Employee Selection

Employee selection is the process employers use to determine which candidates to choose for particular jobs or roles within the organization. (Some organizations select for a particular job, e.g., customer service representative, whereas others select for a role, e.g., management.) Often, employee selection connotes preemployment selection—that is, determining which external applicants to hire. However, the same term can also apply to a number of situations in which current employees are placed into an organizational role or job, including through promotions and transfers into new positions. Occasionally, the term employee selection is used broadly to refer to the process of selecting individuals to participate in initiatives such as management training programs, high-potential programs, or succession planning programs, in which the individual does not immediately assume a particular role or job but instead participates in some developmental process.

Candidates may be external applicants (i.e., applicants with no current association with the hiring organization) or internal candidates (i.e., current employees seeking other positions). However, employers sometimes seek candidates from only one source.

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For example, in some organizations, candidates for a first-line supervisory job come only from the pool of current employees performing the position to be supervised. In other cases, the candidate pool may be limited to groups of applicants (i.e., nonemployees) because of the nature of the job. For example, employees in a large organization may not desire the lowest entry-level position. Either the individual already holds that position, or the individual perceives that position to be a step backward to be taken only in exceptional circumstances. Thus, the organization selects only from an external pool of candidates.

Employee Selection Instruments

Most organizations have a goal of identifying the best candidate or a capable candidate and use some sort of tool to help them evaluate a candidate and make decisions about whom to select. These tools may be what industrial psychologists consider a test, an objective and standardized sample of behavior. Generally, these would include traditional standardized paper-and-pencil tests or computer-administered tests, work samples, simulations, interviews, biographical data forms, personality instruments, assessment centers, and individual evaluations. However, many organizations collect information using tools that would not normally be considered tests, because the processes or instruments are either not objective or not standardized. Examples include resume reviews, educational requirements, experience requirements, license or certification requirements, background investigations, physical requirements, assessments of past job performance, and interest inventories.

Selection procedures should measure job-related knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs). The KSAOs measured depend on the job requirements and the tasks performed by the job incumbents. Typically, selection procedures used in business settings include measures of cognitive abilities (e.g., math, reading, problem solving, reasoning), noncognitive abilities (e.g., team orientation, service orientation), personality (e.g., conscientiousness, agreeableness), skills (e.g., electrical wiring, business writing), or knowledge (e.g., accounting rules, employment laws). Selection procedures that involve assessments of education and experience are generally used as proxies to assess knowledge and skill in a particular area. For example, a college degree in accounting and 5 years of experience as an accountant may suggest that an individual has a particular level of knowledge and skill in the accounting field.

Employee Selection Objectives

When using employee selection procedures, employers have a number of objectives. Perhaps the most prevalent reason for employee selection is to ensure a capable workforce. Employers simply want to measure the job-related skills of the candidates to identify the most able or those who meet some minimum standard. In some cases, employers focus on other criteria, such as turnover, instead of or in addition to job performance. Higher levels of job performance lead in turn to organizational benefits such as higher productivity and fewer errors. When recruiting, hiring, and training costs are high, the advantages of lowering turnover are obvious.

Employers may use formal, standardized selection procedures to facilitate meeting other important organizational goals in addition to the enhancement of job performance. An organization may use these selection procedures to ensure a process that treats all candidates consistently. Other organizations may use these procedures because employee selection procedures incorporating objectively scored instruments are a cost-effective method of evaluating large numbers of people when compared with more labor-intensive selection methods such as interviews, job tryouts, work simulations, and assessment centers.

Legal Environment

Employee selection in the United States is heavily influenced by the legal environment. Federal laws, guidelines, and court cases have established requirements for employee selection and made certain practices unlawful. State and local legal environments are generally similar to the federal one, although in some states or localities, the requirements and prohibitions may be extended. Typically, the definitions of protected classes (i.e., subgroups of people protected by equal employment opportunity laws, such as racial and ethnic minorities and women) are broader at the state and local levels than at the federal level.

The federal requirements for employee selection are complex; however, the key elements include the following: (a) The selection procedure must be job-related and consistent with business necessity; (b) the selection procedure used does not discriminate because of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin; (c) equally useful alternate selection procedures with lower adverse impact are not available; (d) the selection procedure should not exclude an individual with a disability unless the procedure is job-related and consistent with business necessity; and (e) adverse impact statistics must be kept. (Adverse impact is operationally defined as different selection ratios in two groups.) In addition, (f) where there is adverse impact, evidence of the validity of the selection procedure must be documented.

The laws for employee selection are enforced through two primary processes: (a) the judicial system and (b) enforcement agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, and a local human rights commission. It merits noting that the legal definition of an employee selection procedure encompasses all forms of such procedures, regardless of the extent to which they are objective or standardized.

