Job simulations could help agencies make better hires, report says

Tryouts also can help applicants decide whether they really want the position.

Federal agencies might have better luck selecting the best job candidates if they included a simulation of the work in the application process, according to a new report from the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Developing tests to see how prospective employees respond to a given work environment or how they perform a particular task can be expensive. But "agencies need to weigh the fact that it may be more costly in the long run to make poor hiring decisions than to spend the money to make good ones," MSPB wrote in the report. In fact, bad hires can end up costing as much as three times their salary after factoring in training, lost time and repeating the hiring process, according to the board.

Job simulations -- which can include everything from asking candidates during the interview to explain how they would handle a specific situation to exercises in which they must answer customer calls or perform others tasks that are part of the job requirements -- allow hiring managers to determine whether applicants have the knowledge, skills and abilities to succeed in particular positions, MSPB said. Candidates selected after such tests can end up being 32 percent more productive than their peers, according to the report.

Such simulations also help candidates determine if they want the job, said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, which can help avoid turnover among applicants who find out after the fact that they dislike the work.

"If they're offered the job and they accept it, they go in knowing it's a customer service job [for example], and I'm going to have to deal with rude people, but that's part of the job," Palguta said. "Some people will do the simulation and say, 'If that's what the job's about, I don't really want it.' They'll self-select out."

MSPB also noted that research about job simulation in the private sector suggests companies that use such exercises are better able to avoid unconscious bias in the hiring process, since they have more evidence about how candidates would perform regardless of their race, gender or other identifying factors. Palguta said job simulations also are likely to make applicants feel they were given a fair shot to prove themselves, even if they weren't hired.

But MSPB found that less than half of agencies are using job simulations. Only 16 of 35 agencies or offices that filled out surveys for the report said they were using tests as part of their hiring process. The report noted, "The top barriers cited were related to a lack of resources and knowledge, rather than amenability."

And the report emphasized that job simulations might not be appropriate for every hiring process. Rather, MSPB said, the report was aimed at encouraging managers to rigorously analyze job vacancies and to consider more carefully the required skills.

Such reviews "will assist agencies in making informed decisions about the type of assessments that will help ensure that they are hiring on the basis of relative ability, knowledge and skills in adherence to the merit system principles," the report said.