The Pain of Hiring Tests

The Pain of Hiring Tests, and ways to make them better!

Considering that I used to work in a creative/development field, I had become accustomed to having to do some type of “hiring test” during the application process.  They are a fairly common practice for many fields. The test usually consists of some task the employer gives you to do that showcases your creativity, skill, and/or technical ability to actually produce or accomplish a certain result within a time frame.

A Programmer might be asked to write a snippet of code, a Designer to create concept art for a new logo, or a Business Professional to do a Microsoft Office proficiency test.  That is all fine and good for the most part.  Hiring tests can be a great tool for companies when used properly. The problem is, a lot of employers don’t understand how to properly do a hiring test for candidates.

I’ve seen tests run the gambit from short and sweet to long and tedious, but it’s the latter that’s an issue.  Regardless of what the test is trying to accomplish, the company should be mindful to respect the candidates’ time. Unfortunately, many hiring tests simply do not respect the candidates’ time and efforts.

And therein lies the entire problem.  I’ve seen far too many hiring tests that often consisted of over 20 hours of work.  All of which ask the candidate to not only do it with no paid compensation but also often do it in a very demanding and short period of time.  Many job seekers look for new work while currently employed, so being asked to complete a lengthy test while also balancing their work and personal life is ludicrous.

Many companies have even made the hiring test one of the first steps in their recruiting processes (if not the first step itself) before even allowing the candidate to interview or get a better feel for the position.  How shameful that a candidate must put in substantial work and effort before they even can speak to a representative of the company!

And what about the content of the hiring test itself?  Is it actually relevant to the position itself?  Often times, test content can seem so niche, obscure, or loosely connected to the job itself that one must wonder how valuable the test actually is.  For example, a single skills test for Microsoft Office is not going to measure the capability of what a Marketing Professional can actually do. There’s more to the job than just that!

In many cases, these hiring tests become nothing more than another hurdle to get over in the recruitment process. It’s also disappointing that they are often used to filter out those who may not have the time to complete the test on the company’s ridiculous time frames.  I’ve actually had instances where I asked for more time to complete a test due to my busy schedule, only to have the company turn it down because they wanted to see that I could complete a task in a timely manner.  Umm… You gave me a task that will take me 16 hours and you gave me two days to do it.  I do have a full-time job and family you know???

Despite my gripes with the way a lot of hiring tests are being administered to job candidates, I still don’t inherently think they always bad, if done correctly.  I understand the business’s perspective of wanting to get the best bang for your buck, and bad hires can be a very costly mistake.  Not only that, the hiring test could expose critical skill deficiencies in job candidates who may just be very good interviewers but are otherwise lacking (or lying about) necessary skill competencies.

It can be a tool that allows the employer to learn a little bit more about the candidate than they could otherwise, while also allowing the candidate to see a little more about what the job may actually be like.  Unfortunately, many hiring tests complete miss the point.  Not all is lost, however, these issues can be fixed with some simple guidelines!

The Correct Ways to Administer Hiring Tests to Job Candidates

A Hiring Test Should Come After the First Interviews

Hiring tests should never be the first step in the process.  Employers should take the time to look at qualified candidates and get a feel for them based on their resume, work experience, portfolio, and cover letter.  At the very least, conduct an initial phone interview that allows a candidate an opportunity to learn more about the position and company, and vice versa, before asking them to complete your hiring test.

This initial interview can be very valuable for both the employer and the job seeker and help screen out bad fits or uninterested candidates before ever asking for their time and efforts.  Once both parties are interested in each other, then give out the hiring test as validation of the candidate’s skills and qualifications.

Far too often companies simply administer hiring tests to every single applicant, a lazy screening method really.  There is no worse feeling for a job seeker than being asked to spend five, ten, even twenty hours completing a hiring test when they are unsure if they will even ever get a chance to talk to the company in the first place.

Don’t let the hiring test be another barrier for candidates to get through, let it be a useful tool that evaluates skills only once a mutual interest has been established.

A Hiring Test Should Have Flexible Time Frames

Another crucial mistake is that many hiring tests are administered with extremely strict time frames and deadlines.  Many companies set strict time frames because they want to see if a candidate can work in a timely fashion and meet deadlines, but have employers forgot that people who are applying for work may already be employed in busy or stressful jobs?  Hiring tests should be flexible in regards to their completion time.

Employers cannot expect people that are employed to be able to complete a time demanding test somewhere in the middle of their work week.  Companies should work with the candidates to establish the best time frame.  Many times, it’s as simple as allowing them to complete a test over the weekend or talking to them which day they would prefer to start.  The test can start only once you send it to them or ask them to do it, so simply wait till the time is good for your candidates to give it their best shot.

