Skills-Based Hiring Might Sound Like a New Idea — But Some Industries Have Been Using It for Years

March 22, 2021

Photograph of cellist playing instrument

Picture this: A cello perched on a lit stage. The music director calls for the next hopeful, who sits down beside the instrument — but doesn’t play it. Instead, the musician proceeds to describe their experience learning the cello and playing with previous orchestras. They also provide contact information for people to call to confirm that the candidate can, indeed, play well. At no point does anyone ask the candidate to so much as touch the bow.

Orchestras would never hire new members that way, just as casting directors would never sign an actor without seeing them perform first. In performance-driven businesses, job auditions have been around almost as long as jobs have been, allowing for more informed and equitable decision-making. And with the recent push for a skills-based hiring process, the corporate world may be on the verge of catching up with this practice. Adam Grant, a professor of organizational psychology at Wharton and host of the TED podcast WorkLife, wrote in The New York Times that he prefers “to focus less on what candidates say, and more on what they do.”

On the surface, skills-based hiring may seem like a new and somewhat intimidating idea, and some companies may — understandably — be unsure where to start. But by taking cues from organizations that have gone before you, you can develop assessments that provide meaningful insights into a candidate’s skills, so you can avoid costly missteps and pinpoint the right person for the job. 

Develop objective ways to measure and compare skills like the NFL Combine does

If you’re a fan of U.S. football, you’re probably already familiar with the NFL Combine, the four-day-long scouting event in which hundreds of top college athletes gather in Indianapolis to show off their skills and talents. Since playing in the National Football League requires incredible physical prowess, the organization has developed a series of tests to objectively evaluate and compare prospects’ abilities. These include a 40-yard dash to determine whether they can achieve sudden bursts of speed and a three-cone drill (which actually uses four) to assess their agility.

While your new hire probably won’t need to sprint and jump, you still will want them to tackle important assignments. So, take a page out of the NFL’s playbook by developing tests that put candidates through their paces. Since hard skills tend to be easier to quantify, these are often a good place to start. For example, many tech companies are already using coding tests like those available through HackerRank and iMocha to gather data about candidates’ skills. This allows hiring managers to more easily compare apples to apples during the decision-making process. 

Of course, technical abilities aren’t the only mark of a good hire, especially since they can typically be taught and developed. That’s why the NFL Combine also features assessments like the Wonderlic test, which is designed to measure cognitive ability and problem-solving aptitude. These assessments are then paired with more qualitative data, like the player’s answers to behavioral interview questions and emotional intelligence tests, to provide a well-rounded view of each athlete.

Simulate an on-the-job experience like the one teaching hopefuls must complete

Sometimes, as the old adage goes, seeing is believing. That’s why some organizations require candidates to complete a kind of job simulation to see firsthand how they will perform in the role.

For teaching positions, it’s fairly standard to have candidates complete an observed teaching demonstration in a real classroom in front of real students. This gives interviewers and faculty the chance to observe a candidate’s soft skills, such as their ability to communicate with and engage students, as well as their mastery of the subject matter. In Scotland, teachers have to complete a one-year teaching post in an assigned school before they can become fully qualified, allowing multiple classes to be observed and constructive feedback to be provided.

You probably don’t have time for a yearlong simulation, but you could follow in the footsteps of companies like Mogul that ask final-round candidates to spend a day working in the office before making their final decision. This not only allows them to observe prospective hires on the job, but allows candidates to get a better sense of the culture and determine if the role is a good fit for them. 

One thing to keep in mind when designing these kinds of assessments is the fact that they require an additional time investment from candidates. This may make your hiring process less inclusive, since some candidates may be unable to take an extra day off work after the initial round of interviews. Where possible, use shorter simulations that take place on the same day as other interviews, and clearly outline your interview process on your careers site to ensure people know what to expect. 

Create a take-home work assignment similar to those often given marketing candidates

In the marketing world, take-home assessments have long been a staple of the hiring process, and they have the potential to be used for other roles too. From asking candidates to write an article for the company’s blog to requesting a list of potential slogans for a made-up business, these assessments allow recruiters to evaluate hard skills like writing and soft skills like creativity. 

One benefit of this type of assessment is that candidates can complete it at their own pace, minimizing the amount of time they have to spend in your office during working hours. If you do ask candidates to complete a take-home assessment, make sure the deadline is realistic. A 24-hour turnaround may not be possible for someone who finishes work at 6 p.m. and has to take care of a child or an elderly relative when they get home. Consider, instead, an assessment that can be done during your time with a candidate. An “onsite” assessment guarantees they do their own work; ensures everyone has the same amount of time; and forces hiring teams to develop assessments that are respectful of the candidate’s time. 

When you’re designing your assignment, aim to make it an accurate representation of the type of work your new hire will be doing on a regular basis. Similar to the simulation, this can help candidates evaluate whether the job is right for them, especially for those who are newer to the field. But don’t ask for too much. In recent years, candidates have reported being asked to produce elaborate, labor-intensive work, like an entire year’s marketing plan — often without being paid for their time. That won’t help anyone’s talent brand. 

Being transparent about what the test will involve, how long they should spend on it, and what it will be used for can establish trust. Keeping the assignments short will also make it easier for your team to evaluate them and compare them side-by-side. 

Final thoughts: Focus on the skills that matter most

Adopting a skills-based hiring process doesn’t mean you have to start from scratch. Borrowing tried-and-tested strategies from other organizations and adapting them to suit your needs can help you identify exceptional candidates who might otherwise slip through the cracks. 

Whatever type of skills-based hiring assessment you ultimately adopt, make sure you’re clear on what skills you’re evaluating and why. Test only for the skills that are essential to the role if you want to find untapped talent with massive potential. 

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