Prescreening Assessment Methods

Given that most organizations have many more job applicants than they have job openings, employers must be able to quickly and efficiently screen out those applicants who not only fail to meet the minimum qualifications but are also unlikely to be successful on the job if hired. Prescreening assessment methods provide cost-effective ways of selecting out those applicants who are unlikely to be successful if hired. Thus, these methods take a different approach from the more detailed and involved personnel selection methods that focus on identifying the most highly qualified candidates.

Prescreening assessment methods, also referred to as initial screenings, preemployment inquiries, or background evaluations, encompass a wide range of popular procedures used at the beginning stages of the personnel selection process. Common prescreening assessment methods include application forms, resumes, weighted application blanks (WABs), training and experience evaluations (T&Es), reference checks, letters of recommendation, honesty and integrity testing, and drug testing. An underlying rationale across prescreening assessment methods is that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Thus the assumption is that if applicants have done it in the past, they are likely to repeat it in the future. These behaviors can range from negative or deviant behaviors, such as engaging in illegal drug use or stealing from former employers, to prosocial or positive behaviors, such as taking on leadership roles or assisting coworkers with assignments before being asked.

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Prescreening Assessment Methods

U.S. employers screen more than 1 billion resumes and applications each year. Unfortunately, most organizations fail to employ systematic procedures to evaluate the information obtained from resumes and applications, negating much of the usefulness of these prescreening methods. However, sophisticated practitioners have developed several procedures, including T&Es and WABs, to systematically evaluate and weight the various background information provided on application blanks. Because these weights are optimal for a given applicant pool, however, they must be cross validated on a new sample to ensure that they will still be effective when used with future job applicants. Weighted application blanks and T&Es have demonstrated modest relationships with later job performance and thus show some promise as efficient and effective prescreening tools, particularly when the job involves long and costly training, there is high job turnover, and the initial applicant pool is very large. More detailed methods of assessing background information, such as biographical questionnaires, however, typically go beyond mere prescreening. Thus they would be classified as substantive personnel selection, because their primary goal would then become to select the best qualified candidates into the organization, rather than selecting out the weakest candidates, which is typically done with WABs and T&Es.

Reference checks and letters of recommendation are also sometimes used as prescreening devices. Such evaluations typically cover employment and educational history, the personality or character of the applicant, and statements regarding job performance abilities. However, they can be expensive to use in the early stages of the personnel selection process when there are still many more applicants than job openings. Letters of recommendation tend to suffer from leniency bias because applicants predictably choose letter writers who provide a positive evaluation. Some researchers have suggested that letters of recommendation actually tell you more about the letter writer than the applicant. In addition, there is little evidence that they are predictive of later job performance. Checking references of past employers is essential for many jobs, if only to verify the validity of past employment claims. Unfortunately, past employers are often reticent to provide additional evaluative information for fear of an accusation of defamation of character. Nevertheless, prospective employers can be sued for negligent hiring if they knowingly (or unknowingly) select a job applicant who later engages in illegal or inappropriate behavior at work. As a result, many organizations will at least attempt to contact previous employers and others who know the job applicant to verify information provided or clarify inconsistencies in the application materials.

Billions of dollars are lost each year in the retail industry because of employee theft. In addition, scores of employees are injured at work or endanger the public and their coworkers because of illegal drug use. Thus honesty and integrity tests and drug tests are often used as prescreening assessment methods to screen out applicants who are likely to either steal from the organization or engage in illicit drug use. Honesty tests typically take one of two forms. Overt honesty tests assess applicants’ attitudes toward theft and admissions of theft. Alternatively, personality based honesty tests evaluate counterproductive work behavior in general, of which theft is just one part. As a result, overt integrity measures are typically clear purpose tests; applicants administered personality based integrity measures, however, rarely know what the test is assessing. Although use of overt integrity measures may increase perceptions of invasion of privacy, such concerns may be diminished by the greater face validity of these measures. Although both forms of honesty tests have shown some promise in predicting future job performance, their effectiveness in reducing inventory loss is still largely unknown.

