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Work Sample Testing in the Wild

Posted by Staffing Advisors on November 4, 2022

At Staffing Advisors, we are big fans of behavioral economics—using economics and psychology to understand why people behave the way they do in the real world. Our Evidence-Based Interviewing practices include many proven principles from this field of study. You can imagine our delight when we heard award-winning behavioral economist Steve Levitt report that his team used similar practices when hiring for his center, Radical Innovation for Social Change (RISC), at the University of Chicago. Their results beg us to consider how hiring will evolve as more organizations embrace an evidence-based approach.

No Resumes Needed

Steve Levitt is an American economist, professor at the University of Chicago, co-author of Freakonomics, co-founder of RISC, TED speaker, podcast host, and more. On a recent episode of his podcast, People I (Mostly) Admire (PIMA), Steve shared a peek at his team's hiring process for six newly open positions at RISC.

There are a few unique factors in the RISC team's approach. First, they did not ask for, accept, or review resumes during the initial screening round for the position. Applicants were required only to complete a rigorous performance task, estimated at 3-4 hours to complete.

Second, this was completely blind. As Steve quipped, "You could be an eight-year-old and if you did that project well, we would bring you back."

Lastly, Steve announced the open positions on the show, assuming only a couple of listeners might apply—they received 23 submissions. This announcement was in addition to RISC's typical recruiting approach, "we blanket the elite schools, the Ivy Leagues—we go after really good people… people from the best schools in the country."

The Data Challenge Assumptions

The data are where it gets exciting. Of the applicant pool from the Ivies, 20% were called back for the first round of interviews. Of the podcast listener applicant group, 35% were called back. As Steve said, "PIMA listeners were almost twice as likely to move on as the undergraduates from the most elite universities in the world. I had not expected that. So, it really was based on merit, and it turned out that the PIMA listeners were just better than the rest of the pool."

Too often we assume that people from a particular educational background and experience level will perform in a certain way; this may or may not be accurate. People with different lived experiences might perform just as well or better.

Steve’s final observation was "34 out of 49—so almost 70 percent — of the people who are being interviewed are women. And that's a much higher share than we've ever had in the past. We've always been about 50-50 in the past between men and women, and it's interesting that when we made it blind, women performed so well."

This type of approach may not only serve to predict success on the job but also to advance equity across organizations. Couple this approach with increasing pay transparency and you are looking at a sea change in the hiring landscape.

Should Work Sample Testing Carry Heavier Weight?

We are not suggesting hiring managers and search committees remove resumes from the hiring process. But there is a substantial benefit to using work sample testing in recruiting a highly competent and diverse group of candidates for an open position. Work sample testing in a competency-based framework is foundational to Staffing Advisors' Results-Based Hiring Process. Our own research shows it is one of the most effective ways to predict success on the job.

We also use the blind assessment approach early on in our vetting process. We find that clients are more open to reviewing candidates from varied backgrounds if they first get a written sample of how the candidate thinks about the work in their own words.

This may not work the same across all industries and functional areas, but perhaps blind assessments and work sample testing should carry a heavier weight when organizations evaluate potential new hires. Could an initial stage performance task become the norm? Could blind assessments replace poring through bulleted lists of accomplishments and qualifications? And how might these types of changes affect candidates’ responses to job ads?

Beyond the anecdotal evidence, the benefits of work sample testing are supported by definitive, widespread research. And if we're being direct, it just makes sense. As organizational psychologist Adam Grant said in a recent interview, "the easiest way to gauge whether I want you to fly my plane is to watch you fly a plane, right?"


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