A Writing Test Run

By Charlotte Huff

Oct. 13, 2008

Initially, Kush Wadhwa simply requested a writing sample when hiring contractors and employees for Global Security Intelligence, the security technologies consulting firm that he founded.

But the writing samples he received didn’t necessarily fit with the type of work the applicants would be performing. So Wadhwa provided a topic. Then he realized that some applicants devoted an inordinate amount of time to completing the two-page assignment.

These days Wadhwa selects the topic, sending it at a predetermined time. Applicants are given two hours to research and write an analysis, frequently on a subject outside their expertise. “This is about assimilating the information quickly and presenting it in a cohesive, coherent, compelling and concise fashion,” says Wadhwa, the firm’s founder and managing director.

It’s a screening step that relatively few companies take, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the Conference Board and several other groups. Just one in four companies reported that they assessed an applicant’s writing skills before extending a job offer.

Developing and grading a writing test may appear daunting and labor intensive, but it can still be far more cost-effective than placing a writing-challenged employee on the payroll, says David Arnold, general counsel at Wonderlic Inc., a Libertyville, Illinois-based educational testing and consulting firm. “When it comes to training, it takes a significant amount of time and effort to get someone improved in terms of writing skills,” he says.

As a general rule, Arnold says, it’s legally defensible to pre-screen applicants as long as the employer can demonstrate that writing constitutes an intrinsic part of the job description. For that reason, Arnold suggests that employers request a writing sample that fits with the applicant’s prospective job. A customer service manager, for example, might be asked to respond in writing to a customer complaint letter.

Equally important is consistent evaluation of that writing sample, given the various interpretations and subtleties involved with writing, Arnold says. He recommends that corporate leaders establish a standardized grading system ahead of time. Then they should monitor its usage to verify that certain applicants aren’t adversely affected based on race or gender, he says.

Moretrench American, a New Jersey-based construction company, already has writing workshops in place, but the firm’s organizational development coordinator, Jack Paluszek, plans to recommend that applicants write their own job description, once they clear several stages of the interview process. The benefits could be twofold, determining if applicants understand their proposed role and gauging whether they possess the writing acumen to pull it off, says Paluszek. “That’s something that I’m going to push for,” he says.

Wadhwa, meanwhile, estimates that he turns down five applicants for every hire he makes, because their writing can’t withstand the screening scrutiny. These applicants already boast a top-level résumé and technical background, he says. “But we are now convinced that we will not sacrifice this, even for a fantastic candidate, if they cannot write.”

Charlotte Huff is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with