77. What are employers looking for in assessment tests during the recruitment process? Featuring the founder of Strengthscope and Plexus Leadership, James Brook

Assessment test during the recruitment process is every professional's nightmare.

Chances are, if you are a corporate professional, young or old, you have done assessment tests either during a recruitment process or as part of your organizational development with an organization. Alas, you may even have done it as part of your outplacement program. There are psychometric, personality, cognitive, and many other ways to assess employers and job candidates. But sitting for an assessment is not considered a pleasant experience for most professionals. What are these tests really for? Do they have a significant impact on the recruitment and selection process? And can you prepare for them in advance?

For this episode of The Job Hunting Podcast, I interviewed James Brook,  a pioneer and established global leader in strengths assessment and development. James was the founder of Strengthscope®, a global assessment platform. He helped grow and become a successful assessment and talent consulting business, with its flagship assessment now used by companies worldwide. He sold Strengthscope and is now the founder and MD at Plexus Leadership. We could not have asked for a better-qualified expert to discuss this topic!  

What are assessment tests, and what are they for?

There's always a considerable risk for a company when hiring a new person. In the same way, there are risks for the candidate as well in joining a new company. Assessment tests are used to gain additional insight, information, and data about the candidate applying for a role. Decision-makers (i.e., the recruitment and selection panel, hiring managers, or recruiter) need this information to make better decisions, reducing the risks associated with hiring someone new and unknown. 

According to James, tests  can provide a more objective lens: “if they are using the right metrics or psychological assessments, essentially what it's doing is helping make better decisions, reducing risks, and ultimately you know your candidates better when they join.” 

Are there built-in biases in assessment tests?

Although the goal is to provide a more objective lens in the recruitment and selection process, there are concerns about some of the assessments used. 

“There are varying practices out there. Some companies do their due diligence on the assessment they are using. Any good test publisher will research and continue to research the test’s validity, including checking if it has any adverse impacts. A good test publisher will publish data if there isn’t any negative impact, or if there is, they will be transparent about that, “ says James. 

However, unfortunately, many flawed tests are used in recruitment, including tests used for the wrong purposes and tests designed with inherent biases. Furthermore, HR professionals are not doing sufficient due diligence in how they apply tests. For example, suppose a test has been developed in the US for the American market. In that case, it’s crucial to ensure you do cross-cultural equivalence testing before using it in a different country, ensuring that it's valid within that population group. And this is often not done by the test publishers.

Can you practice for assessment tests?

“I would always advise candidates to practice ability tests,” says James. “Many companies will use three types of ability tests: verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning, and critical thinking. You can and should practice for all of those.” 

However, James does not encourage people to practice or try to guess how to answer personality or motivation questionnaires. “There’s no point in doing that. There’s a lot more harm than good that can arise from that, so you should approach those in a very natural, authentic way.” 

Personality tests are trying to understand who you are at your best:

  • What are your strengths?
  • What are some of your improvement areas? And 
  • What is your personality? 

For personality tests, there are no right and wrong answers. Some personality profiles have built-in faking scales; another good reason not to try to come across a particular way or respond as you think the employer wants you to respond. You should just react as you are. 

What should you do if you are not happy with the result of your test?

There are certain instances when you will take an assessment test, for example, a strengths test, and you might be surprised or unhappy with the results. Partly this is due to the fact we tend to focus on their weaknesses instead of their strengths.

James says that “if you disagree with the profile, find an opportunity to share your views about the profile and the areas of disagreement with the recruiter, or with the hiring manager. But at the same time, keep an open mind because the test might be uncovering a blind spot for you. It might be uncovering something you don't know about yourself.”

And here is another excellent piece of advice from James: “if you are feeling off on the day of your assessment, let the HR person know and ask for the opportunity to retake the test. Some candidates have taken the test feeling rather off, but once they have re-taken the test, the results are very different. Do ask to retake the test. Don't be afraid to do that.”

Getting feedback about your test outcome.

“You should always ask for feedback. Persevere and be quite audacious in your approach if you're not getting feedback; everyone is owed feedback,”  says James. If you have invested time and effort in filling out these tests, and it's vital for your learning and understanding of yourself, make sure that you get that feedback. You can learn about your strengths, find out what your improvement areas are, and so on. 

Why is it so important for corporate professionals to focus on strengths?

James states that the definition of strengths is the underlying qualities that energize us and enable us to do our best work. So when planning your career, it’s essential to play up your strengths to enjoy what you do for a living. A career-focused on your strengths is more sustainable over time and helps you get through the rough patches along the way. 

