Assessment Providers Scoring Well

By Michelle Rafter

Feb. 5, 2009

You won’t hear assessment providers complaining about the recession. These bad times are good for firms that offer Fortune 1,000 and midsize companies the skills tests and behavioral assessments they use to screen job applicants to decide which ones are best suited for a particular position.

And screened they are. As layoffs increase, companies that still have openings are being inundated with résumés from out-of-work job seekers.

“One client opened a sales position and three hours later had 250 applications,” says Russ Becker, a managing partner at Kenexa, an applicant tracking and assessments provider.

Companies like Becker’s client are using assessments to make shorter work of processing all those applications. And in recent times, more are opting for assessments that can be given directly on their Web-based career centers and with the results funneled to an applicant tracking system or talent management suite, according to HR executives, vendor representatives and industry analysts.

As more companies demand assessments that can be integrated into their talent management technology, partnerships are cropping up between vendors of those two products—trends that analysts and HR industry watchers predict will continue and could eventually lead to mergers or acquisitions.

Insiders also predict that in 2009, interest will pick up in simulation-type assessments that use Web-based interactive media, role-playing and even video games to make tests more fun and interesting for job applicants. They also predict that, as with other aspects of their recruiting, companies will look to make assessments an extension of their corporate culture, so job applicants get a glimpse of what it’s like to work there from the get-go. If assessments are engaging enough, industry watchers say, they could turn job seekers—even those who don’t get hired —into loyal fans or possibly customers.

Assessments Gaining Acceptance
Companies may be giving more assessments now that times are tough, but tests were already gaining a bigger foothold during better days. One reason: Assessments are more plug-and-play than they used to be, making them easier to administer and integrate into a company’s recruiting and talent management applications, according to Charles Handler, an industrial psychologist and proprietor of Rocket-Hire, an assessments consultancy.

Vendors have built on years of collected data to create deeper, more standardized offerings, so “you can be pretty sure that if you pull a sales assessment off the shelf it’ll have some level of accuracy,” he says. Those packaged or semi-packaged solutions generally cost less too, making them more attractive to midmarket companies, which is helping expand the market, Handler says.

As a result, more companies are administering more types of assessments, applying them to a larger universe of job categories and doing it online.

Dollar Tree is a good example. Three years ago, the $4.6 billion Chesapeake, Virginia-based discount store chain began using skills-based assessments to screen job candidates for certain administrative positions, including a corporate help desk that provides IT assistance to the company’s 3,572 stores. After adding assessments, turnover in those positions dropped significantly, says Julie Baldwin, Dollar Tree’s recruiting and placement director, though she wouldn’t specify by how much.

It was enough of an improvement to persuade Dollar Tree to add assessments to screenings for open positions among the company’s 700 corporate and branch-level managers—and put them online. Since July, job seekers can go to a career center on Dollar Tree’s Web site to see what management positions are open, apply online and, if they pass initial screenings, complete any necessary assessments. Those assessments include questions to elicit information on a prospect’s leadership and communications style, among other things, Baldwin says.

That’s gone well too—so well that Dollar Tree is working with Kenexa, its assessments provider, to develop two additional behavioral assessments for management job seekers that could be online in 12 to 18 months, Baldwin says.

In the past several years, more applicant tracking systems and talent management suites have partnered with assessment vendors to make it easier for the products to work together. Talent management vendor Taleo, headquartered in Northern California, signed a deal in November to incorporate assessments from Thomas International into its Taleo Business Edition suite for small and midsize companies. Authoria, the Waltham, Massachusetts, talent management software vendor, began offering an applicant tracking system seeded with competency content from DDI, a leading assessment provider, in January 2008. Roswell, Georgia-based assessments vendor PreVisor has integration deals with 19 applicant tracking system vendors.

Melding assessments into applicant tracking systems and talent management suites isn’t always cut and dried. That has opened the door for systems integrators such as Inscape, a Montreal company that bundles assessments from multiple companies onto one technology platform that works with a variety of applicant tracking and talent management software.

Regis was an early fan of integrating assessments with applicant tracking software. In 2006, the $2.7 billion Minneapolis chain of 13,500 hair salons in 30 countries switched to an Authoria applicant tracking system with built-in assessments. Before that, Regis relied on paper assessments, mailing completed forms to test providers and storing the results in individual paper or electronic files. Going from that disjointed system to an integrated database was “like night and day,” says Cherie Coenen, Regis’ corporate recruiting manager. The upgrade saved money too, with costs for assessments dropping $5, to $65 each, “which adds up if you’re doing 1,000 a year,” Coenen says.

Currently Regis uses assessments for support, management and director/senior manager-level positions at its 800-person corporate office and in the field for area supervisors. Expanding that to the company’s 65,000 full- and part-time stylists is one of Coenen’s goals.

Economy Driving Trends
Because of the bad economy, HR departments are being asked to do more with less staff, and they’re using technology like Web-based assessments to do it, says Kurt Ballard, PreVisor’s chief marketing officer.

Certain types of assessments are more popular because of the downturn, HR sources say. Companies are looking for top-tier sales representatives to help bump up revenue, and they’re buying behavioral assessments to do a better job of identifying those individuals, according to test vendors. “Helping our customers to find and source better candidates is the No. 1 request we hear,” says Jason Blessing, Taleo’s Business Edition general manager.

In 2009, look for more simulation-based assessments as well as tests that use Flash and other interactive media, test vendors and other sources say. Kenexa is helping one client develop a video game assessment during which job hunters move a game piece as they answer test questions.

“It’s tailored to computer-savvy individuals. That’s not right for everyone, but for their brand it is,” says Becker, the Kenexa managing partner.

As companies merge assessments into talent management suites, experts predict that more of them will use test results to help new hires get up to speed in their jobs more quickly, as well as for training and succession planning. If assessment results indicate someone is management material but lacks skills in certain areas, a hiring manager could use that to tailor a specific course of training for that individual, says Peter Mann, Authoria’s corporate development vice president. “Companies are realizing that candidates outside their four walls and employees should be assessed in a consistent way,” he says.

Workforce Management, January 19, 2009, p. 24-25Subscribe Now!

Michelle Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor.

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