Provides practical tips for avoiding bias in recruitment, attracting applicants, improving the candidate experience, and making better hiring decisions.
Selecting staff comprises two main stages: shortlisting and assessment. Throughout both stages employers should ensure that their selection methods treat candidates fairly, without discrimination or bias, and that selections are made based on the candidate’s ability to perform the role, contribute to the organisation and their potential for development.
This factsheet focuses on the assessment stage of the selection process and the purpose of the interview and other methods for both the employer and the candidate. It covers the limitations of interviewing and how organisations might avoid common pitfalls. Finally, it takes a closer look at the practicalities of psychometric testing, assessment centres, and pre-employment checks such as references.
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An effective selection process ensures that a candidate has the right skills for the job. Selection processes should be based on a candidate’s ability to do the job, ability to make a contribution to the organisation's effectiveness, and also their potential for development.
To ensure fair and successful selection, insights from a number of selection methods should be used in the decision-making process. It’s easy to unconsciously introduce bias to selection procedures, so using a structured and rigorous approach is essential. A degree of flexibility in this is helpful, however, so that candidates can be put at their ease and assessors can follow up on relevant information. Attention should also be paid to the candidate experience and the length of the selection process to ensure a positive impression of the organisation.
Everyone involved in assessing candidates should have the necessary skills (for example in interviewing and testing) and have been adequately briefed about the job in question and its requirements. They also need to understand the benefits a diverse workforce can bring to an organisation and the danger of unfair discrimination in the process, which has both legal implications and consequences for the diversity of the organisation.
How are job candidates selected?
Selecting candidates involves two main processes: shortlisting, and assessing applicants to decide who should be made a job offer. This factsheet focuses on interviewing techniques, psychometric testing and assessment centres. For more on the recruitment process generally, see our recruitment factsheet.
Candidates’ applications may arrive as a curriculum vitae (CV) or an application form. Whatever form they are in, it’s important to make sure that everyone involved in the selection process, from the shortlisting stage onwards, understands not just the need to avoid unfair discrimination and the potential risk to the organisation’s reputation should a candidate make a tribunal claim, but the benefits a diverse workforce can bring to an organisation.
Technology plays an increasingly important role in recruitment ranging from attracting candidates through to the selection process. Online recruitment can mean employers receive large numbers of applications from unsuitable candidates, but there are tools and techniques that can help slim down the number of potential candidates.
Some organisations are using ‘name blind’ recruitment methods to minimise bias from the first stage of the selection process. See more on accommodating neurodiversity in the selection process in our Neurodiversity at work report.
A range of different methods can be used to assess candidates. Some are more reliable than others in predicting performance in the job, and less resource intensive to administer. Whichever method is used, the candidate experience is important. Recruiters should tell candidates in advance what to expect from the selection process, including how long it will take and the type of assessment they will undergo and ensure the process is not unnecessarily long. Employers should also check whether the applicant has any need for adjustments due to a disability.
Our report A head for hiring: the behavioural science of recruitment and selection discusses the way we make decisions and how we have hardwired systematic biases in how they evaluate candidates. Harnessing knowledge about how we actually behave can help recruiters to improve outcomes for the organisations they represent.
Our Recruitment and selection Q&As for CIPD members give more details on the law.
The role of selection interviewing
After a short-listing process, interviews are very widely used in the selection process, as demonstrated by our successive surveys of recruitment practices. Interviews can be structured in a number of ways, with the most popular method following contents of CVs and application form, according to our latest Resourcing and talent planning survey.
For the employer, the interview is an opportunity to:
- gauge candidates’ experience, ability to perform in the role and suitability for the team
- discuss details such as start dates and terms and conditions
- explain the employee value proposition, including training provision and employee benefits
- give the candidate a positive impression of the organisation as a good employer.
For the candidate, the interview is an opportunity to:
- understand the job and its responsibilities in more detail
- ask questions about the organisation and the employee value proposition
- decide whether they would like to take the job if offered it.
