Pre-employment testing: A complete guide

Types of pre-employment tests

This section in our guide to pre-employment testing breaks down the wide range of employment screening tests available, and describes what each test type can be used for.

We’ll also take a look at what makes a good candidate screening test, and the criteria to look for when it comes to the quality of pre-employment tests before making a decision.

This section will also answer the often-asked question about what the difference is between a pre-employment test and an assessment.

We know the sheer variety of pre-employment tests can be confusing, but our guide aims to explain the purpose and uses of each test type.

Types of pre-employment tests

First, a word about test quality. This varies widely between the many testing platforms, as does the amount of time candidates have to spend taking the tests.At TestGorilla, our tests are constantly being fine-tuned to ensure they stay accurate, valid, and relevant to industry changes. You may find our article on how we continuously improve our skills tests and are adding new features like API integration to create a more efficient hiring process an interesting read.

What makes a good test?

Let’s start with defining what “good” means in relation to a pre-employment test. An employer or recruiter’s goal is to make better hiring decisions, so a good test needs to be predictive of job performance.This means that tests should be developed by industry experts with extensive knowledge and experience in the subject that the test covers. In this way, the test will determine the candidates’ skills in a specific area.Here are some other important criteria to consider when determining whether a test is of a high standard:

  • They should be straightforward and easy to understand

  • They should cover each skill area appropriately and completely

  • They should be up-to-date

  • They should provide all relevant information

  • The question and each answer choice should be clear

Tests should also not be too easy – or too difficult – and should not contain any misleading information. Test providers should track candidate performance on each test to monitor this.Providers also need to check the success rates of different questions and do comparisons, as well as track the amount of time needed to answer each question and to do the whole test. This way, potential issues can be detected and fixed.

Pre-employment tests: A breakdown of test types

To make it clearer what the test categories are and how you can use them, we’ll take an in-depth look at each type.You’ll find that sometimes tests will fit into more than one category, such as some role-specific tests like Kubernetes that also fall into the software skills bracket, but don’t stress too much about which test falls into which category.

Role-specific skills

Assess soft skills such as leadership and negotiation, and specific hard skills like MS Office, Accounting, and Brand Strategy.

The role-specific skills category of tests covers pre-employment testing that is designed to evaluate candidates’ ability to perform tasks relevant to a particular job role, such as HVAC techniciansSEO copywritingmerchandise planning, or warehouse picking.

For example, you may be looking to hire a QA/test engineerdata analyst, or HR manager for your company. Giving candidates a test specifically designed to cover the required skills for the role would be ideal.

Role-specific tests may also cover certain parts of a job role, such as being able to use Google Analytics or Salesforce CRM.

Some platforms, such as TestGorilla, enable you to combine several individual tests into a longer skills assessment for an in-depth evaluation of candidates’ skills in more than one area.

We’ll look at the differences between individual tests and assessments later in the article, where we will explain the advantages of using assessments and give examples of situations in which you might find a single test suits your needs better.

Situational judgement

Use situational judgment tests to understand how candidates approach certain tasks and situations.

Situational judgment is the combination of personal aptitudes and knowledge needed to make a decision.

Situational judgment skills can be harder to define than job-related skills because there’s more to them than first meets the eye, and these other factors are also important.

If you are on the hunt for a candidate who has strong situational judgment, the process can become complicated because there are various types of situational judgment skills.

You may be looking for several of these skills in your candidates. These could include business judgment, negotiation, time management, leadership, people management, business ethics, and compliance judgment.

The type of situational judgment skills you’re searching for will depend largely on the particular role you are hiring for. For example, if you’re hiring a business leader, the situational judgment skills specific to this role will likely differ from those required by a teacher or retail assistant.

Our guide to situational judgment tests is useful reading to give you more in-depth information about the subject and how to test situational judgment effectively.

Programming skills

Measure programming skills like clean code and smart contracts and test for ability in specific coding languages.