Meanwhile, most research on the effectiveness of drug testing has focused on the accuracy of the tests themselves (i.e., reducing false positive or false negative test results) or applicants’ reactions to issues of invasion of privacy and procedural justice (i.e., applicants’ perceptions of how the drug testing is implemented), rather than how well the tests predict job performance or reduce job-related accidents, illnesses, or sick time. As a result, the effectiveness of drug screening procedures to improve workplace performance or reduce illicit drug use among those employees who are eventually hired is still unclear.

Reducing Misinformation

Because most of the information provided on preemployment screening methods is self-report (i.e., provided directly by the job applicants themselves), embellishment, if not outright falsification, of information is common. Thus employers must take steps to make sure that the information provided by applicants is as accurate as possible. How can they best achieve this? One option is to have applicants sign a statement that all the information they provide is accurate to the best of their knowledge and that knowingly providing false information will immediately eliminate them from further consideration for the job. Additionally, using reference and background checks (as discussed earlier) can also help to verify information by providing others’ assessments, in addition to the job applicant’s own assessment. The extent to which the organization requests verifiable and objective information, such as degrees earned or GPA, versus unverifiable and subjective information, including how an applicant felt about the college experience, can also reduce falsification of self-reported application information. Sometimes just the written or oral threat that the organization will follow up on the information provided in the application materials is enough to significantly reduce falsifications and embellishments. Some employers have even gone so far as to include lie scales in their weighted application blanks and training and experience evaluations. Such scales typically include bogus job skills or experiences that would identify the applicant as lying if they report having that bogus skill or experience.

Legal Issues

Even though prescreening assessment methods focus more on selecting out the poorly qualified candidates, as opposed selecting in the best candidates, they are still required to meet state and federal fair employment guidelines and laws. As a result, development and use of any prescreening assessment method should follow established professional guidelines, such as the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures and the Principles for the Validation and Use of Personnel Selection Procedures. This would typically entail conducting a job analysis and a study to determine the validity of using certain prescreening methods for a given job. The validity of a prescreening measure will rely not only on the type of information gathered but also on the scoring method used to examine that information. Researchers have determined, for example, that the validity of T&Es can vary widely based on the scoring procedure used. Further, given the job-specific nature of many prescreening measures, it is possible that the composition and validity of these measures may be less generalizable across jobs or organizations than selection methods such as structured interviews or cognitive ability tests. These unique characteristics of prescreening measures further reinforce the need for conducting thorough validation studies prior to implementation.

Failure to follow recommended validation procedures will make it difficult to defend the use of any prescreening assessment procedure that is challenged in a court of law as being discriminatory. Thus employers must determine if their prescreening devices result in adverse impact, for example, whether some protected groups are hired at a significantly lower rate than other groups because of use of a given prescreening procedure. In addition, employers should determine whether a given procedure is predictive of success on the job, can be justified as needed for business necessity, or results in an invasion of privacy. Only in doing so will employers be on solid legal footing when the need to justify and defend their use of a given prescreening assessment method is challenged in court. Unfortunately, most studies of organizational application forms find that most employers, both private and public, continue to include some illegal or inappropriate items in their prescreening measures. Among the most frequently assessed inappropriate items are inquiries into gender, race, age, disability, marital status, and arrest record.

Although receiving less research attention than other personnel selection measures, prescreening assessment methods continue to be popular because of their ease of administration, widespread acceptability by applicants, and utility for eliminating unqualified applicants. In an age in which organizations can successfully and cost-effectively boost the size of their applicant pools through use of Internet-based recruitment and application procedures, the use of prescreen-ing selection tools may become increasingly necessary. Hence, additional research and continued monitoring of the legality, validity, and practical utility of using prescreening assessment methods is clearly warranted given both their current prominence and future potential to advance the overall selection process.


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  2. Cascio, W. F., & Aguinis, H. (2005). Initial screening. In Applied psychology in human resource management (6th ed., pp. 277-307). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Gatewood, R. D., & Feild, H. S. (2001). Application forms, training and experience evaluations, and reference checks. In Human resource selection (5th ed., pp. 407-470). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt College Publishing.
  4. Heneman, H. G., III, & Judge, T. A. (2006). External Selection I. In Staffing organizations (5th ed.). Boston: Irwin McGraw-Hill.

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