Despite their popularity as a selection method, evidence highlights the limitations of the traditional interview. They can be a poor predictor of a candidate’s performance in the job, as information is gathered in a relatively unsystematic manner. Judgements can be made for a variety of reasons that differ between candidates and are not related to the job requirements.
Drawing on a range of research, Anderson and Shackleton summarise the common weaknesses of interviews:
- The self-fulfilling prophecy effect. Interviewers may ask questions designed to confirm initial impressions of candidates gained either before the interview or in its early stages.
- The stereotyping effect. Interviewers sometimes assume that particular characteristics are typical of members of a particular group. In the case of sex, race, disability, marital status or ex-offenders, decisions made on this basis are often illegal. However, the effect occurs in the case of all kinds of social groups.
- The halo and horns effect. Once interviewers rate candidates as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in some aspects, they often replicate this judgement across the board, reaching unbalanced decisions.
- The contrast effect. Interviewers can allow the experience of interviewing one candidate to affect the way they interview others who are seen later in the selection process.
- The similar-to-me effect. Interviewers sometimes give preference to candidates they perceive as having a similar background, career history, personality or attitudes to themselves.
- The personal liking effect. Interviewers may make decisions on the basis of whether they personally like or dislike the candidate.
Structuring the interview can help improve its ability to predict performance in the job and a growing number of employers take this approach. A structured interview means that:
- questions are planned carefully before the interview
- all candidates are asked the same questions
- answers are scored using a rating system
- questions focus on the attributes and behaviours needed in the job only.
There is a risk, however, of having an overly rigid approach in which there is little opportunity to ask the candidate supplementary questions and the candidate does not feel at ease. So a balance needs to be made.
Our behavioural science research suggests that to avoid instinctive or hasty judgements interviewers should pre-commit to a set of interview questions that are directly related to performance on the job and focus the interview on collecting information rather than on decision-making. Insights from the interview should be supported by data from other methods where possible.
It’s important that selection interviews are conducted professionally. A poor interview experience can undermine the employer’s brand as candidates might share their unfavourable impression of the organisation with other potential applicants and customers. Following up with candidates in a timely manner, and giving feedback following an interview demonstrates appreciation of their time and interest and enhances the candidate experience.
The use of tests has become an important part of the selection process and can benefit the overall talent management process. Evidence suggests that standardised tests or tests of cognitive ability are good predictors of job performance, especially for occupations that require complex thinking, although test results should never be the sole basis for a selection decision.
Evidence on how well personality questionnaires or work sample tests predict job performance is mixed. See more in our report A head for hiring: the behavioural science of recruitment and selection.
Used correctly, psychometric tests allow employers to systematically assess individual differences (for example in ability, aptitude or personality). They are often administered online, particularly when assessing high volumes of applicants.
Tests should be supported by a body of statistical evidence which demonstrates their validity and reliability. Most tests are developed by occupational psychologists and should be accompanied by detail manuals for use that explain how test scores should be used so that employers can compare their test candidates against benchmark scores of similar people (also known as a norm group). Administering tests and analysing the results is a skilled task and requires training and certification; the British Psychological Society set clear standards on testing and test use.
Before using a test, recruiters should:
- ensure that those involved in administering tests have had appropriate training to do so
- consider whether it is appropriate to use a test at all (will it provide additional relevant information?)
- ensure the tests are relevant to the job/person specification
- identify who will choose, recommend and assess the value of tests
- check the copyright of tests and conditions of use
- ensure there are sufficient skills and resources to carry out testing effectively
- decide how the results will be used and what weight will be given to them
- identify potential equal opportunities issues (that is, whether the tests will disadvantage certain groups)
- establish a process for giving feedback
- decide how test results will be stored and who will have access to the results.
Test administrators should ensure that individuals:
- receive advance notice to make any practical arrangements to enable them to take the tests
- are told about test requirements and duration of tests beforehand and have the opportunity to raise queries or request adjustments
- have access to an appropriate environment free from interference in which to take the tests
- are aware of feedback arrangements.
