Should You Expect a Skill Test During a Job Interview?

A trig math problem with instructions to find x. The student mere circles the x on the diagram and writes: "Found it! Here it is."Spoiler alert!  Some people are less than truthful about their skill level on job applications and during interviews!  Gasp! Really?

Even if they don’t deliberately fib, at a minimum, applicants often tend to overrate their true skill levels.  After all, who doesn’t want to sound like a great candidate?  So, when the interviewer asks if you are proficient at a particular job skill, for example, such as using complex pivot tables in Microsoft Excel, it is real easy to just smile and say “yes.”  Even if you don’t really know what a “pivot table” is.  But hey, you’ve probably used Excel, at least a little. How hard can it be? However, if asked to prove it – right then and there – would you be ready?

The one pre-employment test most job applicants do expect is a drug test.  According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), over 80% of employers surveyed now require such tests.  So, no surprise there.  But testing for skills?  Having to show proof of a skill during a job interview catches many applicants off guard, even when the job posting specifically lists the skill as a requirement!

As you know, the cost to recruit, hire, onboard, and train an employee is very high.  If an employer has to let a person go because he or she can’t do the job and then repeat the process all over again, the cost more than doubles.  The organization loses valuable time.  An applicant who simply talks a good line about their skills cannot fool a smart interviewer twice.  Next time, the interviewer will want proof!  Can you blame them?

Pre-Employment Skill Tests

Some skill tests have been around almost forever and are no-brainers.  Applying for a clerical or data entry position?  No big surprise if a typing test is required!  In fact, you likely expect it.

Sometimes, though, skill tests come as a total surprise.  I interviewed once for a position in which the job posting required “data analysis skills and proficiency with Microsoft Excel.”  When the usual Q&A part of the interview was finished, the interviewer told me I would next be performing a little exercise.  Say what?  The interviewer then took me to a conference room and provided a laptop loaded with Excel.  Next, I was handed a sheet of data to analyze, along with a list of questions and a thumb drive.  Finally, the interviewer gave instructions to answer the questions within one hour and place the resulting spreadsheets onto the thumb drive. Didn’t see that one coming!  Fortunately, I guess I did fine because I got the job.

Sometime later, I learned that several of the applicants – all who claimed to be skilled with Excel – were unable to complete any part of the test.  They didn’t know how to use Excel.  At all.  Clearly, this was another case of less than truthful job applicants.  Since this had happened to them in the past, the interviewers thereafter always tested for Excel skills.

Wait a Minute – Are Skill Tests Legal?

I’m not an attorney, so I cannot give legal counsel.  However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website contains a wealth of information on this subject.  According to information found there, in general, among other requirements, a pre-employment test must:

  • Be clearly job-related
  • Be necessary to the position
  • Not have a disproportionately negative effect on applicants of certain classes protected by law

Consider a problematic skill test discussed by the EEOC in a 2005 press release.  This case involved the use of a pre-employment “strength test” by a meat packing company to screen job applicants.  The employer argued the test was necessary to reduce on-the-job injuries.  As part of their job, workers in the plant had to routinely lift 35-pound products up to a height of about 65 inches.   The employer claimed it was simply testing applicants to see if they had the strength required to safely perform a normal job-related task. Seems reasonable, right?

Unfortunately, the particular test used was found to have a disparate impact against women and therefore illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Interestingly, the court determined the pre-employment strength test used was more difficult than the actual job itself!  Not just that, it seems the test was intentionally used to discriminate against women.  Due to these factors, an award of approximately $3.3 million to 52 rejected female job applicants was later upheld by a federal appeals court. Ouch!

The flip side of this issue, however, is that as long as skill tests do not violate applicable laws, it appears employers are free to use them – and many do.

Will I be Tested?

On its website, the Criteria Corp, a provider of web-based pre-employment testing services, cites a survey from the American Management Association (AMA) which found that 70% of responding employers use some sort of job skill testing.  The odds seem to suggest you very well might have to take a skill test during your next job interview!

The first way to find out is also the most obvious.  Check the job posting and employer’s job website to see if they state anything about a skill test.  While some employers may disclose this up front, many do not.  You can also ask about it when contacted to schedule an interview, but this might be awkward. After all, you certainly do not want to give the impression you might fear having to demonstrate your skills!  But, if you can ask comfortably, you could get a valuable heads-up.

If you still don’t know, carefully check the job description or posting for other clues.  If properly written, these documents will state the Minimum Entrance Requirements (MERs) for the position, also often known as Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSAs).  Look for the mention of specifically-required KSAs such as proficiency with Microsoft Office, ability to use certain equipment and tools, math skills, writing abilities, etc.  Does the posting list such KSAs? If so, the employer might test for them during the interview.  After all, by applying, you are claiming to have such talents, right?