If you want to hire a developer, you need to ensure they have the right type of computer programming skills. This can be tricky if you don’t have a lot of knowledge of programming languages – how will you know if the candidates are competent enough?

The good news is that programming is a measurable skill, and you don’t have to depend entirely on education and experience to identify skilled developers.

There are several ways to evaluate applicants’ programming skills. Having your candidates take high-quality programming tests created by subject-matter experts is a great choice if you’re recruiting as a non-programmer.There are many programming languages out there, including C#REST APIExpress.js, and Ruby on Rails. Candidates also need debugging skills on top of coding skills. You should find a test provider that carries a large variety of programming skills tests and ensure that it validates and regularly updates its tests.

Software skills

Assess your candidates’ abilities to use software such as Hubspot CRM, Salesforce, and QuickBooks.

The name of these skills is probably self-explanatory, but pre-employment testing for software skills evaluates candidates’ abilities to use various types of software, such as Microsoft Word or AutoCAD, that they may use in their daily work.Software skills testing is widely used in pre-employment screening because many jobs these days require employees to use one or more software applications. These tests indicate a candidate’s current skill level in key job-related competencies, but they won’t tell you whether they will be a good fit for the job as a whole.This is why it’s a good idea to combine software skills tests with other test types, such as role-related, situational judgment, cognitive, or personality and culture tests, to get a broader view of the candidates’ skills and suitability for a specific role.

Language

Measure your candidates’ reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in 13 languages.

Pre-employment testing for language skills evaluates candidates’ fluency in a specific language. There are different benchmarks for evaluating language ability.One example is the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), which is internationally recognized (but must be sat in specific test centers in each country) and has levels ranging from N1 (difficult/advanced) to N5 (easy/beginner).Other language proficiency tests for non-native speakers include those run by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the IELTS English test run by the British Council, and many more.Although these are high-quality tests, many require candidates to travel to test centers to sit the exams on specific dates and times.This makes it inconvenient for many candidates and costly for employers. Further, some of the tests are exceptionally long, which can discourage applicants. For example, the IELTS English test by the British Council lasts for more than two and a half hours with no break in between test sections!

A more cost-effective and convenient way of testing language skills is to use an online language proficiency test.

You should check that your test provider uses a widely recognized test framework for languages, like the Common European Framework of References for Languages (CEFR) that we use to create our language tests.The CEFR levels range from A1/basic to C2/proficient in each language.It’s also important to check that a language proficiency test covers all four key language skills:

  • Reading

  • Writing

  • Listening

  • Speaking

This is especially important when hiring candidates who will be using a language other than their native one since they will have to use most or all of the four key skills on a daily basis in their job.

can be useful when combined with other test types in an assessment, such as role-related skills tests. For example, if you’re hiring a graphic designer, you could use the Figma or Adobe Photoshop for Designers test, along with the Attention to Detail (Visual) test and a few other relevant tests to create a skills assessment.

There is one thing to be aware of when looking for a testing platform that offers cognitive ability tests – a bias that is built right into the tests. Since one of the main goals of using cognitive ability tests is to hire without bias, you would think that all cognitive tests are created equally, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

In 2011, Berry, Clarke, and McClure found that there are subgroup differences built into some cognitive ability tests. Their study found that White participants’ test scores are more directly correlated with their job performance than those of Black or Hispanic participants.

In other words, the tests they studied unintentionally favored White candidates. This is where adverse impact rears its ugly head again. We’re not saying that these tests are deliberately created to be biased but rather that you should be aware of the issue with some tests and ensure there is no adverse impact on candidates from specific groups.

It’s not uncommon for systemic bias to be built into standardized tests. For example, there’s well-documented evidence that Black students in the United States score poorer on standardized tests than White students.

And to compound that effect, Steele and Aronson showed that Black Americans perform worse on tests when they are simply reminded of the stereotype that they are expected to perform worse on tests than White students.

This adverse impact isn’t confined to race. In a 1999 study, women were tested on their math abilities when confronted with negative stereotypes. Women who were reminded right before the test of the stereotype that women are worse at math than men performed worse on the test than the control group.

