How one learning pro roots out bias in job candidate assessments

What does learning and mentorship have to do with recruitment? 

Apart from perks that attract talent, these two things can be a part of the interview process. One learning expert, John Kleeman, believes that through the right testing, the potential hire screening process can teach job candidates a lot — and even empower them in their career. 

Kleeman, EVP at Learnosity, founded Questionmark, an assessment management software company. He also advocates for disabled workers. Historically, he told HR Dive, tests in both academia and the corporate world have been written by the majority for the majority, without really thinking about different kinds of minorities.”

“That’s partly the testing community’s responsibility and partly society’s responsibility,” Kleeman said.

Recruiting tests tap into both soft skills and hard skills: They range from personality tests and behavioral assessments, to “situational judgment” tests, to cognitive ability assessments, language proficiency checks and numerical skills tests (think numbers, coding, and editing, among others).

Who’s in the room where it happens?

Kleeman recommends that panels assessing potential hires include a wide range of people, differing in gender, race, disability and more. 

“The issue is that items and questions written by one sort of people [are] probably aimed at those kinds of people. Your peers or whatever. Having more diverse item-writers and reviewers is something that a lot of organizations are trying to do,” Kleeman acknowledged. In short, when creating talent assessments, get the consensus of multiple people, he said.

Be clear and concise

Kleeman said to use a consistent clean writing style and “simple language” when writing assessments, adding “complicated language doesn’t help anybody,” including those who don’t primarily speak English.

Neurodiversity experts have long advocated for plain language throughout workplace materials. As a checklist, DEI experts recommended asking questions to the effect of the following:

  • Are these words that people can easily understand? 
  • Are these words exclusionary or offensive to anyone? 
  • Have the needs and feelings of the audience been considered in writing this content? 

A gold standard resource is plainlanguage.gov, written and maintained by the Plain Language Action and Information Network of the U.S. General Services Administration. Kleeman told HR Dive to also make the directions for the questions — for example, “select one answer” for a multiple-choice question — clear.

Regarding web design, Kleeman recommended white space “between objects and between lines of text, so that people with spatial reasoning difficulties can process information more clearly.” He also recommended web design that minimizes scrolling for users.

“Avoid making the candidate move between multiple sources of information,” Kleeman said.

Biased testing is only the beginning

Regarding situational judgment tests, the learning expert told HR Dive that hypothetical questions need to have demonstrated value in the interview process. Kleeman brought up real-world dilemmas — for example, a nurse facing a doctor who is wrong, and the imperative to speak up against a more senior colleague.

These questions can be “very valuable,” Kleeman said, but there should be a “consensus” about the right answer — “and that needs to be reviewed by a lot of different people.”

Ultimately, Kleeman expressed his belief that a well-designed, inclusive assessment can inspire testing confidence.

At its best, “testing gives life chances to people,” Kleeman said. “But if it isn’t done right, then it doesn’t give a fair approach to those life chances.