Interviews are one important piece of the puzzle, but they are not the solution to the puzzle.

“If you can only do one thing, use a test of cognitive ability.” said Dr Angus McDonald, chair of the British Psychological Society’s Committee on Test Standards in 2015, during a discussion regarding the most effective employee selection tools.

If you can only do one thing, use a test of cognitive ability.

Dr Angus McDonald, chair of the British Psychological Society’s Committee on Test Standards

Now to the audience of occupational psychologists, familiar with the research, this was an uncontroversial statement. Research in the field of occupational psychology clearly shows that cognitive ability tests (including aptitude tests) are the strongest predictors of job performance known, outperforming all other assessments and significantly outperforming the average interview.

However, to those unfamiliar with this research, this would come as quite a shock. Indeed, for many hiring managers, if you could only do one thing, surely it would be an interview? For many hiring managers, interviews are the only thing they will use, omitting cognitive ability tests all together.

For many hiring managers, interviews are the only thing they will use

What is the academic-practitioner divide?

The academic-practitioner divide is not new to the field of human resources management. In 1980s, researchers gathered a group of personnel managers and asked them to rank order a list of common employee selection tools by their effectiveness, and contrasted their lists with the actual order of effectiveness based on the scientific evidence.

Unsurprisingly, there was no relationship between the two rank orderings, meaning that the personnel managers had absolutely no idea which selection tools are the most effective predictors of job performance. A common theme however, was that the effectiveness of cognitive ability tests were grossly underestimated, and the effectiveness of interviews was grossly exaggerated.

Why the focus on interviews?

Why do hiring managers think so highly of interviews, and so poorly of everything else? Likely, it’s just down to tradition. Interviews have historically been the primary selection tool, and without access to high quality academic research suggesting the contrary, interviews retained this position in the eyes of human resources professionals.

Psychologists are also at fault here, often proving unable or unwilling to share research insights to a wider audience, instead opting to “preach to the choir” and avoid confrontation.

Cynically, we also suspect that hiring managers rely heavily on interviews due to the power it gives them. When interviewing, you have full control over who gets selected and who doesn’t, so if you don’t personally like a candidate (for whatever reason), you can just screen them out. With ability tests, you don’t have that option, as the score is entirely objective and free from bias. This power is not given up easily, and many hiring managers would rather be in-control of a poor process, than improve the process and surrender that ability.

Shifting focus from interviews to ability tests

Whatever the case may be, more than 60 years of research evidence clearly states that cognitive ability tests are the most powerful predictors of job performance known. This simply cannot be ignored by human resources professionals, hiring managers and recruiting line managers.

Omitting cognitive ability tests from a selection process is far more damaging than not interviewing, and this fact needs to be recognised in order to design highly effective employee selection processes.

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