It’s also helpful to provide some examples of what the test questions cover and where possible link to practice tests, especially where candidates may not have come across psychometric assessment before (for example, in graduate recruitment).
Assessment centres are used for selection as well as promotion and professional development purposes. They require candidates to complete a number of different tasks and they often combine behavioural ratings, cognitive and personality assessments obtained from multiple sources.
The tasks set should clearly relate to the person specification and reflect the reality of the job. They must be administered in a systematic way, with candidates being given the same types and numbers of tasks to complete in the same time, so that they have equal opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.
Depending on the nature of the job, the tasks might include individual or group work, written and/or oral input, and tasks prepared in advance as well as those performed solely on the day. Tasks can include delivering a report or presentation, time management or task prioritisation exercises, analytical work, individual problem solving, group discussions or problem solving, simulations of business activities, personal role-play and functional role-play.
Group exercises should be as realistic as possible, have clear goals and a limited time. They might encourage co-operation or competition to test for creativity or the ability to build on the ideas of others in a productive manner. However, competitive activities can disadvantage some groups, undermining diversity.
Assessment centres should be overseen by experienced selectors to ensure objectivity and consistency. Selectors must be trained to observe, actively listen, record, classify and rate behaviour, and seek evidence accurately and objectively against the job description and person specification. They will preferably have had training in interview skills and diversity. Assessors might also be used to observe and comment on behaviour although they don't necessarily take part in final selection decisions.
A feedback session with either an occupational psychologist or someone trained to deliver feedback is of benefit to candidates and indicates the organisation is serious about fair selection.
The British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology has created a comprehensive standard focused on the design and delivery of assessment centres. Its purpose is to raise the standard of assessment centre practice and enable poor practice to be identified and improved. The CIPD contributed to this standard which covers: specifying the purpose, scope and designing the centre, the standards of competence and professional behaviour required of the different roles involved, delivery and data integration and decision making, appropriate reporting and feedback of results, managing the data derived including access, use and storage and finally evaluation of centres.
Any offer of employment should be conditional on satisfactory clearance of pre-employment checks such as references from the candidate’s previous employer(s). References should contain factual information such as length of past employment, job title, brief details of responsibilities, overall performance, time-keeping and reason for leaving. However, recruitment decisions should never be based solely on references as they provide a limited perspective of an individual’s suitability for a role. CIPD members can find more legal detail in our References law Q&As.
Additional pre-employment checks are needed if, for example, the job involves working with children or vulnerable adults.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
JACKSON, D.J.R., LANCE, C.E. Lance and HOFFMAN, B.J. (eds) (2012) The psychology of assessment centers. New York: Routledge. pp95-120.
NIKOLAOU, I. and OOSTROM, J.K. (eds) (2015) Employee recruitment, selection and assessment: contemporary issues for theory and practice. New York: Psychology Press.
OLIVEIRA, T.C. (2015) Rethinking interviewing and personnel selection. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
TAYLOR, S. (2014) Resourcing and talent management. 6th ed. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Bookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.
GUINN, S.L. (2013) Predicting successful people. Strategic HR Review. Vol 12, No 1. pp26-31.
JACOBS, K. (2018) Is psychometric testing still fit for purpose?People Management. 22 February.
NGA, E. and SEARS, G. (2010) The effect of adverse impact in selection practices on organizational diversity: a field study. International Journal of Human Resource Management. Vol 21, No 9. pp. 1454-1471.
STONE, D. L., LUKASZEWSKI, K. M., and STONE-ROMERO, E. F. (2013). Factors affecting the effectiveness and acceptance of electronic selection systems. Human Resource Management Review, Vol 23, No 1, March. pp1-21.
SUFF, R. (2012) Employers' use of psychometric testing in selection: 2012 XpertHR survey. IRS Employment Review. 30 May. 9pp.
ZIELINSKI, D. (2012) The virtual interview. HR Magazine. Vol 57, No 7, July. pp55-57.
CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.
Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
Melanie Green: Research Adviser
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