Applicant Reactions

The term applicant reactions is used to refer to an applicant’s affect, attitudes, and cognitions toward a selection process. Applicant reaction models suggest that reactions are very complex and involve perceptions of multiple aspects of specific tests and the testing process in general. Stephen Gilliland was one of the first researchers to put forth a theoretical model of applicant reactions, and this model has guided much of this research over the past decade. Gilliland’s model is based on theories of organizational justice. Organizational justice is concerned with the fairness of the distribution of organizational outcomes (outcome fairness) and the fairness of procedures used to distribute these outcomes (procedural justice). Gilliland adapted the basic principles of organizational justice to provide a comprehensive model of how applicants perceive and react to selection procedures. This model has received considerable support.

Glliland’s model suggests that selection systems and tests are viewed  favorably by applicants (i.e., are considered fair) to the extent they comply with or violate procedural and distributive justice rules. These procedural and distributive justice rules are standards that applicants hold for how they expect to be treated and how selection procedures should be administered and used. These justice rules determine perceptions of process and outcome fairness, such that when the rules are satisfied, the selection process and outcome are perceived as fair, but when they are violated, the selection process and outcome are perceived as unfair. As will be discussed, applicant perceptions of the fairness of a selection process can influence a number of important individual and organizational outcomes. It should be noted that according to Gilliland’s model, justice rules would not directly relate to applicant intentions or behavior, but would do so indirectly through process fairness perceptions. For example, perceived job relatedness is an example of a procedural justice rule. Perceived job relatedness refers to the extent to which the applicant perceives that the content of a test reflects the content of the job (e.g., the knowledge, skills, and abilities required by the job). Perceived job relatedness has been recognized as the most important procedural justice rule because it consistently influences fairness perceptions and, through fairness perceptions, test performance.

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Over the years, several researchers have modified and expanded Gilliland’s original applicant reactions model to include a number of additional antecedents and moderator variables. For example, Ann-Marie Ryan and Robert Ployhart revised the Gilliland model and included an applicant’s affective and cognitive states during the selection processes, as well as general perceptions about testing and selection, as important in understanding antecedents and consequences of applicant reactions.

Justice Rules

In applicant reaction models, procedural and distributive justice rules are important antecedents of fairness perceptions. Although a number of procedural and distributive justice rules exist, Gilliland specified 10 procedural and 3 distributive justice rules, and these have received research attention:

Procedural Justice Rules

  1. Job-relatedness. The extent to which a test appears to measure content relevant for the job
  2. Opportunity to perform. The extent to which applicants perceive that the test or test process allows them the opportunity to express themselves prior to a selection decision
  3. Reconsideration opportunity. The opportunity to challenge or modify the decision-making process
  4. Consistency of administration. The extent to which selection procedures are used consistently across applicants
  5. Feedback. The extent to which applicants receive timely and informative feedback
  6. Selection information. The extent to which applicants are informed how the test and selection procedures will be used and why they are used
  7. Honesty. The extent to which recruiters and test administrators are truthful and honest in their communication with applicants
  8. Interpersonal effectiveness of administrator. The extent to which applicants are treated with respect and warmth from the test administrator
  9. Two-way communication. The extent to which applicants have the opportunity to offer input and to have their views on the selection process considered
  10. Propriety of questions. The extent to which questions on tests are appropriate and not offensive

Distributive Justice Rules

  1. Equity. The extent to which applicants perceive that the outcome of the selection process (whether they are hired or not) is based on competence or merit
  2. Equality. The extent to which applicants, regardless of knowledge, skills, and abilities, have an equal chance of being hired for the job
  3. Needs. The extent to which job offers are distributed on the basis of individual needs (e.g., preferential treatment for a subgroup)

Consequences of Applicant Reactions

Applicant reactions toward selection procedures have been found to affect a number of important outcomes, both directly and indirectly. It has been shown that when applicants react positively toward a test, they are more likely to accept a job offer from the company, recommend the company to others, reapply for a job with the company, and perform well once they are employed by the company. It has also been suggested that negative applicant reactions may result in a greater number of employment lawsuits and a decreased probability an applicant will buy the company’s products in the future.

One of the most important consequences of applicant reactions is the effect reactions have on applicant test performance. However, this research has almost exclusively examined the effects of applicant reactions on cognitive ability test performance and has neglected the effects of reactions on other test measures. This research has shown that when applicants react favorably to a cognitive ability test, they are more likely to perform well on the test, although the effects are modest.

Reactions toward Different Selection Measures

Initial applicant reactions research focused on comparing reactions to different types of measures. For example, research suggests that reactions toward assessment centers and work simulations tend to be more favorable than paper-and-pencil tests (e.g., cognitive ability measures). The reasoning is that assessment centers and work simulations appear to be more job-related and therefore result in more favorable reactions on the part of the test taker. Further, research suggests that personality measures tend to be perceived less favorably than other types of selection measures.

Although tests seem to differ in the reactions they evoke, research suggests that reactions toward tests can be altered in several ways. For example, research has shown that making a test more job-related will result in more favorable applicant reactions. That is, by ensuring that the content of the test (regardless of test type) reflects the content of the job, one can increase the likelihood that applicants will respond favorably to the test. Further, research suggests that providing an explanation for why the test is used can make reactions toward the test more favorable, as can making selection decisions in a timely manner.

Test-Taking Motivation

Test-taking motivation is an important component in all applicant reactions models. One of the most important and researched outcomes of applicant reactions is test performance, and research has clearly shown that test-taking motivation partially mediates the relationship between applicant reactions and test performance. It has been found that when applicants have favorable reactions toward a test or testing process, they perform better on the tests.