For example, if you see a job that has an attractive salary attached, but then you find that it doesn't play to your strengths, likely, this opportunity won’t last: either you are going to be miserable, or your employer, or both! Is it worth it?

“The strengths approach helps us to shift to a much more positive plane, which helps us to start thinking differently about ourselves, start being more confident, think differently about opportunities in our career, to think more expansively. So it opens up opportunities for us, which is very powerful,” says James.

“And the strengths approach does not mean - and I want to repeat this - does not mean that you ignore your weaknesses—quite the contrary. We also understand our biggest sources of weakness by understanding our strengths, which are overdone strengths. Because often what's perceived as our weakness is not a weakness at all. It's areas where we tend to overdo our strengths or misuse them or in the wrong way.” James explains this well in our conversation. I agree, and I can translate this very simple: “weakness is a strength misplaced!” 

Translating this in a job-hunting situation

A good way of understanding how decisions are made during a recruitment process is this: at the end of a recruitment and selection process, the employer will have an impressive shortlist of candidates. They have ticked all the boxes, so how do you choose? The choice may be led by who the employer already has in their team. 

  • Which one of those candidates will get along with the existing team? The company has already invested in building a particular structure with certain people in it. And many times, as the decision-maker myself, I have chosen someone who I thought will play well with the people I had already hired. And I felt terrible for the other two candidates. They were equally impressive. 
  • Which candidates have complementary skills to the rest of the team? I often felt more connected personally with a candidate that I ended up not choosing because they were a lot like me, but we didn't need another person like me in the team. I needed somebody else with a different set of skills and strengths and experience.  It was a matter of building a group that performs well internally for the organization.

Job candidates need to know how decisions are made. When you're not chosen for a role after going through what can sometimes be weeks or months of the recruitment and selection process, it's essential to know that it’s not about test results and likeability factors. It’s easier to move on if you don’t take it personally, so you can bounce back quickly and perform well again next time.  

Conclusion

From me: Preparing for assessments and tests during the recruitment process can be another source of stress and anxiety. The goal is to think of it as another piece of the puzzle for the employer to get to know you, validate and reinforce the belief they have in you that you have what it takes to do the job. And if you are not a good fit for the role in question, the assessment will provide feedback and learnings you can use for your next job application and career development. 

From James: “Keep the faith, recognize your value, believe in yourself. Also, persevere in smart ways, particularly using multiple channels and resources. Job hunting is hard, especially these times, and you shouldn’t rely on one approach. Rely on a variety of approaches, including networking and asking for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are not alone in this. And if you need my help, do contact me, and I will help you in your career journey.”

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Podcast Episode Timestamps:

  • 06:52 - James' career journey
  • 10:23 - James' strengths that helped his successful career moves
  • 12:07 - Job market situation in the UK
  • 15:12 - Key strengths that employers will look for in candidates on years ahead
  • 18:40 - Outdated job position descriptions
  • 23:24 - What is the recruiter trying to know by using tests?
  • 25:48 - Are there built-in biases in these assessment tests?
  • 28:38 - Should you practice for assessment tests?
  • 30:59 - Initial inability to accept the test results
  • 34:03 - Getting feedback about your test outcome
  • 37:33 - Why is it so important for corporate professionals to focus on strengths?
  • 48:29 - Translating this in a job-hunting situation
  • 51:40 - Final advice from James

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About our guest, James Brook:

James is a leadership consultant and coach, organizational psychologist, and entrepreneur. He has over 25 years of global experience working with leaders, teams, and organizations to assess, develop and optimize their performance and success using positive psychology and behavioral science.

Earlier in his career, James held leadership roles in HR and Talent Management in the UK and abroad with companies such as NatWest, Yahoo!, Right Management, and Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals. More recently, he has founded and led several talents and HR consulting businesses, including Strengthscope®, a pioneer and established global leader in strengths assessment and development.

James holds a Master’s in Organizational Psychology, an MBA, an Advanced Diploma in Executive Coaching, and a Harvard qualification in Sustainable Business Strategy. He is a member of the Institute of Directors, the Association of Business Psychologists, and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (FCIPD).

How to connect with James: James' LinkedIn

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Hello, I’m Renata Bernarde, the Host of The Job Hunting Podcast. I’m also a virtual career coach, job hunting expert, and career strategist. I teach professionals in the corporate, non-profit, and public sectors the steps and frameworks to help them find great jobs, change, and advance their careers with confidence and less stress. 

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Renata Bernarde | Job Hunting Expert | Founder, Pantala Academy

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