Screening quizzes and code-based puzzles have become de rigeur in IT and Tech recruitment …but do they really work? Recruitment writing expert Sam Haythornthwaite explains why this applicant screening method
We’ve all been there. You’re underwater on a project, or the service desk lines are jammed, and you need more hands-on deck. You need a new coder, sys admin or analyst, and you need them yesterday.
You haven’t got time to waste interviewing someone who can’t do the job. You need someone who speaks the right programming language, or can think technically, or knows their way around a server. So you turn to the trusty aptitude test. You know the sort I mean. Online third-party pre-screening tests that run through a series of questions only an experienced candidate could answer.
All things being equal, a pre-screening quiz should save time. It should improve the calibre of candidate. It should deliver a new colleague who fits the culture of your organisation. But it rarely does. When you get to interview stage with a prospective colleague, you nearly always realise that something is missing. The candidates you meet are tepid, disinterested or samey. You need proficiency and spark — you need the best candidate on the market — but, after a few days, you begin to realise that those people just didn’t apply.
Your recruitment puzzle isn’t going to deliver the most talented staff member – Here’s why
The FAANG-tiered tech companies successfully use pre-screening methods and challenging aptitude tests to determine a candidate’s coding skills and problem-solving abilities up-front, so it’s tempting to believe that it’s the right course of action for anyone recruiting in tech or IT.
The problem is that, unless you’re Google or Netflix, you probably don’t have an army of talented people beating a path to your door. You need to appeal to candidates just as badly as you need to filter them. If you put up too many barriers too early, you’ll cost yourself that all-important new hire.
Here are just a few of the reasons why a pre-screening aptitude test isn’t going to work for your business:
1. You’re not in control
One of the arguments for running a pre-application quiz is fairness: you’re treating everyone equally, because they’re all getting the same test. But you can’t control the environment of the test subject at the pre-screening stage. They could be completing their quiz at their kitchen table surrounded by family, or trying to squeeze the test into a 20 minute break at their work PC, or working off a patchy connection on a long commute home.
The environment isn’t the only area where you lose control; you also don’t know (unless you use a video link) that the candidate you’re inviting to interview is the same person who took the test.
2. You’ll create an echo chamber
You have your own interpretation of the role you’re recruiting for, and if you’re the one setting the quiz questions, you’ll prioritise the skills and values that are important to you. Even with the best will in the world, your quiz will, naturally, become a reflection of you as an individual. The thing is, your team already has one of you. You don’t need a mimic — you need an independent expert who can bring a fresh perspective. You need diversity of skills and perspective in your team, otherwise you’ll become narrow minded, miss opportunities, and lose ground to your competition.
3. It’s too soon to ask
You wouldn’t ask a first date for their credit score and medical history. They wouldn’t have invested enough time in you, personally, to feel obliged to answer, and they certainly wouldn’t think that you valued them as an individual. The same thing applies with a pre-screening test. Force people to climb through your filtering process before reading their application, and you’ll prove to them that you value your own time more than theirs.
Recruiters need to remember that, until the new staffer signs on the dotted line of their employment contract, they owe you nothing. They have to impress you, true, but you have a reciprocal duty to impress them. A good recruitment funnel builds steadily over time, striking the right balance between what the employer wants and what the employee gets, incentivising the maximum number of candidates to submit themselves for evaluation. You can’t afford to put up any roadblocks.
4. It goes against best practice
People hate filling in forms online — so much so that the removal of just 1 form field can have a dramatic impact on the number of form entries. Research has shown that contact forms with 3 fields typically outperform a 4 or 5 field form by as much as 25%. If you put an elaborate recruitment quiz in front of any web user you’ll add a layer of complexity that dwarfs a contact form. The dropout rate will be massive. Why create this sort of problem for yourself? Wouldn’t you rather skim-read as many CVs and resumes as possible and make your own mind up, rather than cut them all off with a pre-screening mechanism?
5. Humans get rusty
The truth is that coding is hard, and mistakes are common. Technical proficiency isn’t a binary pass-or-fail quality, and if your applicant has been working in a monotonous role for a long time, it’s possible that they’ve simply forgotten how to do a few things. You’re the best person to judge this — not an online quiz.
So how can we win the best candidates? How can we save time, avoid awkward going-nowhere interviews and find the people that we actually want to work with on a daily basis?
The right way to get the perfect candidate
It all starts with the job spec. You need to advertise your vacancy in a way that appeals to the heart before testing the head.
You first need to explain why this person is going to be happy in your organisation. Think about what you, and your colleagues, actually like about the job you do, then explicitly promise that in the first paragraph.
Once you’ve hooked the candidate’s interest, explain your mission. Appeal to their need for purpose with a clear explanation of how this job role is going to move your business forward. Let them see themselves as useful team members, making a valuable difference.
Once you’ve given the candidate a strong reason to apply, you’ve got their attention. You can make your expectations clear with respect to software proficiencies and programming skills, then get them to cross that threshold and actually apply to the vacancy.
You’ll get significantly more applications when you cut your pre-screening processes to a minimum, true, but it only takes a quick skim-read to disqualify an applicant. The more people apply, the easier it becomes to shortlist the best candidates. You’ll spend your interview time asking intelligent questions of talented people, rather than ‘making do’ with the small percentage who bothered to finish your test.
Try it. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to find your ideal candidate when you get out of your own way. And at the very end of the recruitment process, if you’re tied between a few candidates, you can always dust off that aptitude test.