Choosing the Type of Employee Selection Procedures

The kind of employee selection procedure used in a particular situation depends on many factors. Perhaps the most important consideration is the kind of knowledge, skill, ability, or other characteristic (KSAO) being measured. Some instruments are better for measuring some skills than others. For example, an interview is a good way to assess a person’s oral communications skills, but it is not a particularly efficient means of determining a person’s quantitative skills.

Industrial and organizational psychologists often consider the known characteristics of a particular type of employee selection procedure when choosing among various types of selection procedures. The typical levels of validity and adverse impact for an instrument may affect the choice of instrument. Most organizations want to maximize the validity and minimize the adverse impact.

Many organizational factors also influence the choice of selection procedure. Sometimes an organization will consider the consequences of failure on the job and design a selection process accordingly. When the repercussions of an error are high (e.g., death or bodily injury), the organization may use lengthy selection procedures that extensively measure many different KSAOs with a high level of accuracy. When the repercussions of an error are minor (e.g., wrong size soft drink in a fast food order), the organization may opt for a less comprehensive process.

Some organizations consider other factors that are related to a high need for success in selection. Often, the cost of hiring and training and the time required to replace an individual who cannot perform the job at the level required influence the choice of selection instruments.

Some instruments may not be workable in the context of the organization’s staffing process. A 2-day assessment center composed of work sample exercises and requiring two assessors for each candidate is not often practical when the hiring volumes are high. A test requiring the test taker to listen to an audiotape will not work if the equipment is unavailable. Some instruments may not be feasible with certain candidate groups. Candidates who are current employees may resist extensive personality assessments. Measures of past performance may not be feasible if the applicant pool contains external applicants. Some organizations attempt to minimize the need for reasonable accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act and avoid selection procedures, such as highly speeded tests, that often generate accommodation requests.

Most organizations consider the costs of selection instruments in their selection process. Often, selection procedures such as assessment centers, which typically cover many job-relevant KSAOs, present a great deal of face validity (i.e., the extent to which the measure looks like it would measure job-related KSAOs), and predict job performance well with moderate adverse impact, are rejected because of their costs. Some organizations systematically consider costs and benefits when choosing selection instruments and choose instruments that provide more benefits than costs. These organizations may be willing to spend a lot on selection procedures if the value of the resulting candidate pool is commensurately higher.

Validating the Employee Selection Procedure

Ideally, an employer uses a systematic process to demonstrate that a selection procedure meets the legal and professional requirements. Employers often avoid a systematic process when using less formal selection procedures, because they believe that such procedures are not required or fear the outcomes. However, compliance with current legal procedures generally requires some demonstration of job relevance and business necessity.

The validation process for a selection instrument typically involves determining job requirements, assessing the relationship of the selection process to those requirements, demonstrating that the selection process is nondiscriminatory, and documenting the results of the research.

Job analysis or work analysis is the process for determining what KSAOs are required to perform the job. The purpose of a job analysis is to define which KSAOs should be measured and define an appropriate criterion. A variety of techniques, ranging from interviews and observations to job analysis questionnaires, can be used to determine what tasks incumbents perform and what KSAOs are necessary to perform the tasks. The extent and formality of the job analysis varies with the particular situation. When tests that are known to be effective predictors of performance in a wide range of positions, such as measures of cognitive ability, are used, the job analysis may be less detailed than in cases in which a job knowledge test is being developed and information sufficient to support the correspondence between the job content and test content is necessary. Often when a test purports to predict criteria such as turnover, the need to analyze the job and demonstrate the relevance of turnover is obviated.

A validation study establishes a relationship between performance on the predictor and some relevant criterion. Validity refers to the strength of the inference that can be made about a person’s standing on the criterion from performance on the predictor. Many ways exist to establish the validity of an inference, and current professional standards encourage an accumulation of validity evidence from multiple sources and studies. Perhaps the three most common approaches are content-oriented strategies, criterion-oriented strategies, and validity generalization strategies. Content-oriented strategies involve establishing the relationship between the selection procedure and the KSAOs required in the job, and criterion-oriented approaches involve establishing a statistical relationship between scores on the predictors and a measure on some criterion, often job performance. Validity generalization strategies (e.g., synthetic validity, job component validity, transportability) usually involve inferring validity from one situation in which formal studies have been done to another situation, based on demonstration of common KSAOs or tasks.

Demonstrating that selection procedures are non-discriminatory is usually accomplished through a bias study. Accepted procedures involve a comparison of the slopes and intercepts of the regression lines for the protected and nonprotected classes. Often psychologists will evaluate mean group differences and adverse impact; however, it is important to note that neither of these statistics indicates bias.

Government standards require documentation of research related to the job analysis, validity, and bias research. Careful industrial and organizational psychologists who want a successful implementation of an employee selection procedure will also provide detailed user’s guides that explain how to use the selection procedure and interpret scores in addition to the technical report documenting the validity studies.

