Job Candidate Assessment Tests Go Virtual

By Gina Ruiz

Jan. 16, 2008

Multi-state banking firm National City Corp. had its work cut out if it was going to grow its retail banking division.

    The Cleveland-based bank in early January eliminated 900 jobs as it closed its troubled wholesale mortgage division. The bank cut 3,400 jobs during the past year—primarily in the mortgage division—yet still planned to expand its 1,400 retail branches across the East and Midwest.

    One element in the search for everything from branch managers to tellers hinged on the bank’s ability to stand out in a cutthroat hiring environment where demand for qualified talent often outstrips the supply.

    “We were looking for ways to differentiate ourselves among our competitors,” says Cheryl Goodman, National City’s assessment consultant vice president.

    It was among the reasons National City adopted Shaker Consulting Group’s Virtual Job Tryout in early 2007. The system does what its name suggests—allows companies to audition candidates by measuring how they react to computerized simulations of specific job-related tasks.

    Beyond assessment, Goodman is counting on it to give National City a leg up on competitors by creating a distinctive recruiting experience.

    “This isn’t your run-of-the-mill paper-and-pencil assessment test,” she explains. “We think it creates a unique impression that lets us stand out among our peers in the industry.”

    National City, which employs 32,000 people, is part of a growing number of companies that rely on a new wave of virtual simulation tools for more than assessment purposes. They also leverage these platforms to put forth other strategic recruiting practices.

    Besides differentiation, Goodman says Virtual Job Tryout is also a good way to fortify the National City employer brand. The system works as an educational tool for candidates to learn what it’s like to be an employee at the company.

    “It gives us a way to share our story and what we’re all about,” she notes.

    The better acquainted that companies get with virtual tryout tools, the more applications they’ll discover for them, says Nov Omana, managing principal of consultancy Collective HR Solutions. He says more employers are realizing the secondary benefits such cutting-edge assessment systems can bring to their recruiting process. Omana anticipates the trend will widen.

    “Whether it is in the area of Second Life or social networking or virtual tryouts, I think we’ll see employers getting more creative in the years to come,” he notes.

Creating a unique experience
   “The days of handing a clipboard and pen to candidates are long over,” says Brian Stern of Cleveland-based Shaker Consulting. “Innovative companies are now looking for ways to create positive recruiting experiences to successfully vie for talent.”

    The level of interactivity that today’s virtual tryout tools deliver is unprecedented, he notes. Employers are able to customize simulations to specific job roles within a company; candidates can get a feel for the job.

    In National City’s case, Goodman set up individual simulation experiences for call center applicants and potential branch managers.

    Call center candidates were given scenarios to solve customer service problems, while branch manager applicants had to demonstrate their ability to foster relationships with clients and make quick personnel decisions.

    The experiences are interactive—with both video and audio, Stern notes. “Companies are creating a dynamic testing environment that engages the candidates,” he says.

    Delivering this type of innovative recruiting experience is particularly critical when it comes to Gen Y talent, Stern says.

    “This is a group of individuals that is not going to respond well to the old-school way of recruiting,” he notes.

The Gen Y factor
   Recruiting Gen Y’ers is an ongoing challenge for employers.

    “They are of a different breed than what recruiters are used to,” says Knowledge Infusion CEO Jason Averbook. “You would be surprised at the number of companies that simply don’t know how to communicate effectively with them.”

    Averbook says one way of attaining the attention of this segment of the workforce is adopting tools that are interactive in nature, as they stand a better chance of resonating with this audience. “Simulation tools are a good way of letting Gen Y’ers know that a company has kept up with the times,” he notes.

    Averbook warns that creating a cutting-edge recruiting experience without having a workplace environment matching that image could be counterproductive.

    “If you have a fancy assessment tool that impresses the socks off an applicant at the recruiting stage but then hand them a paper and pencil to do their job once you have thrown them over the hiring wall, you’re going to be in trouble,” he notes.

    Averbook says employees inevitably will become disappointed and could leave if their initial expectations aren’t met. He recommends companies put standards in place, not just during the recruiting phase but throughout an employee’s tenure.

    “This is a group of smart people,” he notes. “They’ll be able to see through the smoke and mirrors pretty quickly.”

Important considerations
   While job simulation tools can be instrumental in creating a hallmark recruiting experience, there are certain questions employers should consider before investing in a system, says Shally Steckerl, founder of JobMachine, a recruiting consultancy based in Norcross, Georgia.

    “These are great tools to have,” he notes. “But they are more beneficial for certain types of employers.”

    It could backfire for companies targeting high-end white-collar workers.

    “An MBA is not going to want to take this type of test,” Steckerl says. “That candidate is expecting to be wined and dined.”

    He recommends companies take a hard look at the sort of worker being recruited and whether such an assessment would be appropriate in that context.

    Steckerl also says job simulation may be more of a hindrance at companies handling a large volume of candidates.

    “The process gets to be too time-consuming when we are talking about thousands of applicants,” he notes.

    Further, he says such technologies are better suited to test soft skills. It’s an important feature, as intangibles are characteristics that are normally difficult to gauge, Steckerl explains. However, when it comes to measuring hard skills, such as engineering or program writing, a company may be better off using conventional aptitude exams.

    Before buying such a system, employers should assess virtual job tryout vendors because all are different.

    “There are several vendors out there, each with its own strength,” Steckerl says. “Companies need to do their homework to select the tool that is most compatible with the recruiting experience that they want to create.”

    In the case of National City, the company already had an established relationship with Shaker Consulting and was familiar with the product’s features.

    “We were secure in the choices we were making,” Goodman notes.

    The company is still tallying its numbers, but Goodman says she is content with its recruiting performance in 2007.

    Goodman says the assessment tool enabled National City to hire workers that came from sectors outside banking, so long as they had transferable skills. What’s more, she believes retention rates will improve because it provides a way to make hiring decisions that are more educated and scientific.

    She also sees an added bonus for using the virtual job tryout.

    “As far as I know, none of our local competitors offers this level of assessment,” she says. “I think it gives us an advantage.”

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