Selecting Job Applicants - Principles of Management

Selection is the process of deciding which job applicants will make the most suitable employees. This decision process consists of collecting and verifying details about job candidates, and then using this information to predict who is most suitable to the job and organization.

Selection occurs after human resource planning, but it tends to run alongside the recruitment process. Many of Google’s employees are recruited through campus fairs, but their first meeting with the recruiter is also the company’s first step in the selection process.

Recruiters don’t just sell the company; they find out more about these students and immediately decide who should receive further attention for recruitment and selection.

There are many types of selection methods, and most companies use two or more of them to identify suitable job applicants. But how do managers know which methods to rely on? To answer this question, we need to consider two things:

  1. what constitutes a “suitable” candidate and
  2. how well the selection method measures or predicts that suitability.

For the most part suitability refers to an applicant’s job performance or skills and abilities that are required for future performance. However, suitability also refers to how well the employee’s values and interpersonal skills fit the organization’s culture.


The second issue to consider is how well a selection method measures or predicts people’s suitability. If a job calls for applicants with strong math skills, then the selection method should measure math skills with a high degree of reliability and validity. Reliability refers to how consistently a selection method measures a person’s characteristics. If a job applicant’s scores on a math test vary considerably over one month, the test probably lacks reliability because math skills don’t actually change much over that period.

To understand the importance of reliable selection methods, imagine trying to shoot a distant target with a bow and arrows. If your arrows land all over the target, then you have low reliability and will onlyoccasionally hit the bull’s-eye. But if your arrows land in the same place (not necessarily the bull’s-eye), then you have high reliability and it is just a matter of redirecting your aim somewhat to hit the bull’s-eye every time.

Validity , which refers to how well a selection method predicts an applicant’s suitability as an employee, is the bull’s-eye. A selection method has a high degree of validity if it does a good job of predicting how successful applicants will be on the job, such as their job performance, turnover, loyalty, or other important outcomes. Google believes that education is a highly valid indicator of an applicant’s suitability.

“We’re impressed by the determination and drive it takes to complete the degrees,” says Stacy Sullivan, Google’s human resources director. Google managers believe (and likely have evidence showing) that education predicts a person’s persistence, creativity, and ability to grasp cutting-edge knowledge, all of which are necessary in new product development.

They may have also found that employees with higher educational degrees or grades are less likely to be overwhelmed with the work, so they have lower turnover and higher job satisfaction at Google. Work experience might also predict job performance, but Google believes it is less predictive (has lower validity) than education.

Validating everything we use to select job applicants is a huge challenge, but two rules of thumb offer some guidance. The first rule is that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. People who provided good customer service in their previous jobs are likely to serve customers well in their next jobs, particularly in similar situations.

The second, and somewhat related, rule of thumb is that samples of a person’s work are usually better predictors of future behavior and performance than are abstract signs. Past behavior and work simulations are samples because they represent the person’s actual behavior. Signs, on the other hand, include more abstract information, such as personality and aptitude tests. People don’t complete personality tests as part of their job. Instead the personality test is an abstract sign of how well people perform their jobs.

Figure below lists the various selection techniques. Generally selection methods that represent or are close to being samples or represent

Popularity and Validity of Selection Methods

Popularity and Validity of Selection Methods

past behavior have the highest validity, whereas selection methods that are remote signs tend to have lower validity. This figure also indicates the popularity of each selection method, which refers to how many companies use each method.


Usually the first information received is the applicant’s résumé or completed application form. Not long ago, organizing and sorting these documents was a nightmare. Today, thanks to online applications and software that transcribes scanned résumés, it is much easier to use this information to screen out people who lack the minimum education, work experience, or other requirements. A more sophisticated approach is the weighted application blank, which statistically identifies information in the application form that best predicts the applicant’s suitability.

One glaring problem is that somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of application forms contain false information. Although most of these inaccuracies are minor, there are also many high-profile misrepresentations. For example, a former CEO of Radio Shack, an executive at NASA, a football coach at the University of Notre Dame, and a mayor of Rancho Mirage, California, embellished their educational credentials. Lucent Technologies discovered that a former executive had lied about having a PhD from Stanford University and hid his criminal past involving forgery and embezzlement.

