Assessment Methodologies across the Talent Management Lifecycle

By Scott McMillan 

This is not intended as an academic piece or a thorough research of the market. This article is more about the practical application of assessments in the Talent Management lifecycle, how to get real value from the investment, some anecdotes from my own experience and a few – ‘what ifs’.  

My belief and experiences suggest that Talent Management processes in companies are still heavily informed by management opinion.  This, by definition, creates bias in decision making allowing judgement to outweigh data which in turn leads to poor business outcomes. Companies talk about the ‘War for Talent’ yet continue to make bad hiring decisions and disenfranchise their best employees through inconsistent process and management by instinct.  

In the Gartner study of Top 5 Priorities for HR Leaders in 2021,  49% of HR Leaders are saying “Our leadership bench is not diverse.” And 35% “Our succession management processes don’t yield the right leaders at the right time.”  These are not new problems. Whilst companies now see these as priority issues, some just do not know what to do about it. A good start would be to add more data and objectivity to the topic. The myriad assessment technology firms realize this. There is no doubt that assessment technologies can really improve this situation but only if they are fully embedded into the fabric of organizational Talent Management and move beyond pre-hire.  

Assessments in Pre-Hire 

In 2005, my company was hiring a new CEO for a UK business. I was CHRO at the time and advised the hiring executive that we needed to bring some objectivity into this important decision. I hired an external firm to assess each of the short-listed candidates. I was clear on the role requirements and briefed the assessment firm. We arranged the interview process as – Assessment, Individual interviews with key stakeholders and then a Panel Interview with the Hiring executive and key stakeholders. The panel would be a presentation by the candidate followed by Q&A using the assessment feedback. The first panel interview was going great – documents had been distributed to all attendees – Resume, Interview notes, Assessment, Presentation. The presentation ended and we moved on to the Q&A. The hiring executive (and board member) opened the session with the following; “So, Scott tells me that we have to be more objective in hiring executives and we are using this assessment to try and help with our decision making. Personally I think it’s a piece of crap but as I’ve paid for it I guess we should at least reference it.”  

I am sure he thought this was funny and everyone politely laughed.  I shrunk into the corner of the board room. Big lesson learned. Assessment is not a tool for CHRO’s — this is a tool for decision makers. But the bigger lesson for me was that changing behaviors from making decisions based on instinct to decisions based on data is more than implementing technology and processes  – it’s a massive change management issue. After my initial embarrassment, we persevered but we put a huge amount of effort into training, education and generally helping executives to get comfortable with using data to help with the decision process.  

Many companies start the journey of bringing assessments into the pre-hire process by looking at the technologies first. I have done this and honestly, I am not sure where I started. There are hundreds of technology companies in the assessment space, especially in the pre-hire space. They all purport to be unique – using AI and machine learning technologies to make the hiring decision much quicker and easier. I am not diving into the pros and cons of each technology. There are many resources out there to read – as an example: 

I do however think that starting with the technology is the wrong place to start. The key question you should consider before making a buying decision is whether you have all the conditions in place to get value from this investment.  

Here are some checkpoints as you consider this question: 

  1. Analytics. What information do you have as a baseline and how will you measure the ROI? Cost of Hire, Time to Hire (which most companies will have), Diversity, Candidate Experience and Satisfaction, Year 1 & 2 attrition and costs (i.e costs of bad hires), Average costs of Employment Vs Average costs of new hires, Costs of New Hires Vs Costs of Promoted Employees. 
  1. Do you have clear Talent Goals and improvements you want to drive with this – Culture, Diversity, Retention, Business Performance. 
  1. Do you have a clear Attraction and Engagement strategy? What is your Glassdoor rating and does this reinforce or damage your attraction strategy? If not, then how do you address this? 
  1. What is the purpose of the assessment and are the outcomes clearly aligned to the job description? 
  1. Is the assessment methodology congruent with the level of candidate being hired? 
  1. Have your managers been trained. Do they know how to interpret the assessments and is it clear how these will inform decision making? 
  1. Where is assessment in the hiring process and is it being used in a way to reduce bias? If not, then what changes need to be made to your hiring process so you select the best candidates? 
  1. How will you communicate the use of assessments to candidates? This needs to be part of a satisfier in the process and absolutely cannot add delay or frustration to the process. 
  1. How will you communicate decisions to candidates and how will the assessment outcome be used in this communication? 
  1. How will you use the assessment information with successful candidates, post-hire?  
  1. How can an aggregate of assessment information inform your Talent Acquisition strategy and processes?  