Many companies send the test out all willy nilly and next thing you know it’s “Here’s our hiring test, please complete in two business days for consideration for this role.”  The poor candidate is now working till 3 AM to try to somehow get it done because they do have family and work obligations to take care of after all.

Be flexible with your time frames for tests!

A Hiring Test Should be Practical and Short

Far too many hiring tests consist of bizarre or unpractical questions/scenarios, and many are entirely too lengthy.  A hiring test shouldn’t be about solving a problem that you’ll likely never encounter in your day to day work.  It should consist of practical and realistic problems that people in that field actually encounter and are asked to solve on a daily or weekly basis.

The ultimate goal should be to keep hiring tests succinct and to the point.  A hiring test shouldn’t take 30+ hours to complete (and yes, I’ve personally received tests that have asked me for 30-40 hours of work!!!)  Even anything more than ten hours is probably too much!

I think the ideal hiring test would ask for two to eight hours of work from the candidate, and I would expect the employer to keenly observe how the candidate does the work rather than how long it takes. The employer should be mindful to look for an attention to detail, efficiency, or high quality of work in how the candidates complete their tests, rather than focusing solely on the end result.

These qualities exhibit how a person works, a good indicator of how they may approach any type of task you give them down the road.  Once again, it comes down to respecting the candidate’s time, while also being mindful to observe not only the result, but the process on how they got there.

A Hiring Test Should NOT be a Take Home Test

Whenever possible, I truly feel that hiring tests should be administered on-site at the company, rather than given to a candidate for them to complete at home.

This may not be possible for every single business obviously, whether it be due to limited physical space or resources, considering out of state employees, or just too costly for the company to perform.  Nonetheless, I think it’s absolutely the most valid, fair, and efficient way to administer a hiring test.

It helps normalize testing conditions and eliminates variances that can create advantages or disadvantages for certain candidates.  One candidate may have more free time to devote to completing a test than another.  One candidate might have better equipment, software, or tools that give them the edge over others.

Another consideration is wondering if the job candidate even completed the hiring test themselves.  It’s not unheard of for candidates to potentially steal or plagiarize work or to even hire a professional to complete their test for them.

It can be very difficult to catch any of these differentiators and it creates an unfair playing ground for job candidates.  There are simply too many issues with allowing a candidate to take a test at home that can greatly skew the testing process.

By giving an on-site test, the employer levels the playing field and ensures that each candidate has the same time and resources to complete the test, while also verifying they are actually the ones completing the test.  The employer also gets the invaluable opportunity to see the person’s work process in real-time, a very valuable observation to make as we discussed above earlier.

A Hiring Test Should Sometimes Be Paid

This may be a controversial and bold statement, but it’s not unheard of and it really makes a great impression on candidates.

I had two companies in my career pay for my time completing their hiring tests and it was a wonderful thing.  It is about the best thing the company could do in the recruiting process to let the candidate know that they respect their time and efforts. That they truly appreciate them for taking the test to help the company make their hiring decision.

The hiring tests that generally are paid are usually more brief and practical in nature.  They are usually presented as a very last step in the recruiting process and reserved for only the last select few candidates.  This really helps motivate candidates to do their best work possible while also leaving them with a great impression of your company no matter what the result.

Even if the test or future interviews prove that the candidate is not the right fit for the job, the candidate can walk away feeling better about the experience, and they will likely talk positively about your recruiting practices to others.

Paying candidates may not be the right choice for every hiring test a company uses, but it’s certainly very beneficial when it can be done. 

Hiring Tests Can Be Done Well!

Hiring tests can be a very useful tool for employers – when they are done correctly. They should be flexible, practical, brief, and be given on-site whenever possible.  Companies should be keen to look at the process used to complete tests with just as much importance as the end result.

Lastly, these tests should never be the first step in the hiring process and certainly not another fence for job seekers to get over before even knowing if they will be granted an initial interview.  Give candidates an opportunity to learn more about the company and position first, and if they are qualified and interest is mutual, then move forward to a hiring test if applicable.

I hope in the future we will see hiring tests being used more gracefully by companies, adopting many of the guidelines discussed in this post as well as other innovations that can make tests more productive for both the candidates and the employers.  They truly can be a good thing when done right!

Yours Truly,
– Mr. Happy Work


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

UGH. These tests are literally the worst. I work in programming and I have to do these for positions sometimes. I even have a portfolio of custom projects I’ve built and my resume highlights my experience, credentials, and accomplishments, but still employers want me to do their silly tests.

It wouldn’t be too bad if these tests were more reasonable, like you mentioned, but often they have not been. The main issue I’ve run into is not the length of the test, but simply the absurdity of the problems they are asking me to solve in the test. It will literally be some programming dilemma or syntax error you would never find in a real situation. Most times I feel they want me to be better at solving riddles than being a good developer!

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x