There are many ways that the hiring process can be unintentionally biased, so you may find our post on how to reduce bias in your hiring process a useful read, along with our ultimate guide to cognitive ability tests for recruiters.

Cognitive diversity can help create stronger teams because it enables team members to approach problems from another angle without getting stuck in the “groupthink” rut. It also creates an open and inclusive atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to share their thoughts, however “different” they might be.

By increasing cognitive diversity in your team, you will reap the rewards of gaining ideas and perspectives you might not have thought about before.

Personality

Understand how your candidates process information and make decisions.

Did you know that more than 88% of Fortune 500 companies use personality testing? The increasing use of personality testing as part of recruitment strategies has given rise to divided opinions among psychology professionals and advocates for minority groups.For example, the Center for Democracy & Technology has produced a report showing that certain types of pre-employment testing (such as personality testing) make it easier to discriminate against people with disabilities.On the other hand, some argue that some personality assessments can be a strong predictor of job performance if used in the right way.It seems that the key words here are “if used in the right way” and that organizations often simply aren’t using the tests correctly.

One of the most common ways employers misuse personality tests is by basing hiring decisions solely on their results without taking other factors into account.

The results of a personality test are simply a data point, and you should never use them by themselves to drive decisions. You should also stay flexible in your hiring practices and understand that your team is always going to be made up of employees with different personality types and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.Though there are pros and cons to using personality tests for hiring, there are five things you should keep in mind if you decide to use one:

  • Avoid basing your hiring decision only on the results of a personality test

  • Try not to use a personality test after the interview stage

  • Don’t select an unreliable personality test because it costs less than others

  • Communicate the purpose of the test with your candidates

  • Avoid hiring a particular personality type repeatedly based on existing team members

Any one of these factors can lead to a mis-hire or potentially put off the top candidates.Also, don’t forget that there is a difference between innate and acquired personality traits. Innate personality traits are fixed and can’t be changed over time. For example, a quiet and reserved personality is not going to eventually become the life and soul of the party, however much others may want them to be.Acquired personality traits are learned or developed over time and based on an individual’s experience and interactions with their environment. People aren’t born with these qualities, and such traits can change over time in candidates.There are many different types of personality tests out there, but many employers choose to use tests like the Big 5 (OCEAN) test, which follows the Five-Factor Model. This is an empirically based theory in psychology that evaluates five overarching dimensions of personality:

  • Openness

  • Conscientiousness

  • Extroversion

  • Agreeableness

  • Emotional stability (neuroticism)

You can gain valuable insights by measuring the Big 5 personality traits as part of your hiring strategy. But again, we must stress that you shouldn’t make hiring decisions based solely on the results.Another popular test type is the 16 Types test, which is based on the work of Carl Jung. This test gives you information on a candidate’s source of energy, the way they process information, how they make decisions, and the kind of lifestyle they prefer.Again, you should use the 16 personality types to gain extra insight into candidates’ personality traits, not to base hiring decisions upon.There is also the DISC test, which is based on the model developed by the psychologist William Marston for behavioral assessment. It classifies how we express emotions into the four behavior types of DISC:

  • Dominance (D)

  • Influence (I)

  • Steadiness (S) 

  • Conscientiousness (C)

There are several benefits of using the DISC test in hiring, including that it complies with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).DISC is an objective test that makes the list of employment tests and selection procedures accepted by the EEOC. This means that you won’t violate equal employment opportunity laws by using a DISC test as part of your hiring process.However, the same caveat applies to the DISC test as all the other personality tests – don’t make hiring decisions based solely on the DISC test results.

Culture

Assess how candidates' values and behaviors align with your organization’s culture.