I am sure you can find more questions to ask but these are the key ones from my experience. At some point, you will need to justify the ROI and using an assessment tool stand-alone will not deliver the value. As a car fanatic, I use this analogy. If you want to buy an Italian Sports car to drive around town at 30mph and you have the money to do it, then please go ahead. If you want to drive it as it is intended then learn to drive it properly and take it to a track – it is much more exhilarating.  

Bias in Talent Management 

A few months after working with a US leadership team, I was asked to assess why they had problems keeping CHRO’s for any length of time. The business needed to go through a massive transformation, but Head Office was impatient with the speed of progress.  It seemed that the executives who had been in the company for some time were well and truly rooted to the spot. The newly hired executives, who were intended to drive this transformation came in, spent up to a year trying to get some traction – and then left. The leadership was hiring executives as fast as they could find them and most would leave almost as fast. I asked one of the hiring executives for his key criteria – Warm and breathing was the answer. I despaired. 

After my first weeks I presented a few simple facts to the management team and asked them a question – who around the table knows how to have a competency based interview? No one. So, you are hiring executives at a record rate, spending tons of money with search firms in doing this and your decision-making criteria is based on your instinct and whether you like the candidate. Then you wonder why there is no diversity in your teams and people leave in less than a year. We started the painful journey of changing the hiring practices. Starting with pre-hire assessments for all executives, a practice still in place today. This was my first real awakening to the issue of unconscious bias. It seems obvious – people like people who are like them. These are the people they can get along with and will enjoy spending time with. No concern for whether they are the best person for the job, they are the best person for you. This quickly led to my next big concern – if this is how we make hiring decisions then is this how we make all our talent decisions? Is this how we make Promotion decisions, Organization decisions, Performance decisions, Compensation decisions, High Potential identification? Unfortunately the answer was yes – and I suspect for many companies, it is the same. 

There are many fantastic resources available to explain Unconscious Bias, what it is, how it happens and how to reduce it. There are also many in-depth studies on the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the impact this has on culture and overall business performance. I am not going to try and contribute more to the research on this topic. My interest is more this, if we know that bias happens, we know why it happens and if we all agree it is a bad thing, how do we change our talent practices to reduce bias in decision making and again, how do we use Assessment technologies to help with this?  Here are my six top tips to reduce bias in Talent Management Processes: 

  1. Consistent process 

Talent Management processes need to be clearly documented, understood by all participants, transparent and measurable. Then they need to be consistently and rigorously applied. A great example is always compensation decisions. Can you explain to everyone impacted why you made certain decisions and be totally transparent to everyone impacted in a way which is subject to scrutiny? How do you use data in these processes to inform decisions? When it comes to role-based decisions (Hiring, Promotion, Mobility, HIPO identification), how is assessment used in these processes. Are you assessing the individual against the requirements of the role using data? If not then why not?  

  1. Job Descriptions and Role descriptions without bias 

One of my favorite books on the topic of bias is What Works: Gender Equality by Design, written by Iris Bohnet. “Our minds are stubborn beasts that are hard to change, but it’s not hard to de-bias the application process” she says “The idea of the book and of my research is to say that it’s easier to de-bias organizations’ practices and procedures than to de-bias mindsets. To start with, job ads are super-low-hanging fruit.”  Most Job Descriptions and Role descriptions are heavily male oriented filled with gendered language. Research shows that male oriented descriptions will dissuade women from applying for jobs externally and internally. Textio | The augmented writing platform is an awesome product.  This will review your Job / Role description and propose gender neutrally wording. This has been shown to make job ads more compelling to people and increase the likelihood of people applying who are a close fit for the role and will qualify for an assessment.  

