Are Cognitive Ability Tests Insulting to Job Applicants?

It is well known that cognitive ability tests are very useful for predicting employee performance. However, applicants often see them as unfair and do not like taking them. More informal and much less valid methods (like informal interviews) tend to be preferred by applicants. In this study, the authors (Sumanth & Cable, 2011) investigated the effect that the status of the organization and the career status of the applicant would have on applicants’ perceptions of the selection system’s fairness.


In this quasi-experimental study, the authors tested their hypotheses with two samples of adults (one of MBA alumni in the US and one of executives in the UK). All participants were told that the hiring organization would use behavioral interviews, and half of the participants were told that they would also need to complete a cognitive ability test.


Organizational status is the reputation of an organization; a high-status organization (e.g., Google) is seen as being very reputable and prestigious. High-status organizations tend to be known for the rigor of their selection systems. The authors found that when low-status organizations (as opposed to high-status organizations) used cognitive ability tests as part of their selection system, applicants were less likely to view the organization attractively.

Individual career status refers to one’s beliefs about his or her career accomplishments and status (e.g., respect, prominence) within and outside of an organization. It is plausible that applicants with high status might be insulted by having to take a cognitive ability test when applying for a job. For example, they may think that their accomplishments should speak for themselves. Procedural justice is the fairness of the procedures used to make decisions. The authors found that when an individual’s status was high and cognitive ability tests were included, that person was more likely than low-status individuals to have lower perceptions of procedural justice. In other words, the process was seen as unfair. High-status individuals also were more insulted by the inclusion of a cognitive ability test.


These results indicate that even though cognitive ability tests are highly valid, they may repel high-status applicants who may see the process as unfair and insulting. Based on these findings, it would benefit organizations to make it clear to applicants why cognitive ability tests are being used (i.e., their high validity) and that the exact same procedure will be used for all applicants.


Sumanth, J. J., & Cable, D. M. (2011). Status and organizational entry: How organizational and individual status affect justice perceptions of hiring systems. Personnel Psychology, 64, 963-1000. 

Image credit: istockphoto/