interviews enough?

Benjamin Haarhaus: Human resources officers have a large range of selection criteria available, from cover letters to résumés and references to interviews and assessment centers. This range raises the question as to which selection criteria most reliably predict later professional performance. That question can be answered with data. Overall, the predictive power of selection criteria has been studied for around a hundred years. Over and over again, it has been determined that the best combination for employee selection consists of aptitude tests and a structured interview.

What are the advantages of aptitude tests for companies compared to classic methods?

Haarhaus: In principle, the greater the predictive power of the process (the validity), the fewer errors will occur in employee selection. There are two types of errors: either unsuitable candidates are hired, or suitable candidates are not hired and may even go to work for the competition. Both errors cost the company money.
The second argument in favor of aptitude tests is that they are very efficient in time and costs. Today, test procedures are often conducted online. That means companies can reduce their applicant pool with little effort and make an objective preselection.

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At what point in the selection process does the use of aptitude tests make sense?

Haarhaus: In principle, we recommend implementing aptitude tests as early in the selection process as possible. As a rule, you begin with cognitive tests. That is a good idea particularly with trainees and cooperative education students. For one thing, companies usually receive a very large number of applications here. The most efficient preselection possible needs to be made. On the other hand, applicants in that age have very little information about their capabilities – beyond graduating from school – which decision makers can rely on. It is quite different for skilled employees and managers.

Do you also recommend proficiency tests for managers?

Haarhaus: Yes! A lot more proficiency tests should be conducted for managers in particular. The connection between test results and later performance is particularly high when the professional tasks are very complex, which is the case for managers. It is frequently assumed that managers should have, above all, a lot of experience. But the connection between professional experience and performance is demonstrably weak. You don’t know if someone has done their job well in the last ten years or not.

The connection between professional experience and performance is demonstrably weak. The candidate’s ability is much more important for good employee selection.

And how do managers accept proficiency tests?

Haarhaus: It is not so much the managers as it is the companies which are reluctant to use such tests out of fear of alienating managers. That is why assessment centers are used more than proficiency tests in the management area. Overall in Germany, about 30 percent of private companies use the option of proficiency and personality tests, with larger companies more likely to do so than smaller. In the public sector, aptitude testing procedures are much more established, because the legal security of the procedure plays a larger role here.

Why don’t more companies use aptitude tests if they are better for employee selection than other methods?

Haarhaus: There are several reasons for that. Some human resources officers think that the “human factor” gets short shrift in tests and so prefer to listen to their gut feelings. One frequent objection regarding personality tests is that applicants know what they need to mark and present themselves as better than they are. We actually know that applicants present themselves better in psychological tests if they know that they are in a selection scenario. Characteristics such as diligence or industriousness in particular are presented more positively. But in principle that is completely normal human behavior which we find just as often in interpersonal interactions, including job interviews. Ultimately, the research results mentioned simply haven’t made their way into many human resources departments. There needs to be more transfer here.

Can’t test results be distorted by practice or how the test taker feels that day?

Haarhaus: Research results show that test results can be improved slightly through practice. Nevertheless, no one is better than they are in reality, because everyone has individual limits to their performance that cannot be exceeded.
The effect of how the test taker feels that day is also not as strong as one might expect. A very capable candidate on a bad day will still achieve a relatively good result. It is unlikely that a top applicant will completely fail a test.

In principle, the greater the predictive power of the process, the fewer errors will occur in employee selection.

What are the advantages of aptitude tests for applicants?

Haarhaus: Aptitude testing procedures in employee selection are used in order to be able to evaluate applicants as objectively as possible and without bias. Of course, that benefits applicants, because even shy people have an opportunity to demonstrate their skills. Interestingly, rejected applicants also have an advantage from aptitude tests. Because if the test shows in advance that they do not have the technical knowledge for the position or lack the necessary personal characteristics for management, the applicants would not be happy in the job.

Are aptitude tests then able to replace all classic methods?

Haarhaus: No. Aptitude tests are an evidence-based aid for the selection process. While proficiency tests right at the beginning of the process help with the negative selection or preselection, personality tests in the later course of the process are a very good aid for final interviews, when only a few technically suitable applicants are left. Decision-makers can use the personality profile, for example, for the targeted discussion of particularly conspicuous results. If only suitable candidates are still in the running at the end of the process, managers can and should let their gut instincts help make the decision. Because whether or not future employees fit in the team is also a crucial factor in determining if a good applicant will be a successful and satisfied employee.

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