Cognitive assessment tests are not a novelty hiring process tool by any means. Companies dedicate a significant amount of resources to hiring the most productive employees and to help find the best candidates for their positions, at least 68 percent of all US companies use pre-employment tests such as cognitive tests.

Why? Using cognitive assessments as a part of your interview process gives your HR department an edge that reduces the risk of hiring the wrong candidate. Tests, when used along with hiring tools such as reference and background checks, can improve metrics for selecting employees, in comparison to using those other tools alone.

Let's discuss how to use pre-employment cognitive tests to identify high-potential applicants.

Today, we'll cover:


Cognitive ability tests assess a variety of your candidate's abilities.


What Makes a Cognitive Exam Different?

A cognitive assessment is used to measure the general problem-solving ability of a prospective employee. It’s a step beyond simply using a resume or interview to predict how a job candidate will perform. Resumes focus on past performance, while cognitive assessment tests look the ability to thrive in potential workplace scenarios. When properly structured, a cognitive exam can predict job performance better than any other metric.

Research has shown that results of workplace cognitive exams are highly correlated with job performance, across a wide range of different jobs and industries (in the range of 0.5-0.6, with positive correlations, usually landing between 0.0 and 1.0).

What about Behavioral Assessments for Employee Selection?

Cognitive testing is different from workplace behavioral testing, which identifies personality traits and behaviors in work scenarios. Cognitive testing is evaluating reasoning skills instead of behaviors.

What Gets Measured with Cognitive Tests?

Over the years, industrial psychologists have debated the nature of cognitive ability and how to measure it. The scientific debate continues, but generally speaking, cognitive aptitude can be condensed to three core competencies. 

  • Information processing. This measure reflects the ability to carry out numerical, analytical, and critical reasoning tasks. It will show how well the candidate can understand and analyze information from the overall context.
  • Solution generation. This is a core skill needed for any position requiring communication and general problem-solving. It’s an ability that cognitive assessments can measure with great efficiency because it doesn’t focus on a specific type of problem to be solved. This means it can be applied generally to a variety of work-related problems that may need solving.
  • Decision-making. Decision-making is another key competency that shows how well a candidate analyzes facts and possible solutions to arrive at the best business outcome.

How to Administer a Cognitive Assessment Test

Shown below are four key rules to follow when giving cognitive assessment tests. In addition to helping you find the best candidates, they will also make the candidates comfortable with the process, reduce test-taking anxiety and help you see their true abilities, without the negative effects of widespread text anxiety. Research shows that there’s some correlation between an applicant's interview anxiety and the decision to hire them. However, it also shows that how anxious a person is during the job interview doesn’t correlate to their job performance. 

Rule 1: Know Which Abilities to Measure

The first step when giving a cognitive assessment test is to know what to measure. These tests can be complex and measure a variety of different abilities and skill sets. That’s why it should focus on the key metrics that will be useful for the open position.

Many tests focus on solving math problems, while others measure specific areas of innate intelligence.

There’s a variety of intelligence tests that focus on different cognitive abilities. These can be separated into six different groups, each to be used depending on which ability is being evaluated:

  • Attention to detail (including jobs requiring the ability to follow a process and spot errors, whether in production or office environment)

  • Problem-solving (including customer service and sales-related roles)

  • Critical thinking (including managerial, analysts or professional level roles)

  • Numerical reasoning (including jobs requiring basic (or higher) math skills)

  • Reading comprehension (including jobs requiring interpretation of text or instructions)

  • Spatial reasoning (including jobs requiring assembly or design tasks)

All together, these tests will cover any ability that an employee may need to perform on any given job. But it’s not necessary to test all job candidates in all of these categories. In fact, tests should be chosen only based on the needs of each specific job.

It's also important to note that jobs tend to evolve over time, and so do the daily tasks done by the employee. Testing for a variety of skills early in the hiring process can help you prepare the employee from day one for later growth.

Cognitive tests measure critical thinking and problem-solving.

Rule 2: Be Mindful of Adverse Impact

Adverse impact refers to the negative effect that a cognitive assessment test may have on a protected class.