Pre-employment testing for culture may sound a little strange, but culture-add tests help companies understand how an applicant’s values align with those of the organization.The best culture-add tests can be used for businesses of any size and any role. They make it easier to find out if your candidate’s attitude, traits, and principles match the company’s culture.You may have noticed that we at TestGorilla prefer to use the term “culture add” instead of “culture fit.”Why?The term and meaning of “culture fit” eventually became an issue. At first, culture fit meant hiring a person who shares your organization’s values and would presumably fit perfectly within your business.There’s nothing wrong with that, but soon enough, problems occurred when hiring for culture fit. The term went from meaning “Do we share the same values?” to “Would I like to have a beer with this person after work?”HR teams ended up making decisions based mostly on gut feelings regarding how a candidate appeared to them socially. This led to many biases, such as assessing people according to their preferences and hiring people who had the same experiences, educational backgrounds, and even social interests and hobbies.

However, measuring culture add is an effective way of looking at how new hires can be purposeful “additions” to existing companies, teams, and departments.

Rather than relying on the existing workplace culture, this method looks at candidates’ behaviors and activities to find those that will help improve your core culture. It recognizes the importance of new contributions to helping a business grow, thrive, and succeed.If you run a remote team, you may not think that culture add is relevant to your workforce, but our article on how to assess remote work culture while hiring shows that it’s perhaps even more important for your remote team to build a strong, identifiable, and inclusive culture.Our standardized Culture Add test works by enabling you to first set a standard for your culture through a questionnaire that you fill out. This same questionnaire measures how well candidates align with your answers.The test evaluates the following:

  • How each candidate’s personal values align with your organizational values

  • How the behaviors each candidate exhibits within their role align with the behaviors you want to bring to your team

  • How the activities each candidate likes to perform align with the activities you want to fulfill via the open role

Motivation tests also fall under the category of personality and culture. Motivation (or the lack of it) is something we all experience at work to different degrees. Lack of motivation can be a real problem that leads to a loss of production and an unhappy team.Skills can often be taught, but motivation is an innate characteristic and tends not to change much over time. That’s why it’s important to check that candidates’ preferences and overall motivators fit well with what the role has to offer.The good news is that motivation is measurable, and there are many tests for motivation out there.Our Motivation test is rooted in Oldham and Hackman’s job characteristics model. This job preferences test measures the extent to which your candidates’ expectations align with your job offer based on a customized survey that you fill out.Candidates receive a separate, parallel survey that asks them what they are looking for in a job and what activities they enjoy most at work. The candidates’ answers are then mapped against your specifications so that you can identify how strongly their preferences match the characteristics of the role.

Emotional intelligence tests

Evaluate your candidates’ abilities to monitor their emotions, or the emotions of others, and think or act accordingly.

Emotional intelligence is an individual’s ability to perceive, recognize, understand, and manage their emotions and those of the people around them. Some experts in the field believe that emotional intelligence (EQ) is more important than IQ, particularly for leadership roles.In pre-employment testing, EQ tests are intended to help you evaluate a candidate’s ability to relate to others in the workplace, work under pressure, and make sound decisions.You measure candidates’ EQ through various self-report tests or EQ scales, such as the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test.Though these tests are popular, EQ is not made up of just one characteristic or trait. And although there are many EQ tests available on different platforms, the results aren’t sufficiently reliable since they usually require candidates to self-report.This can be a problem because just as applicants can lie on their resumes, they can fake EQ self-assessments if they can work out what answers you will regard as favorable. Some also believe that EQ cannot be tested or measured because of a lack of global standardization.Finally, it’s often difficult for hiring teams without experience in evaluating candidates’ EQ to know how to interpret the results of EQ tests.That’s why TestGorilla doesn’t carry any EQ tests. We prefer objective, evidence-based tests that can accurately evaluate applicants using data.Since EQ covers a range of skills and attributes, you can instead create skills assessments that evaluate candidates in several key areas:

  • Communication skills

  • Problem-solving skills

  • Situational judgment skills 

  • Personality and culture add

By using a combination of these tests instead of a single emotional intelligence test, you can get a broader picture of your candidates’ EQ.

Risk and integrity tests

Evaluate if your candidates are prone to risk-taking behavior, or whether they’re likely to be honest and trustworthy.