  1. Blind assessment 

A talent process which considers any demographic characteristics at the start will promote bias. This can never be totally eliminated but how and when you are exposed to the demographic information in the process will make a difference.  Short-listing of external candidates should happen blind. Assessment technologies, used at the start of the process will give you a qualified short list of candidates based on suitability for the role before any human intervention. I would suggest the same happens for promotions and internal mobility. Using technology to assess suitability to a promotion role as a first step to create a short list of promotion candidates will reduce bias. 

  1. Structured, competency based interviews 

Congratulations. The candidate or employee in front of you has been through a consistent, clear and transparent process, they applied to a gender neutral job / role and their suitability has been assessed such that they are a clear and viable candidate. Don’t blow it now.  

A competency based interview is different from an unstructured interview. The aim of competency-based interviews is to reveal the skills, knowledge and behaviors a candidate will bring to a job or an employee will bring to a new role. Candidates are asked to provide examples of how they have used certain skills and behaviors in the past and what the outcomes have been. This is built on the premise that past behavior is the best indicator of future performance – not your instinct. You will have a pre-set list of questions, with each targeting a skill or competency required for the role. In response, they will describe a situation where they have used that skill, explain the action they took and talk about the outcome. You will then mark your response against predetermined criteria. Clear, consistent and transparent.  

  1. Set targets.  

This step is controversial but has been proven to work. Setting targets for diversity is simple to do, difficult to achieve and sometimes harder to communicate. Surely setting targets to skew outcomes is not fair – but not setting targets has already proven to be unfair. You need to be clear on the objective, the target, how to communicate and the consequences of not hitting the target. The targets need to be authentic and guided by your Talent Goals. Do not bother to set a diversity target if the outcome does not matter –  it has to matter. To those people who have targets in their personal goals, it has to be clear how attainment / failure will impact their overall performance. If it is added as an afterthought then expect it to be treated this way. 

  1. Training and awareness.  

This last but crucial step is where it all hangs together. There is a lot of ground to cover here and the messaging needs to be consistent. Clear communication of the strategy, goals and approach needs to be clear to employees, managers and candidates. For managers there is a lot to take in. The purpose of assessments needs to be a start and then training in the use of the Assessment technology needs to be extensive. It is really critical that managers know how to use the product, how to interpret the data, how to use in formulating their decisions and then how to communicate this back to the candidate or employee.   

The move from unstructured to structured, opinion to data, instinct to insights is a big change for anyone. The understanding of bias needs to become an organizational dialogue. It will take time for people to really change their behavior which is why it needs infrastructure to support the change.  

I will finish with my first experience of assessments, which was in the 90’s as part of a promotion I was going through. The Managing Director of our business had decided that he would use a psychometric assessment to select the best candidate. I was seriously impressed. I was invited to take part in the processes and honestly, I fancied my chances even though I was the youngest candidate for this senior promotion. At the time, I was also studying for an MBA. This was on my dime and in my own time. It had a dual effect that my mind was really active and I was permanently exhausted.  The assessments and the interviews went well, surely this was my promotion. Then the decision – one of the other candidates got the job.  I was pretty upset, but prepared to accept the outcome. In the debrief from the MD, he explained that I had aced the assessment but that ‘he expected me to do well as I am studying for an MBA at the time and it was a bit unfair on the others’. I of course asked him then why he bothered putting us through any kind of assessment? He replied ‘because I was curious to see how you all would perform’. Then I was angry. What a waste of my time and stress – to realize he used the assessments as an experiment for his own curiosity and then completely ignored the results.  I left the company 6 months later. I have spoken to many people over the years about their experiences of being assessed. It seems I am not alone in this kind of experience.  Using a tool to help you make the best decision is empowering for you and motivating to others – but if it is viewed as political grandstanding the outcome could be completely demoralizing for those very people who you are keen to retain.  You have been warned.