Context matters

Why your talent acquisition assessments should reflect the realities of the organization and job


Published on: June 2022

Written by: Brad Chambers, Ph.D.

Context is everything. When you’re swimming in the ocean and see a fin sticking out of the water, your brain concludes: “It’s a shark, get out of the water!” But if you’re in a pool, you think: “It’s a kid with a swim toy that looks like a shark fin.” In both situations, the context leads you to reach two very different conclusions and behavioral responses.

How people behave in any given situation is a function of both who they are as individuals (e.g., their personality, skills, past experiences) and the context in which the behavior takes place (e.g., the situation itself). In other words, context matters, and it is difficult to interpret an individual’s behavior without an understanding of the context they faced.

When it comes to using assessments during the hiring process, organizations have a vested interest in making certain that these assessments reflect the organization and job – the context. Doing so helps jumpstart onboarding by ensuring that candidates’ assumptions about the organization, the job, and their suitability for both – that they invariably make during the recruiting process – are rooted in reality.

But assessments modeled after the organization and job are superior for another reason: They are generally stronger than generic assessments that cut across job type, level, organization, industry, etc.

  1. More predictive. First and foremost, the closer the alignment between the assessment and the specific context in which the individual will ultimately perform (i.e., the job at the organization), the better the assessment will do in predicting future job performance. In fact, research demonstrates that highly contextualized assessments have incremental predictive validity beyond situational judgment and job knowledge assessments. This means that even after measuring candidates’ job-relevant knowledge and how they would handle particular situations, highly contextualized assessments still reveal candidates’ ability to perform the job that we don’t otherwise know from these other tools.

Why is this true? Because the best predictor of future behavior is past performance. For many years, this adage has been dubbed “the Golden Rule of selection.” Think about it: What’s the best way to predict whether an individual will be a good salesperson at your organization in the future? Answer: Observe them in the job of salesperson at your organization. The only problem in the pre-employment context, however, is that you cannot observe a candidate perform a job they do not have… Or can you?

Assessments designed to reflect the realities of an organization and job often take the form of a simulation – sometimes completely automated; other times involving role plays conducted by trained assessors. In essence, these assessments let candidates “try the job on for size” – explore the situations and challenges faced, engage in dealing with the situations, etc. Such work samples provide the opportunity to, in essence, perform a job that candidates do not yet have, thus enabling conclusions about how they would perform the job if hired.

  1. Less adverse impact. Not only are highly contextualized assessments, such as simulations, highly predictive of future job success, but they also have lower risk of adverse impact. In fact, a seminal meta-analytic research study – looking across many years of other research studies – found that simulations comprising role-plays or presentations have about 50 percent less risk of adverse impact (i.e., sub-group differences) compared to other assessment tools. This decreased risk of adverse impact translates into a more diverse group of candidates deemed qualified for the job, ultimately leading to a more diverse workforce.
  2. Higher face validity. Finally, because highly contextualized assessments look like the job, candidates see the relevance of these assessments for the job to which they’ve applied. Candidates understand why you are asking them to perform some task or answer particular questions because the assessments make sense in their minds given what they know about the job. This is known as face validity, which highly benefits the organization. This underlying concept can decrease the risk of candidates challenging the results of an assessment, improve perceptions and impressions of the employing organization, and increase job offers acceptance rates.

All three areas of highly contextualized assessments are paramount on their own, and together highlight the importance of tailoring pre-employment assessments to the organization and job. They serve the dual purpose of teaching candidates about the job, while also assessing their capabilities and alignment with the organization’s needs.

The employment decision is important for both the candidate and the employer, and it benefits both parties to ensure that candidates are assessed in an accurate and authentic manner to make the best, most informed decisions possible.

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