Another (somewhat controversial) category of pre-employment testing covers risk and integrity tests.These evaluations can help you discover which candidates are more likely to follow safety guidelines and help organizations reduce workplace injuries, absenteeism, and fraud. This type of pre-employment test may also identify candidates who are likely to engage in unsafe, unethical, or illegal behaviors.You can use risk tests for a wide range of roles. However, some people find the ethical issues involved in integrity testing uncomfortable. Past behavior by candidates doesn’t necessarily equal future actions, and critics of integrity testing say that it’s unfair.On top of that, there are possible legal issues. If you use integrity tests, you must be aware of the relevant laws and regulations since there’s a fine line between assessing a candidate’s integrity and using a discriminatory practice in your recruitment methods.Retail giant Target found this out the hard way. They crossed the line, and a candidate sued the company for asking questions relating to personal beliefs and sexual orientation.Massachusetts is the only state so far to outright ban any written test designed to determine an applicant’s integrity, so if you’re based there, you’ll have to give integrity testing a miss.

Is integrity testing effective?

Employee integrity testing is effective – but only under certain conditions.If you’re using integrity testing to narrow down your applicants, you might miss out on some great talent. Integrity tests can sometimes provide a false positive or negative and eliminate an otherwise suitable candidate from the hiring process.So, you should only use employee integrity testing in the later stages of the hiring process when you have already narrowed down your candidate pool.

The most effective way to use employee integrity testing is together with tools such as background and reference checks.

Faking is a problem with many self-report tests. When you’re testing employees for integrity, they might simply respond with what they think you want to hear.That’s also a reason why you shouldn’t use employee integrity testing to narrow down your talent. Candidates who read obvious questions such as “Have you ever called in sick to work when you weren’t?” and “Would you steal from your employer if you knew you wouldn’t get caught?” will immediately know the correct answer.It’s better to use an employee integrity test alongside other pre-employment tests, such as the 16 Types personality test, Big 5 (OCEAN) test, and Enneagram personality test.Some businesses include lie scales in their tests, a mechanism created to identify candidates who try to tweak their answers. However, well-designed tests created by subject-matter experts can help you eliminate most false positives without the need for lie scales.Integrity and honesty are more important for certain jobs than others. Some form of employee integrity test is essential for roles in which employees deal with security, valuable and sensitive data, money, or children.The following roles all require some form of employee integrity testing:

  • Childcare workers and daycare providers

  • Elementary and high-school teachers and professors 

  • Security officers

  • Bank tellers and retail employees

  • All health workers

  • Staff who regularly go into customers’ houses (such as cleaning or care staff)

  • All government employees

  • Hospitality workers with access to guest rooms and personal data

  • Employees who deal with classified data and information

Risk tests can also assess different qualities. For example, they can measure a person’s business ethics and willingness to adhere to company rules.Our Business Ethics & Compliance test consists of questions that follow US business standards and is designed for managers, officers, directors, and senior management members. However, you should be aware that it’s not suitable for employees below the managerial level. This test also fits into the situational judgment test category.

Soft skills

Test for soft skills such as communication, attention to detail, and time management.

Last but certainly not least is pre-employment testing for soft skills such as communication and active listening.These tests assess how candidates communicate with others and their ability to listen to and empathize with their team members. They can help you evaluate a candidate’s communication skills more objectively and aren’t limited to testing their communication abilities.Leadership and management skills tests also fall under this category, as does our innovative Time Management test.Regardless of the industry you work in, soft skills are important because a candidate’s success can hinge on their ability to interact with the team. A candidate with good soft skills is likely to:

  • Be empathetic

  • Have good listening skills

  • Be able to communicate well

  • Be able to adapt to change

Most roles require candidates to have at least one of these skills, so it’s important to find out which ones are needed for a given role so that you can test applicants for them.For example, customer success representatives must have all of the above soft skills, as well as good time management skillsrole-specific skills, and software skills.Some employers and recruiters mistakenly assume that candidates for software development and programming roles don’t need many soft skills to do their job well.Perhaps the clichéd movie and TV show representation of the brilliant loner programmer who works in a basement surrounded by walls of tech equipment is partly to blame for this.The reality is that most developers and programmers need some serious team-player qualities and communication skills to be successful in their roles.

