The Many Flavors of Online Screening

So you’ve decided to add screening to your online hiring process? Congratulations! I always say that the first step is half the distance to the finish. Unfortunately, deciding what type of screening to use and which vendors to consider can often be a confusing process. And even if you haven’t yet decided to add online screening, there’s a lot to learn about the choices out there. The purpose of this article is to help alleviate some of the confusion that exists by summarizing the major types of screening tools available on the market and by providing some rough guidelines about when it is most appropriate to use each type. Major Types of Online Screening For the purposes of this article, I have divided online screening into three major areas:

  • Non-scientific screening
  • Knowledge/skill testing
  • Scientific screening

Each of the three areas to be discussed contains several distinct types of screening systems and/or tools ó and some actually use a combination of elements from more than one area. Of course, there are other tools that can also contribute to the online screening process (e.g., background checks and online interviews), but these things are beyond the scope of this article. My discussion follows the common metaphor of the screening process functioning as a funnel, in which successive rounds of screening pare down the larger initial applicant pool in order to provide a final list of only the most qualified candidates. In general, screening tools used at the top of the funnel focus on eliminating candidates that do not meet minimum qualifications, while those further down the funnel focus on measuring characteristics that are most useful for predicting which qualified members of a candidate pool are the best fit for a given job. Non-Scientific Screening: The Top of the Funnel Non-scientific screening is best suited to the task of reducing the volume of applicants for a given job by eliminating candidates who are clearly unqualified. This is best done by the measurement of what I refer to as “above ground” information, which includes aspects of the job that are relatively straightforward and easy to identify. The major advantage of this type of screening is that it is most often an automated process. That means that once you configure your system it, it runs by itself, automatically screening out applicants who are not qualified for the job. In fact, most non-scientific screening systems can be anchored directly to a job posting, providing a quick and transparent way to weed out unqualified applicants. There are several types of non-scientific screening, which include:

  1. Enterprise-level systems. These systems often anchor many HR functions simultaneously and can be customized to suit the individual needs of an organization. The cost of this flexibility is that getting such a system dialed in can be a very lengthy and expensive process. These systems are not usually chosen solely for their ability to provide screening, rather screening functionality is just one of many things they can be set up to do.
  2. Dedicated ATS systems. Most ATS systems have built-in screening tools that allow basic questions to be asked. Some of these are more involved and elaborate than others. Some offer the ability to totally customize screening questions, while others offer only a basic template that doesn’t allow for a high degree of customization in the questions to be asked.
  3. Standalone systems. These systems do nothing but provide a screening filter. These systems are truly modular: that is, they can be used as a standalone system or they can be plugged into a variety of other types of systems (e.g., scientific screening systems, background investigation systems, ATS systems).
  4. Automated resume scanning/evaluation tools. These systems provide top-of-the-funnel screening by automatically evaluating the contents of resumes and making screening decisions based upon a match between resume content and job requirements. There are a variety of different proprietary technologies out there that provide this service.

When To Use Non-Scientific Screening The major purpose of this type of tool is to reduce the number of applicants that recruiters have to evaluate when making hiring decisions. These tools are most appropriate in situations where recruiters seem to be wasting their time dealing with an overwhelming volume of resumes. I feel that adding some form of non-scientific screening is an essential part of the development of any employment portal or online recruiting strategy. The whole goal of these initiatives is to generate applications, but the effort is wasted if you don’t have a way to easily process the increased volume of responses you are expecting. Here are some things to look at when choosing a non-scientific screening system:

  • How compatible is the system with your existing technology?
  • Is the system easy for recruiters to use?
  • If it is highly customizable, how much training is required to use it effectively?
  • Does the system have any safeguards to keep recruiters from asking illegal screening questions?
  • What happens to applicants that are screened out? What message do they receive?
  • Does the system provide the ability to collect and evaluate data/metrics?