Assuming you are competent in the requisite skills, a test may actually help you. It can enable your abilities to stand out compared to other lesser-skilled applicants who may be nothing more than slick talkers. A test may also provide solid insight into which specific skills an employer feels are important for such a job.  Even if you don’t land this opening, the knowledge better prepares you for future interviews for similar positions.

If you REALLY feel qualified for the position and meet the stated KSAs, then don’t worry too much about a skill test.  You probably already know the material.   Sure, maybe brush up in advance on areas where you feel a bit weak, but don’t let it panic you.  Unlike some of the other candidates, you have an edge mentally because you anticipate the possibility of a test.  The interviewers won’t catch you off guard! This is your chance to show ‘em what you’ve got!

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Don’t Go Into a Job Interview Empty-Handed!

Hand holding a tablet computer with people in background.Going for a job interview?  Assume the interviewers are all from Missouri!

Why?  Missouri, of course, is nicknamed the “show me” state.  All kidding aside, most interviewers, regardless of their actual home state, tend to have a “show me” state of mind.  Let me explain.

Suppose you and your fiancé are making plans for the big day and searching for a wedding photographer.  You visit a studio to inquire about cost, album options, etc.  However, when you ask to see samples, the photographer says, “I don’t have any samples to show.  Trust me, I’m good.”  Based on that response, you’re ready to sign the photography contract, right?  Oh yes, and plop down the $1,000 deposit right then and there?  Yeah, I didn’t think so…

Yet, this is exactly what happens in many job interviews!  The candidate has the chance to show evidence of his or her abilities, but does not.  Sure, in certain fields like photography, graphic arts, music, writing, and others, the norm is for applicants to bring a portfolio or samples of their work.  But what about fields where this is not the norm?

A Real Example

I was once looking to hire someone for a team which performed business process improvement activities.  A basic but essential part of such a job involves identifying and documenting the existing process through a technique known as “process mapping” or flow charting.  Microsoft Visio™ is a commonly used software tool for this purpose, and it also tracks changes and improvements to a process.  As you might expect, the resulting process maps can be quite involved and complex.

The recruitment yielded several excellent candidates who came in for interviews.  During the interviews, each candidate described their experience in developing process maps.  Each claimed to have experience in process mapping, and some touted skills with Visio.  Yet, except for one, none provided any physical or tangible evidence of such skills or abilities.

Doesn’t this sort of sound like the “trust me” comment by the wedding photographer?

The one candidate showed copies of several process maps and explained in detail how the tasks were performed.  It was clear this candidate knew how to both do the work and use the software – and got hired!

But Was the Candidate Honest?

OK, you might ask, how do we as interviewers know the candidate personally did the work and created all the materials as claimed?  After all, who knows?  Maybe a friend or colleague really did the work and the applicant simply plagiarized the results.  Yes, I suppose that is always possible.

However, my experience has been that a skilled interviewer can easily expose such fraud in seconds.  All the interviewer needs to do is merely “scratch below the surface” regarding the content of the materials.  When asked anything beyond only the most basic questions, it quickly becomes obvious if the person lacks depth of understanding.  Should this occur, it is apparent the individual could not have possibly performed the work.  At that point, the credibility and integrity of the applicant just went out the window – along with any chance of landing the job!

What Can I Do?

Suppose show-and-tell is not the norm for job interviews in your field.  What might you present to the interviewers?  The following items might be applicable for you:

  • Reports which you routinely prepare.
  • Spreadsheets, charts, or graphs.
  • Screenshots of a website you designed, or if possible, call up the actual site on a mobile device.
  • Presentations you prepared and delivered.
  • Specifications which you have written.
  • Photographs, blueprints, or schematic diagrams.
  • Brochures or advertisements you created.

When taking samples of your work to an interview, here are a few important guidelines:

  • Don’t overload the interviewers with quantity; just a few quality pieces are best.
  • Don’t leave items expecting the interviewers to return them; make copies to leave, if appropriate.
  • Don’t show anything potentially sensitive, proprietary, or confidential.  Your work quality may be great, but revealing inappropriate information clearly shows you suffer from a lack of good judgement. Worse yet, your actions might even be illegal or result in you being fired from your present job!

Having something to show helps differentiate you from the other interview candidates.  If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read the article “Stand Out from all the Other Job Applicants!


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Featured image courtesy of NEC Corporation of America – flickr