Build Better Assessment Tools With These Five Factors

In the current federal climate of downsizing and budget cuts, choosing the right person for the job is especially critical, but most agencies are using assessment tools that are failing to provide a pool of quality candidates, according to a recent “perspectives brief” by the Merit Systems Protection Board.

To improve assessments, agencies must change their mindset about hiring–focusing less on process and more on outcomes–and get leadership buy-in to invest in assessments, which is the “leading stumbling block” to change, Laura Shugrue, an MSPB senior research analyst told cyberFEDS®.

The goal is not to just hire someone quickly, “it’s to hire someone who is most likely to succeed at performing the job,” she said.

Automating the hiring process “left agencies with a significantly higher number of applicants — many of whom are not qualified or even really interested in the job but applied because it was easy.” That problem was compounded by the use of inexpensive assessments like occupational questionnaires, which make differentiating candidates with the highest-quality skills difficult because most applicants rate themselves at the top skill level to move forward in the process, she added.

Leadership commitment

Agency leadership must also make hiring an organizational priority, devote the necessary resources, and recognize that hiring is not solely an HR function, she noted.

At the same time, HR should educate leadership on “the importance of applicant assessment and how that upfront investment can be a win in the long run.”

Shugrue also suggested that HR should identify managers interested in improving the quality of the candidate pool and identifying better assessments. “After working through a pilot project or two, the managers can talk about their success stories, serving as an example to other managers.” These managers can also become champions and help sell the importance of proper assessments to leadership.

Agencies can begin “small” by working with a contractor, the Office of Personnel Management, and other agency experts to develop a plan for one occupation. The plan should go beyond how to better assess applicants and look at how to improve recruitment, bottlenecks that affect timeliness, and consistent communication with top applicants so they aren’t lost during the process, she explained.

Factors to consider

The MSPB report found the requisite level of candidates often do not get in front of hiring managers and supervisors because agencies do not use the most predictive assessment tools. Good assessment practices not only will provide hiring officials with a list of highly qualified candidates, they also can “improve the number of new hires who perform well on the job, lead to higher organizational performance, and make more efficient use of hiring officials’ time by narrowing the size of large applicant pools,” the MSPB explained.When developing better assessment tools, the MSPB recommended considering the following factors:

1. Process improvement, return on investment, and integration. Agencies should consider how to improve the process beyond automation, allocate resources upfront to re-envision their processes, and train HR and hiring managers on good assessment. Agencies also should aim for a high return on investment rather than the cheapest assessments and ensure assessments “easily integrate” with the recruitment and staffing system, which will make the applicant experience seamless, cause fewer delays, score and deliver results efficiently, and ensure the “integrity and dependability of the process.”
2. Rigorous development and applicant focus. Agencies should conduct a job analysis process to ensure assessments make meaningful distinctions among applicants and are “reliable, valid, fair, and appropriate.” The job analysis process should identify the job duties and requirements, the relative importance of those duties, and the necessary competencies or skills. If applicants contest the selection decision, “documenting the relationship between the job duties and necessary competencies helps provide the needed defensibility.”
3. Comprehensive evaluation. Agencies should use multiple assessments successively to narrow the field of qualified candidates. “Methods that are less costly to administer or that can easily handle a large volume of applications should be used toward the beginning of the process while more resource-intensive assessments should be saved for the applicants deemed to be qualified.” Agency assessments also should evaluate the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities comprehensively, including, employment history, occupationally tailored technical skills, and general competencies that cut across different occupations.
4. Coverage for different positions. To ensure assessments cover a wide variety of positions and grade levels, agencies must identify general and technical competencies that contribute to high performance across several jobs and benchmark these to the specific occupation and grade. “Having easy-to-access, validated assessment libraries for multiple occupations and grade levels eases the amount of work HR and hiring officials will need to complete at the front end of the hiring process, increasing hiring efficiency.”
5. Mode of delivery and testing environment. Agencies should determine which mode of delivery–such as computer-based, pen and paper, or interactive–best meets their needs. Although computer-based assessments have many advantages, they also may take more resources to develop. Agencies also should consider whether to conduct proctored versus unproctored assessments or a combination.

Choosing the right person for the job is “especially critical” because “most agencies likely will be filling fewer positions and will expect the workforce to do even more with fewer resources and staff” under the president’s reform plans for a “lean, accountable and more efficient” government,” according to the report. Ideally, Congress would “even the playing field” by budgeting the funds so all agencies have access to quality assessment tools to help. Until then, whether “an agency invests in quality assessment instruments is a business decision that the agency’s leadership must make after weighing all agency priorities.”

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Anjali Patel
Anjali Patel, Esq., is legal editor for cyberFEDS® Washington bureau.