One approach to keeping track of the adverse impact that testing could have is to stick to the 80 percent rule, a general guideline to help companies avoid under-hiring minorities. While it’s not a law, the guideline states that:

“a selection rate for any race, sex, or ethnic group which is less than four-fifths (or 80%) of the rate for the group with the highest rate will generally be regarded by the Federal enforcement agencies as evidence of adverse impact, while a greater than four-fifths rate will generally not be regarded by Federal enforcement agencies as evidence of adverse impact.”

Rule 3: Be Open About the Cognitive Assessment Test

If a cognitive assessment is a part of your employment process, you’ll want to tell applicants early in the hiring process. This shows transparency and gives the candidates a chance to prepare for the test or opt-out of the interview if so desired.

It’s also important to collect test data from both the employees that you hire and those that you don’t. It’s important to be transparent about which kind of data you’ll collect and save.

Though rare, unhired candidates may question if the hiring process was unjust and unlawful. Using the cognitive test, along with a clear set of guidelines for required minimum scores, can help resolve these issues if they emerge, as it relates to the assessment part of the hiring process.

Rule 4: The Score Is There for Guidance

While important, the cognitive ability questionnaire or test isn’t the magical solution to hiring the best applicant. It’s simply a uniform tool to help you learn more about your candidates, in a consistent way across your candidate pool.

If there’s a minimum score that the candidates need to reach, be transparent and let the employees know that only a certain percentage of candidates will get to the final interview stage. The test score is just a screening device that helps the HR team choose among the applicants. The actual decision to hire a candidate is based on a broader assessment of their abilities and attitudes, as seen during the entire recruitment process.

The Benefits of Cognitive Tests

Avoiding Bad Hires

Turnover rates are one of the biggest problems an HR department deals with on a monthly basis. It’s expensive to lose an employee for any reason. It’s also costly to train and hire a new one. Research shows that a least 80 percent of all employee attrition is related to hiring the wrong employee in the first place.

Knowing as much as you can about the employee before hiring them is, therefore, the best way to avoid losing that employee down the road. A cognitive assessment, before you hire, may be the best way to do so.

Making Informed Decisions

It’s often said that hiring is more art than science. That can be true in some cases because it's a subjective process where people must rank other people's abilities. However, there are advantages to using data to find the best employees.

With more insight into each applicant’s abilities, you can create a learning path for your employees and help them grow on the job within the company. It’s also useful to be able to pinpoint which factors have led you to make a hire. In the long run, that process can prevent conflict within the company, which will help foster an open and transparent work environment.

Having a set of data about the pre-hire test results of applicants can help HR hire better employees for years to come. Finding employees that are similarly qualified (and avoiding ones that aren't) is also easier when you have proven data to rely on and learn from.

Improved Development Opportunities

Cognitive ability tests help with talent development.

Many employees say that one of the most important features of a good job is the ability to grow in a career. A company that wants to retain employees keeps their job satisfaction levels high.

According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Learning Report, as many as 93 percent of employees indicate they would stay with the company longer if that company invests in their development. A company that wants retention should focus on helping its employees grow in their careers. 

A cognitive assessment test administered during the hiring process provides a road map of how that development can take place. It shows in which areas the employee needs improvement and may identify which kinds of career paths may be within (or beyond) their reach.

Creating A Company Culture

Including a cognitive assessment for employment testing during the hiring process speaks volumes about company culture. It shows that a company is trying to be fair during the recruitment process. Using cognitive ability assessments also means that the company is relying on scientific and objective methods to accomplish their hiring goals. Using outsourced test vendors' tests can make testing more impartial, in comparison to tests that are created internally.

The Final Word

A cognitive assessment test is an excellent way for the company to find the best employees and keep them for a long time. Administer these tests in a way that will get the most out of its features and you'll get the most out of the employees as well. Using these tests as a part of the hiring process, but not as the sole deciding factor, will help you find employees that will make your team stronger and your company more effective.

If you're interested in learning more about the structure of cognitive assessment tests, read all about it in our Recruiter's Toolbox Essentials - and for even more information, download a free cognitive test sample.

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