Using and Interpreting the Results of the Employee Selection Procedure

Multiple ways to combine, use, and interpret employee selection procedures exist. Like the selection of a particular type of format for the employee selection procedure, the choice of how to use scores on employee selection procedures depends on scientific and practical considerations. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.

One of the first questions in using the results of selection procedure is how to combine data from multiple procedures. Two approaches are frequently used. In a multiple hurdles approach, the standard on one selection procedure must be met before the next is administered. In a slight variation, all selection procedures are given, but the standard on each procedure must be met for a candidate to be qualified. Another approach frequently used is the compensatory model, in which all components of a selection battery are administered and a standard for a total score on the battery must be achieved.

Multiple hurdles approaches have the advantage of ensuring that a candidate possesses the minimal level of the KSAOs being measured to perform the job at the level specified by the organization, whereas a compensatory model allows for a higher level of skill in one area to compensate for lower skill in another. For example, strong mental abilities may compensate for low levels of job knowledge: a candidate may not have all the job knowledge needed but may possess the ability to acquire additional knowledge quickly and efficiently. There are situations in which skills are not compensatory, and minimal levels of both are required. For example, in a customer service position, an employer may expect problem solving skills and interpersonal skills. Some organizations prefer multiple hurdles because this approach allows them to spend their staffing resources wisely. For example, an organization may use a short test of basic reading skills to eliminate candidates who do not read well enough to complete a lengthy job knowledge test. In other situations, such as competitive labor markets, asking candidates to return for multiple testing events is not feasible. Consequently, organizations prefer a compensatory approach, or a modified multiple hurdles approach in which all instruments are given to all candidates.

Whether looking at one selection procedure or a combination of procedures, there are several ways to use the scores. In top-down hiring, the employer chooses the top scorer, then the next highest scorer, and so on, until the positions are filled. Top-down hiring maximizes performance on the criterion and frequently results in the highest levels of adverse impact, particularly when the employee selection procedure contains a significant cognitive component. Top-down selection procedures work well in batch selection— that is, the selection procedure is administered to a large number of individuals at one time, and all selections are made from that pool. When selection is continuous, meaning the selection procedure is administered frequently, the top of the list changes often, making it difficult to provide information to candidates about their relative status on a list of qualified individuals. In addition, if the skill level of the candidates tested is low, the employer runs the risk of selecting individuals who lack sufficient skill to perform the job at the level required by the organization.

Cutoff scores are often used to solve the problem of identifying who is able to perform the job at the level specified by the organization, specifying the pool of qualified people, and reducing the level of adverse impact. Using a cutoff score, the employer establishes for the procedure a minimum level that each candidate must achieve. Typically, all candidates who score above that on the procedure score are considered equally qualified. Although this approach solves several problems, it reduces the effectiveness of the selection procedure by treating people with different skill levels the same. The extent to which adverse impact is affected depends on where the cutoff score is set.

Both top-down selection and cutoff scores can result in individuals with very similar scores being treated differently. Sometimes banding is used to overcome this problem by grouping individuals with statistically equivalent scores. Yet the bounds of the band have to be set at some point, so the problem is rarely surmounted completely.

Another approach that is often used by employers is the piece ofinformation approach. The staffing organization provides the score on the employee selection procedure and interpretive information such as expectancy tables, and allows the hiring manager to determine how to use the selection procedure information and combine it with other information. For example, a hiring manager might compare test information with other indicators of achievement, such as college grade point average, and make a judgment about the mental abilities of a candidate. The advantage to this approach is its recognition that no test provides perfect information about an individual. The problem with the approach is that it opens the door to inconsistent treatment across candidates.

Usefulness of an Employee Selection Procedure

The usefulness of a selection procedure can be assessed in several ways. One approach determines the extent to which the number of successful performers will increase as a result of using the employee selection procedure by considering three factors: (a) the validity of the instrument; (b) the selection ratio (i.e., the percentage of candidates to be selected); and (c) the base rate for performance (i.e., the percentage of employees whose performance is considered acceptable). Another approach is to calculate the dollar value of using the selection procedure by applying utility formulas that take into account the research and operational costs of the tests, the dollar value of better performers, the number of employees hired per year, the average tenure, and the validity of the test.


  1. American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council on Measurement in Education. (1999). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.
  2. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (1978, August 25). Uniform guidelines on employee selection procedures. Federal Register, 38290-393150.
  3. Schmitt, N., & Borman, W. C. (1993). Personnel selection in organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Schmitt, N., & Chan, D. (1998). Personnel selection: A theoretical approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  5. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. (2003). Principles for the validation and use of personnel selection procedures (4th ed.). Bowling Green, OH: Author.

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