The Pearls and Perils of Work Sample Exams

Topic: Assessment, Staffing
Publication: International Journal of Selection and Assessment (JUN 2010)
Article: Work sample exams and gender adverse impact potential: The influence of self-concept, social skills, and written skills
Authors: P.L. Roth, M.A. Buster, and J. Barnes-Farrell
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

Work sample exams are employee selection tools that represent actual or highly similar job task characteristics (i.e., writing a sample response email to a customer for a customer service job).  These selection tools are good predictors of job performance, and job applicants tend to respond favorably to them (largely because they are easily linked to the job).

Another reason work sample exams are highly regarded is that they show less racioethnic-based adverse impact than other popular selection tools such as cognitive ability tests.  A potential problem with work sample exams, however, is that they may lead to gender-based adverse impact against women.

According to a recent article by Roth et al. (2010) the likelihood of gender-based adverse impact due to work sample exams depends on the specific skills they measure.  Roth et al. conducted two studies employing job applicants for a civil engineer manager and a civil engineer administrator position for which each utilized several work samples measuring various skills necessary for the job to select incumbents.

The results suggest that adverse impact against women was most likely to occur for work sample exams of technical skills (but only for the civil engineer manager position; Roth et al. speculate that the vast majority of people qualified to apply for the administrator position had high levels of technical expertise regardless of gender).  Interestingly, however, women scored substantially higher on work samples of interpersonal skills and writing skills.  Taken together, Roth et al. conclude that the potential for adverse impact against women is unlikely especially if work samples involving social skills and writing skills are employed in conjunction with technical skills.  Clearly then, work sample exams do not disadvantage women across the board.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to work sample exams is their cost.  Roth et al. also reported on the cost of using work sample exams, and estimated that the battery of work samples employed in their study of civil engineer manager jobs would cost an organization a whopping $1500 per applicant tested!  So the big question is: are the advantages of work sample exams worth their cost?

Roth, P.L., Buster, M.A., & Barnes-Farrell, J. (2010). Work sample exams and gender adverse impact potential: The influence of self-concept, social skills, and written skills. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 18(2), 117-130.