More recently, researchers have sought to determine precisely how motivation mediates the relationship between applicant reactions and test performance by considering the multidimensional nature of motivation. Based on an established theory of motivation, VIE (valence-instrumentality-expectancy) theory, a multidimensional measure of test-taking motivation has been developed. The three components of VIE theory are defined as follows. Valence is the desirability or attractiveness of an outcome. Instrumentality is the belief that a behavior will lead to a specified outcome. Expectancy is the subjective probability that effort will lead to a specified outcome. In a testing context, valence refers to the value one places on getting the job for which one is taking the test, instrumentality is the belief that good test performance will lead to one getting the job, and expectancy is the expectation that one will do well on the test if one puts effort into doing well. Early results suggest that these three dimensions of test-taking motivation are distinct, as they demonstrate different relationships with test performance and applicant reactions.

Pre- and Posttest Reactions

Some research has examined both pre- and posttest reactions and how time of measurement influences relationships. Pretest reaction measures are administered before the applicant takes the test or takes part in the selection process in question. Posttest reaction measures are administered after the applicant has taken the test or been through the selection process. Research generally finds that responses to pre- and posttest reaction measures are similar but not identical. Therefore, researchers have tried to understand precisely why pre- and posttest measures are sometimes different.

In particular, the self-serving bias may explain how applicants respond to posttest reactions and motivation. Specifically, if applicants have already taken a test, their perceptions of how they performed may influence their reported test reactions and test-taking motivation. Those who believe they did poorly on the test may be inclined to blame the test and report that they have negative test reactions or indicate that they did not even try to do well on the test (i.e., they report low test-taking motivation). Attributing one’s negative performance to lack of effort or to a problematic test may help protect one’s self-esteem. Given these findings, it is important for researchers to be aware that pre- and posttest reaction measures may result in different outcomes.

Race Differences in Applicant Reactions

Racial differences in applicant reactions exist, with Blacks and Hispanics being more likely to have negative reactions than White individuals. It is believed that these race differences in applicant reactions may contribute to race differences in test performance. In particular, it is well documented that White individuals, on average, score substantially higher on cognitive ability tests than Black and Hispanic individuals. It is believed that differences in applicant reactions may contribute to the differences between how Whites and minorities perform on cognitive ability tests. Therefore, considerable research has focused on how applicant reactions may affect the race-test performance relationship. Research has shown that race predicts test reactions, test reactions predict test-taking motivation, and test-taking motivation influences test performance. Thus, race differences on tests may be larger when minority reactions are negative because minorities will have lower test-taking motivation and hence lower test performance. Although research shows that reactions indirectly account for significant variance in race-test performance relationships, applicant reactions do not account for the majority of race differences in test performance.

Practical Implications of Applicant Reactions Research

As noted earlier, applicant reactions have a number of important consequences. Therefore, test administrators and human resource professionals would be wise to make applicant reactions to selection procedures as favorable as possible. This is especially true when an organization is trying to meet diversity goals. Research suggests that minorities tend to have less favorable reactions toward selection procedures than majority group members. Therefore, minorities will be more likely to self-select out of the selection process or even be less inclined to take a job if one were offered. Research also suggests that the more qualified job applicants are likely to be most influenced by how they perceive the selection process. Thus, ensuring that selection procedures are viewed favorably by applicants may have the added benefits of increasing minority representation in the selection process and retaining the most qualified job applicants.

To increase the chances that tests are perceived favorably by applicants, organizations can ensure the tests they use are job-related, provide explanations for why the test is being used (e.g., the test administrator can provide information about the validity of the measure), explain how the selection process will proceed (e.g., clearly explain the stages of the selection process), provide feedback to applicants in a timely manner, and treat applicants consistently and with respect throughout the selection process. Doing so may result in more favorable reactions.


  1. Anderson, N., Born, M., & Cunningham-Snell, N. (2002). Recruitment and selection: Applicant perspectives and outcomes. In N. Anderson & D. S. Ones, Handbook of industrial, work, and organizational psychology: Vol. 1. Personnel Psychology (pp. 200-218). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Gilliland, S. W. (1993). The perceived fairness of selection systems: An organizational justice perspective. Academy of Management Review, 18, 694-734.
  3. Gilliland, S. W., & Chan, D. (2002). Justice in organizations: Theory, methods, and applications. In N. Anderson & D. S. Ones, Hand book of industrial, work, and organizational psychology: Vol. 2. Organizational Psychology (pp. 143-165). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Ployhart, R. E., & Harold, C. M. (2004). The applicant attribution-reaction theory (AART): An integrative theory of applicant attributional processing. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 12, 84-98.
  5. Ployhart, R. E., Ziegert, J. C., & McFarland, L. A. (2003). Understanding racial differences in cognitive ability tests in selection contexts: An integration of stereotype threat and applicant reactions research. Human Performance, 16, 231-259.
  6. Ryan, A. M., & Ployhart, R. E. (2000). Applicants’ perceptions of selection procedures and decisions: A critical review and agenda for the future. Journal of Management, 26, 565-606.
  7. Truxillo, D. M., Bauer, T. N., Campion, M. A., & Paronto, M. E. (2002). Selection fairness information and applicant reactions: A longitudinal field study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 1020-1031. Truxillo, D. M., Bauer, T. N., & Sanchez, R. J. (2001). Multiple dimensions of procedural justice: Longitudinal effects on selection system fairness and test-taking self-efficacy. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 9, 336-349.

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