Ironically this executive was Lucent’s director of recruiting! Many firms conduct reference checks to minimize false information in application forms. They contact previous employers, educational institutions, and reference sources listed by the applicant to confirm that information in the application form or résumé is accurate. Reference checks have become difficult because many organizations refuse to answer reference check questions for fear of liability. Fortunately several states now protect companies that provide reference information in good faith. Also, according to recent court cases, companies may be liable for refusing to divulge an applicant’s past wrongdoings if the person causes damage in the next workplace.


Work sample tests tend to be a highly valid selection method because they require job candidates to demonstrate their behavior and performance in a real-time situation. Musicians who apply for a job in a symphony orchestra are asked to perform a piece of music. Graphic artists and computer animation specialists might be asked to complete a small piece of work in a few hours during the hiring process.

Internships and work-study programs represent another form of work sampling because the employer observes the student’s behavior and performance in these temporary roles. The previously mentioned Summer of Code and Code Jam events that Google sponsors provide small samples of work from participants before they even consider applying for a job at the search technology company.

Work samples also occur in assessment centers , which are a series of simulations that test for managerial potential. One typical assessment center simulation is the in-basket exercise, in which participants indicate how they would dispense with each issue identified in a series of phone and e-mail messages and notes.

Evaluation hiring is an extreme variation of work sampling whereby someone is hired by an employment agency but works at a client company. After a fixed period the client either hires the individual as a permanent employee or sends the person back to the employment agency for work elsewhere. Honda America follows this “try-before-you-buy” strategy. All new production employees are employed by Adecco Employment Services for a two-year training period.

Those who remain at the end of the two years are guaranteed an interview for a permanent job with Honda. Although evaluation hiring is one of the best ways to predict employee performance without the encumbrance of actually employing people, it potentially creates the problems of contingent work that we mentioned earlier, such as reduced loyalty and perceived unfairness in the employment relationship.


Managers regard the employment interview as the most important and trustworthy method for selecting job applicants. Rarely is someone hired without a formal meeting in which they are asked questions to determine their suitability for the job and organization. What are managers looking for in employment interviews? They are mainly assessing the applicant’s personality traits—particularly responsibility, dependability, initiative, and persistence. Unfortunately studies have found that managers aren’t very good at guessing personality characteristics from someone’s behavior or statements in an interview setting.

Social skills represent the second most common characteristic that managers look for in employment interviews. In particular, they assess the applicant’s interpersonal skills, team focus, and general ability to work with people. Fortunately managers tend to be fairly good at evaluating people’s social skills. The reason for this accuracy is that the interview is a sample of the job candidate’s behavior, revealing his or her ability to interact with other people. Along with social skills and personality, managers rely on interviews to gather information about the applicant’s general mental capability (intelligence) as well as job knowledge and skills.

Although popular, traditional unstructured interviews tend to have low validity. Why? One reason is that the interviews are inconsistent from one applicant to the next, resulting in different hiring standards. An equally troublesome issue is that the questions might not have anything to do with the job duties or predict how well the applicant will perform on the job. A third problem is that interviewers tend to distort the information received during the interview.

They ignore or quickly forget information that is contrary to their expectations and tend to seek negative information more than positive information. Perhaps most important, interviewers tend to form an opinion of each job applicant within minutes (or, according to some research, within seconds!).

Improving Employment Interviews Employment interviews are too popular to remove from the selection process, so we need to find ways to make them more useful in selection decisions. One possible solution is to train managers to be aware of interviewer biases. Several studies have concluded that training only minimally improves the validity of employment interviews, but it has at least some benefit over a complete lack of training.

Training is important, however, for teaching interviewers what questions they can and cannot ask in interviews. For example, interviewers cannot ask if an applicant is married with young children. Instead, if the job involves frequent travel, applicants might be asked if they can fulfill the required travel obligations.

Along with training, companies can improve the validity of interviews by ensuring that they are structured and that the questions are related to job performance. One structure that improves interview validity, called the patterned behavior description interview , asks applicants to recall specific incidents in the past and describe how they handled these situations.

For example, to determine how well applicants work with coworkers, managers might ask, “Describe a time when a coworker strongly and publicly disagreed with your views on an important decision. What did you do?” To gather enough details, this “stem” question is then followed with several “probe” questions, such as “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What did you do next?”

