A brief history lesson on employee assessment from US military talent strategies.
Employee Assessment for Selection as Part of a Talent Strategy in Business
Employee assessment and selection is, or should be, an important part of any organization’s strategic talent plan. The people you hire for your organization are not just temporary widgets that perform a finite set of tasks to keep the wheels turning. Each employee has the ability to impact your company’s culture and can play an integral role in how your company is perceived. On the contrary, selecting the wrong employee can also have very disastrous effects on company reputation and the bottom line, regardless the size the organization.
History of Assessment for Selection in the US Military
The US military has pioneered selection methodology for years and continues to do so with an increasing amount of accuracy and sophistication. The various branches of the military have this woven into the fabric of the overall success and failure of their respective organizations, top to bottom.
“By understanding all the possible positions and levels within the military, they can use this assessment to map possible recruits to the multitude of jobs..”
Modern employee selection methods can be traced back to World War I in 1917, when the US entered the conflict by declaring war on Germany. Psychologists partnered with the US Army to assess the cognitive ability and emotional stability of recruits to determine their rank and placement as quickly as possible as war efforts escalated. These tests, referred to as the Army Alpha and Army Beta Tests, were instrumental in organizing a massive workforce quickly and enabling the army to ensure that it was making the most informed decisions on who were to be their decision makers in the leadership ranks. In the following years, US military selection was expanded and made a formal institution in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
Contemporary Assessment for Selection in the US Military
Perhaps the most famed military selection methods are related to the Special Forces for Army Ranger and Navy SEAL candidates, which have been popularized by some Hollywood interpretations and media portrayals of the physical demands of the process. While they are certainly grueling, in reality, the methodologies used range from simple assessments, similar to the original Army Alpha, to very sophisticated and in-depth interview and screening processes. The process should be difficult in all aspects since these are critical roles involving life and death situations related to national security. However, it is simply not enough for these recruits to be able to perform at a high level under extreme duress; they must have the temperament and personality traits to “fit” into the culture and team structure in which they are to be placed to be successful as well.
Routinely, the military has used the ASVAB for screening and placement since 1968. By first understanding all of the possible positions and levels within the military, they can use this assessment to map possible recruits to the multitude of jobs in the branches of the military. This modern day Army Alpha Test is integral to making sure military soldiers are a good fit and effective in the roles they are placed and is a very useful tool to ease the administrative burden on the organization to make these data driven decisions. The US Army has Assessments at the core of its 2025 and Beyond Talent Strategy as a “critical enabler” to “select the best” throughout the organization.
How Businesses can Benefit from the US Military’s Lead in Employee Assessment Best Practices
Many businesses use assessments in similar ways and for various reasons including employee selection, employee development, succession planning etc. Listed below are a few suggestions based on how the US military integrates assessment for selection into their talent management strategy.
- Make sure you fully understand the needs of the role.
- A thorough job analysis and competency model should be the first step. This will allow you to properly choose or develop an assessment tool that matches the knowledge, skills, abilities, personality characteristics and performance domains of the role. This also establishes the legal defensibility of using any selection instrument (which there are many which should not be used for selection… MBTI, DiSC… cough cough).
- Make sure you are using an effective tool.
- What does this mean??? If you are using a vendor… read their technical manual! It should provide evidence of the validity and reliability of the assessment and hopefully some evidence that it can predict important outcomes like employee performance, retention, and culture fit. If you are developing your own tool, do the research needed to establish the reliability and validity. Get help from someone with a background in assessment or an IO psychologist if you need assistance. WLA has the full capabilities to assist companies with a myriad of selection issues and in many contexts.
- Make sure your methods are aligning to the overarching business strategy.
- One of the best questions I like to ask business leaders is… “What is the most critical position in your organization that, if it disappeared tomorrow, would be the biggest threat to the company?”. The response is often a front-line operations role and is almost always where the talent strategy and business strategy first collide. A military cannot be effective without a forward line of troops and neither can any business. A key focus on the critical roles in the organization will drive a business forward.
There is a long history of utilizing scientific methods for talent selection in the military and it is clear it has been effective and not going away anytime soon. From the selection and placement of new recruits to the verification of talents for leaders and special operatives selection methodologies are used pervasively throughout the military. These have been adopted by many businesses in the private sector but it is still surprising when companies are still not using them. Or sometimes worse, using bad practices. Workforce Lifecycle Analytics can help any business to create and leverage assessment methods or to help audit your current process.
Article by Brandon Jordan