Knowledge/Skill Testing: More Minimum Qualifications This type of screening offers the ability to measure an applicant’s knowledge of a certain computer program/application or a specific area of expertise. This type of screening makes a lot of sense for certain positions, and the advent of the Internet as a delivery platform has really helped it increase its popularity. It is easier to deal with than scientific screening because it focuses on easily verifiable, above ground information that is critical to job performance. There is little gray area here: either you know the subject it or you don’t. There are a many vendors in this area. Most offer tests for almost every major program and application currently in use in the workplace. Most of these systems are pretty similar. In my mind the major differentiator here is the quality of the questions. Better tests will provide content that requires test takers to use their knowledge of a certain subject or program to solve problems rather than asking them to answer ticky-tacky questions about a subject. When To Use Knowledge/Skill Testing I think this type of screening has the best value as a second step in the screening process after initial screening on minimum qualifications has occurred. Knowledge/skills testing is generally cheaper and easier to use than scientific screening and offers an excellent return on investment by providing an additional tool for reducing the number of unqualified applicants in your applicant pool. This type of testing is especially useful for IT jobs where knowledge of specific computer programs are essential to job performance. Resumes alone cannot do a good job of verifying this type of knowledge. We all know that resumes can often represent world-class fiction writing ó so this type of screening provides a quick, easy way to separate the pretenders from the contenders. Here are some things to look for when choosing a vendor in this area:

  • Continual revision of items and development of item pools
  • Use of content experts for test/item writing
  • Innovative presentation of test content (i.e., simulations)
  • Items that measure application of knowledge rather than rote knowledge
  • Ability to keep test time to about 15-20 minutes
  • Ability to integrate with other systems, such as ATS or employment portal backends
  • Ability to create composite tests that measure more than one knowledge area

Scientific Screening: Survival of the Fittest This is the most complex type of online screening (for more information about the basics of scientific screening, please see my earlier article on the subject). It is complex because:

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  • Its use requires an awareness and understanding of legal issues.
  • There are several types of scientific screening, and the number of options available to those interested in using scientific screening can be overwhelming.
  • Each type of screening works best in certain specific situations.

Despite these complexities, I truly believe that scientific screening has much to add to the hiring process. Although setting up this type of screening can be time consuming, it yields high quality information that is very useful for helping to make decisions among a group of qualified candidates. This allows scientific screening to provide large gains in the effectiveness of an online hiring system, while also providing excellent returns on the initial investment made in the system. Types of Scientific Screening Scientific screening measures “below ground” information about a candidate and compares this information to job requirements in order to predict which applicants will be most successful. Below ground information involves aspects of job performance that may not be readily apparent from initial non-scientific screening activities. These are the things about an applicant that you can’t measure unless you are using the correct tools. There are five basic types of scientific screening tools. Some screening systems use only one of these types of tools, while others use a combination of different methods.

  1. Biodata. Gathers information about what a candidate has done in the past in order to predict future behavior.
  2. Personality. Measures work-related personality traits in order to help predict job success. This seems to be the most common type of online scientific screening available in today’s marketplace.
  3. Work values. Provides an index of “fit” between an individual and a specific work environment. Many fit tools are based on personality measures.
  4. Cognitive ability. Measures a variety of aspects of mental ability, including general ability, problem solving, math ability, spatial ability, etc.
  5. Situational judgment. Examines how one chooses to handle work-related situations or scenarios and uses responses to predict on-the-job behaviors.

When To Use Scientific Screening Once you are satisfied that your initial screening processes are effectively screening out unqualified applicants, it’s time to think about installing scientific screening as way to evaluate existing qualified applicants and gather the additional information needed to choose the best of the remaining candidates. Scientific screening is also useful for helping to solve targeted staffing-related problems within your organization. For instance, scientific screening tools can help reduce turnover at a given job by helping you select employees that are a better fit for that job. Finally, scientific screening is an excellent way to help build for the future of your organization. The ability to measure critical competencies means that the scientific screening process can be used to identify potential high performers early on. Scientific screening also allows you to make sure that you are hiring applicants who possess the competencies needed to ensure that you have the man/woman power needed to meet your company’s long-term strategic goals. The choice of what type of scientific screening to use is a complex issue that goes beyond the scope of this article. In general, this choice should be dictated by factors such as your immediate needs, the nature of the job in question, and the existing technology you have in place. Since many vendors offer multiple types of screening tools, I feel the best advice I can relay in this limited space is a list of things to look for at the vendor level. Here are some specific things to look for when evaluating scientific screening vendors:

  • Does the system provide adequate foundation-building tools? (See my earlier articles on this subject)
  • Is the type of screening provided really compatible with your needs?
  • Is the system flexible enough to meet your needs, or are you being forced to use a one-size-fits-all model?
  • What validation strategy is used and what validation evidence is provided?
  • What is the history of the screening tool, who made it, and where else has it been used?
  • How well does the tool integrate with other screening tools and ATS/candidate management systems?
  • Is the technology used really innovative, or is the Internet used only as a delivery mechanism?
  • Does the screening vendor use an ASP model?
  • How will both internal system users and test takers feel about this system? User acceptance on both ends will make or break your screening initiative.