The U.S. division of DaimlerChrysler recently introduced the patterned behavior description interview to improve the selection process. “Managers whose daytime job is not full-time interviewing wanted a tool they could use quickly, confidently, and easily to make the best hiring decisions,” explains Sandy Fiaschetti, a human resource manager at the Auburn Hills, Michigan, automaker.

All managers must attend a training program that teaches them how to identify the competencies to assess, how to conduct behavioral interviewing, and how to calculate candidates’ scores from the interviews. So far the new interview process seems to work well. “Some managers who thought they knew which candidate they wanted going into the interviews used the tool and reached different conclusions,” Fiaschetti says. “[Now] they’re using the interview to gather data, not reach conclusions.”

Along with training and structured interviews, companies can improve interview validity by using multiple interviewers. In fact, selection decisions based on unstructured interviews with multiple interviewers are just as valid as selection decisions based on a patterned behavior description interview conducted by one interviewer. In some cases applicants are interviewed by a panel whose members later compare notes on their impressions of the candidate.

Google’s on-site interviews typically include two or more Google staff members, including managers and coworkers. But Google further strengthens the interview results by conducting several interviews. Typically Google applicants receive two or possibly three telephone interviews, which screen out people based on their basic knowledge, qualifications, and thinking ability. Applicants who pass this hurdle can count on spending half a day attending three interviews at Google’s headquarters or local offices. Applicants who pass those interviews are invited back (usually the next day) for a final interview.


In addition to application forms, employment interviews, and possibly work samples, many firms require applicants to complete tests that assess either their ability or their personality. Some tests assess the applicant’s current knowledge about a particular topic. Others are aptitude tests, which measure a person’s potential ability, such as general intelligence, perceptual accuracy, mathematical ability, and motor abilities such as finger dexterity.

Some of these instruments are paper-and-pencil tests, such as the GMAT, SAT, and MCAT tests required for entry to college programs. Others involve gamelike activities in which applicants move objects quickly in a limited time frame. For example, individuals with superior spatial and mathematical aptitudes tend to excel in architecture.

Banyan Air Service, an aircraft maintenance firm in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, gives applicants who lack work experience a mechanical aptitude test to determine their potential as aircraft mechanics. Employment selection researchers have reported that general intelligence is a good predictor of performance in a wide variety of jobs.

Ability tests are signs (rather than samples) of an individual’s future performance, but they usually have moderately good validity because of their logical connection to job- specific behavior. In contrast, personality tests measure much more abstract signs. Personality, is the relatively stable pattern of behaviors and consistent internal states that explains a person’s behavioral tendencies. As remote signs of behavior, personality tests aren’t the best selection methods.

In fact, they were strongly discouraged in the selection process a few decades ago. However, these tests have become more popular over the past decade because several studies report that specific personality traits really do predict specific types of job performance for some jobs. By some estimates, 30 percent of U.S. companies use personality tests to hire and place job applicants or internal recruits.


Throughout the staffing process, managers need to keep an eye on how each activity supports or interferes with the organization’s diversity objectives. The greatest concern is whether a selection method has an adverse impact on anyone in a group identified by employment legislation described earlier. Adverse (or disparate) impact refers to the effect of a policy or practice that appears neutral but has a significant and unintentional negative influence on one or more protected groups.

Adverse impact relates to many organizational practices, but it is particularly noticeable in the selection process. Any selection method that creates adverse impact results in fewer job offers to people in some groups compared to other groups even though there is no significant difference in their ability to perform the job. For example, work samples can result in adverse impact because members of some minority groups might have high potential but lack the experience to perform well in a work sample.

Adverse impact is justifiable if the organization can demonstrate that the selection method has high validity. Even so, these companies should consider introducing (or, with government contracts, are required to introduce) affirmative action programs. Affirmative action consists of policies and practices to assist members of protected groups that are underrepresented in the organization. These practices might include outreach programs to encourage more people in underrepresented groups to apply.

Or they might provide reasonable accommodation, such as by adjusting job content or offering more flexibility so people in disadvantaged groups have a better opportunity to succeed. If a work sample has adverse impact, then companies should instead consider testing the aptitudes of job candidates and giving new hires on-the-job training.

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