November 23, 2018

A Brief History of Assessments and Interviews

By Juanjo Cardona

7 min


Assessments in China have a long past. The civil service examination system in Imperial China may be the first documented record of using selection tests

Assessments in China have a long past. The use of interviews for recruitment purposes stretches back millennia. The civil service examination system (科举, kējǔ) in Imperial China can be taken as a form of interviewing and may be the first documented record of using selection tests. Imperial exams had been around as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), though it wasn’t until the Song dynasty (960–1279) that the exams were institutionalized as a means of recruitment for government office. (1)



During the Song dynasty the widespread use of one technological advancement was fundamental to the expansion of education and, by extension, the imperial examination system: the printed book. Although its development dates to the first century BC, it was China’s Song society the first to use printed books. Despite efforts to control all printing at first, by the 1020s the opening of schools was encouraged by the government, awarding land endowments to schools enrolling students.(2) The civil service examination system prevailed until 1905 when it was discontinued as a result of pressures from reformers looking to develop a national school system and other modernization measures. In 1915 western psychological testing was introduced in China, but it was not until 1980 when they became popular following on 1978 China’s open policies, favoring the country’s active participation in the world economy rather than a development model based on self-sufficiency.



The “Modern” Job Interview


The invention of the first productive steam engine (1712) was the harbinger that brought the Industrial Revolution to Europe and the US. The steam engine brought the factories and the railway. And with those came a radical change in the structuring of labor. A new labor market developed, away from the traditional (often hereditary) master-apprentice structure that had been at the core of production systems up until the 18th century. Initially, a job “interview” was as simple as showing up at the gate of a factory and hoping to get picked up for a job.


A brief history of assessments. Edison Questions Stir Up Storm |


Interviews got more demanding as the pace of technological development increased, requiring more capable, better-educated workers. “Edison Questions Stir Up a Storm”: That went a headline from a The New York Times piece on May 11, 1921. It referred to a questionnaire designed by Thomas A. Edison to select college graduates applying for an executive position at the first commercial central power plant ever built: the Pearl Street Station (named after, you guessed right, the street the plant was sitting at 255-257 Pearl Street in Manhattan).


The interview consisted of a list of 141 questions that, according to opinions from interviewees – featured as “victims” by the newspaper – “Only “a Walking Encyclopedia” Could Answer Questionnaire.” Some of the questions were, based on the recollections of the interviewees “What country makes the best optical lenses and what city?”, “Who invented the cotton gin?”, “What is the weight of air in a room 20 x 30 x10?”. The article’s main criticism was that the questions were only a test of someone’s memory, and not a measure of someone’s knowledge, intelligence and reasoning abilities. 


Rather than an interview, those 141 questions were more like a personality test, with Mr. Edison present in the room going about his business and waiting for candidates to finish the test. Those succeeding the test would then sit down for an interview with Mr. Edison. Today’s equivalent would be nothing short of having Jack Ma or Elon Musk in the room with you, waiting for you to finish the test. Nothing short of stressful for novice candidates, we would assume.


Many scholars take the Edison interview as the origin of the modern employment interview. After Edison’s, other industrial leaders followed suit and began developing their interview processes. This is how it started what would eventually become the employment interview methods that we use today. They evolved into a whole industry. According to the most recent data, the 2018 World Employment Federation Economic Report, the employment industry generated globally (in sales revenue) USD 471 billion in 2016, with five countries making up for the majority of the revenue (US, Japan, UK, Germany, and China).


Although almost 100 years have passed by since Edison’s employment interview, and despite the further advancement and sophistication of job application processes and techniques available, the goal in recruitment remains the same: reduce the uncertainty around the future performance of a pool of prospective hires and chose the best ones. With best we mean those who will achieve results consistently, regardless of the environment or circumstances, in a way that is sustainable for the organization.


As data scientist Cathy O’Neil writes “How a candidate would actually perform at the company (…) is in the future, and therefore unknown”. (3) So the recruitment process needs to settle for proxies when trying to predict the future. From 1921 until today a whole body of research has emerged to develop and measure the effectiveness of those proxies (See Figure 1).


The Role of Interviews in the Selection Process


Interviews are the most often used tool for selection in organizations. They play a very prominent role in the overall selection process: final hiring decisions are often based entirely only on the interviews.



Predictive Validity of Selection Methods |


Most of the times the interviews are unstructured. They resemble more a conversation; their content is discretionary and have a loose framework. There are no predefined standards to evaluate candidates’ performance, and it is pretty much up to the recruiter which questions to pose.


As research has shown (see Figure 1), unstructured interviews are not particularly effective predictors of job performance and, due to its non-standard nature, they leave more room for biases on the recruiter’s side and do not allow for equitable assessments on the performance of several candidates (there is no consistency in the ratings across interviewers).


In contrast to unstructured interviews, a more reliable predictor of job performance is structured interviews. These can take the form of:


Situational interviews: based on questions presenting the interviewees with hypothetical situations, similar to those they might encounter on the job, and aim to observe hypothetical behaviors. These interviews are designed to measure analytical and problem-solving skills on the spot.

Competency-based interviews (CBI): sometimes referred to as performance-based interviewing. Questions here are designed to assess whether the candidate possesses the required competencies to perform on the job. The interviews are designed to gather evidence that the interviewees had used those competencies in the past.


There are other assessment methods, besides interviews: GMA tests, assessment centers, or job knowledge tests to name only a few. They act more as gate-keepers: their role is not as much to find the perfect candidate as to weed out candidates that are not the right fit for one or the other reason (i.e., not the right organizational fit, not motivated enough, or lack of the required body of knowledge).


“Looking to target as many candidates as possible to increase the likelihood of finding that needle in a haystack is no longer a sustainable strategy. Quality of hire is now, more than ever, the name of the game.”


Most of these assessment methods are the legacy of the Industrial Society, where the supply of talent was higher than the demand, an era of talent surpluses. In our present time that is no longer the case. In the Information and Knowledge Society talent is a scarce resource, and recruiting is no longer a game of large numbers. Looking to target as many candidates as possible to increase the likelihood of finding that needle in a haystack is no longer a sustainable strategy. Quality of hire is now, more than ever, the name of the game.


These remarks are not to diminish the value of these tools. After all, interviews are a legacy of the Industrial Society as well. No, the point here is to emphasize the need for these tools to adjust regularly to the circumstances and times they are deployed. If we assume Asimov’s simple paradox that change is the only constant and that critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity (the four C’s) trump technical skills then this provides us a compass on how we should be applying these tools.




There is not a single assessment silver bullet, in the path to hiring top-notch talent that is fit for your organization’s culture. Each organization has to find the right mix that best balances validity and cost (development as well as handling costs).




(1) (2) Fairbank, John K. & Goldman, Merle (2006) China: A new history. Second Enlarged Edition. Harvard University Press. 2006. Pp. 93-94

(3) O’Neil, Cathy (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. New York. Crown Publishers


Juanjo Cardona

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