What’s the difference between a pre-employment test and an assessment?

All this talk of assessments and pre-employment testing can get confusing, so let’s demystify the terms.

Talent assessment platforms often use the two words to mean different things in relation to their specific products, but at TestGorilla we say this:

Pre-employment tests and assessments are two separate but related things.

When they are used together, they form the ideal solution to capture relevant, data-driven insights into your candidates and choose whether they are the ideal fit for your vacancy.

First, we’ll look at what a pre-employment test is, followed by an assessment. Then we’ll explain how you can combine the two to maximize your chances of hiring success.

What is a pre-employment test?

pre-employment screening test consists of a series of text-based or media-led questions or challenges that evaluate a specific skill. They are an objective, standardized method of determining a candidate’s abilities and suitability for the role.A test often covers three to four skill areas. It assesses candidates comprehensively for that one skill set. For example, our Working with Data test is meant for candidates with an intermediate level of knowledge and evaluates them in three key areas:

  • Understanding data handling concepts

  • Performing basic data analysis and interpretation

  • Working with graphs and charts

Some testing platforms specialize in going deeper into a specific skill set (such as coding). Their tests can take between 30 minutes and one hour to complete.

An individual test focuses on a single area, which could be related to role-specific skills, cognitive ability, personality and culture, language, software, programming, etc.

Some employers prefer to use stand-alone tests as a part of their hiring process, and organizations often choose a specific test for existing employees hoping to move to another role within the company.There is nothing wrong with using a single pre-employment test , but many employers like to use individual tests as building blocks to create a more in-depth pre-employment assessment.

What is a pre-employment assessment?

A pre-employment assessment combines several individual tests to offer you a full spectrum of insights about your candidates – it gives you more bang for your buck, as the saying goes.For example, if you’re hiring a salesperson, they need to have a range of skills to succeed in the role. You may want to test their skills in different areas by using a B2B lead generation testcommunication testproblem-solving testSalesforce CRM test, and a personality or culture test.

A pre-employment assessment enables you to combine your chosen tests into one longer assessment made up of individual tests.

With TestGorilla, you can add up to five tests and 10 custom questions (created by you) to an assessment, but other test providers may have different requirements.Candidates then take the assessment in one sitting, completing each test in turn. Assessments take longer to complete than individual tests but give you a wider range of data about the applicants, including how they scored on each test and how they rank overall.The ultimate goal of an assessment is to help you hire the right person for the role. Everything else is secondary. This means that assessments should be kept standardized and sent out to candidates in bulk for a quick comparison. You may find our guide to creating an assessment useful for further reading since it takes a deep dive into the subject.

What are custom questions?

Custom questions are created by the employer and are usually added to an existing pre-employment screening test.By creating custom questions, you can tailor a test even more closely to the specific job role you’re hiring for.TestGorilla also gives you the option of creating fully customized tests if you are a Scale or Business plan customer. This enables you to create your own test from scratch and use it as you would any other test on our platform.

Fully customized tests can be particularly useful if you want to create specific tests that are relevant to your organization or more in-depth coding tests.

If this is something you want to know more about, our guide to developing an effective screening test takes a closer look at how to do it.Not all testing platforms offer custom questions or custom tests, and some only offer them if you subscribe to a specific plan. So if you want to add some, you should check whether this is a feature that a test provider offers.Tests should also not be too easy – or too difficult – and should not contain any misleading information. Test providers should track candidate performance on each test to monitor this.Providers also need to check the success rates of different questions and do comparisons, as well as track the amount of time needed to answer each question and to do the whole test. This way, potential issues can be detected and fixed.

Guide to pre-employment testing
What is?
Types of tests
Benefits for employers
Benefits for candidates
Best practices
ROI