The Ideal Solution? Ideally a highly evolved online hiring system will pull together several types of screening in order to provide a complete, customized solution that is designed to provide maximum predictive efficiency for a given job all the way down the funnel. The current variety of types of screening will help wean us off our reliance on the resume and towards a model in which several types of screening are used to construct a picture of a job applicant’s ability to perform a specific job. This will provide a profile of an applicant that is verifiable and measurable ó something that a resume simply cannot do.

Dr. Charles Handler is a thought leader, analyst, and practitioner in the talent assessment and human capital space. Throughout his career Dr. Handler has specialized in developing effective, legally defensible employee selection systems. 

Since 2001 Dr. Handler has served as the president and founder of Rocket-Hire, a vendor neutral consultancy dedicated to creating and driving innovation in talent assessment.  Dr. Handler has helped companies such as Intuit, Wells Fargo, KPMG, Scotia Bank, Hilton Worldwide, and Humana to design, implement, and measure impactful employee selection processes.

Through his prolific writing for media outlets such as, his work as a pre-hire assessment analyst for Bersin by Deloitte, and worldwide public speaking, Dr. Handler is a highly visible futurist and evangelist for the talent assessment space. Throughout his career, Dr. Handler has been on the forefront of innovation in the talent assessment space, applying his sound foundation in psychometrics to helping drive innovation in assessments through the use of gaming, social media, big data, and other advanced technologies.

Dr. Handler holds a M.S. and Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Louisiana State University.







2 Comments on “The Many Flavors of Online Screening

  1. Great article on the many different types of online screening. But would you say that no matter how much technology has helped or made screening resumes easier….the best method for finding qualified candidates and making sure that they do not slip through the “resume software ” cracks is still screening them by hand? I know that it’s time consuming, but no matter how far we go with recruiting software, nothing can take the place of a human…who can still look at a resume and view it as a whole instead of by a key word. Would you agree??

    Vance M. Selin
    2512 Artesia Blvd. Ste 140
    Redondo Beach, CA 90278

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  2. Thanks for taking the time to review my article and voice your opinions.

    I have to say that I am in total agreement with you about the fact that the human touch offers one of the best ways to help select persons for a job.

    However, I dont think the process has to be binary, i.e., either all automated or all human. Rather I see most online tools as a way to help humans augment the decision making process in 3 major ways.

    1. Asking recruiters to weed through resumes is not the best way to bring the human touch into the hiring equation. Especially in larger organizations with lots of seats to fill, involving humans in deciding who meets minimum quals and who does not is not a very constructive use of your resources. I think that the level of human intervention needed early in the hiring process varies directly with the complexity of the job and with the number of seats to be filled. So I would agree that in some situations with fewer, higher level jobs it becomes more appropriate to seek human decision making in the earlier stages of the process but for cattle calls automation just makes more sense.

    2. It is also important to understand that accurate prediction requires the use of tools. The validity of this has been demonstrated thousands of times over the past 50 years. These tools do not make decisions for people, rather they provide information that humans can then use to factor into their decision making process. Even in the dark days before the Internet, the quality of predictions made when hiring employees was greatly improved by the use of such predictive tools. In some sense all the Internet has done is allow us to automate these tools. So in the case of more in-depth scientific screening, I still feel that humans should be involved in the process, but providing them a set of tools helps provide the intelligence needed to help humans to make higher quality decisions.

    3. From a legal standpoint, one of the most important things that must be addressed in selection systems is that all candidates are evaluated using the exact same criteria and that these are evaluated using a standardized decision making process. One of the most dangerous things about an entirely human powered decision making process is that it is difficult to control where and how subjectivity enters into the process. Automation provides a way to ensure that all candidates are evaluated based on the same exact pieces of information and that the algorythems used in the decision making process provide some standardization to the process. This does not mean that humans do not have a role in the process, in fact all decision making processes come down choices made by humans. All automation does is bring human decision making into the picture at the appropriate time and in a way the reduces the opportunity for unconstructive subjectivity.

    So I DO NOT advocate removing the human touch from the selection process. Rather, I feel that online screening provides persons involved in the hiring process with a set of tools that can actually help them to make more informed decisions. I view the relationship between humans and automated systems as a kind of symbiosis.

    Charles Handler

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