The Power of Pre-Tests: Hiring People Who Like to Learn

By Maggie Bayless, ZingTrain’s Founder and Co-Managing Partner
originally written for Gourmet Retailer

When you start a new job there’s always a lot to learn—right? That has certainly been my experience, and every manager I’ve ever talked to about staff training has agreed. So when we’re interviewing prospective employees, it makes sense to evaluate not only the skills and knowledge that they bring to the table, but their willingness—and ability—to acquire new skills and assimilate new information.

What we call “Pre-tests” are one way we do this at Zingerman’s. The idea of a Pre-test is simple. It is a test that is given either as part of the interview process or at the beginning of a new hire’s very first shift. Successfully passing the test is a pre-requisite for moving ahead—either to the next interview or to being scheduled to work. The content of the pre-test is very basic: information or a skill that is essential to successfully fulfilling the job. The purpose of the pretest is to give job applicants an opportunity to demonstrate their willingness and/or ability to a) learn new material, b) demonstrate aptitude for the skills needed to do the job and c) take responsibility for their own learning.

As we’ve traditionally used the Pre-test at Zingerman’s, it’s been a 5-10 question written test, but a performance-based test could work well also. The questions have included very important, but very basic, facts that every employee needs to know:

- What is the business’s phone number?
- The street address?
- What’s the best way to describe the location to someone who calls for driving direction?
- Who are the key managers?
- What is the #1 selling product?

We hand out the Pre-test, along with the answers, when someone is hired. We explain that they are expected to know the answers to these questions by the beginning of their first shift. We ask what questions they have and what they may be confused about. This is where we start to get a feel for how they do/don’t take responsibility for their own training. The ones who take the time to read over the test and ask a question or two (“Do we have to know the managers’ last names or just first names? Do we have to spell them correctly?”) are most likely to be the employees who continue to ask questions and actively seek out information.

When new hires report for their first shift, they are given a copy of the test without the answers and asked to complete it. (If the employee has literacy problems, the manager may ask the test questions orally.) If the new hire completes the test successfully, great, they punch in. If not, we ask them to go home, study and come back the next day. If they can’t pass the test on the second try, they are done. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does we know we’ve identified someone who either can’t or won’t take the time to learn basic information that’s needed to be successful on the job. Identifying and weeding out those people early saves lots of time, money and frustration for the organization.

Since we use the Pre-test at the end of the interview process, its purpose is to identify those people who interview really well, but then don’t follow through. To tell you the truth, the people who don’t pass the pre-test are not usually those who have test phobia, learning disabilities or language problems. They tend to be the people who don’t take the Pre-Test seriously, so don’t bother to learn the information. They talk a good game, but they don’t deliver. And then they have 1001 excuses why they didn’t have time. Warning! If they don’t have time to learn the material on the Pre-test, they won’t have time to learn your cash handling procedures, the way you want the displays built or the names and prices of your key products. On the other hand, most new hires are very eager to learn all they can about your operation and welcome an opportunity to share what they know.

Think about the last time you had that sinking feeling in your stomach that you’d hired the wrong person. You’d been high on them after the interview, but once they started working you just knew it wasn’t going to work out. How long did it take you to get that feeling? Two days? Two weeks? And how long did it take before you acted on your gut feeling and let them go? If you’re like most of the managers I know, at least a month. Maybe more. So you’ve paid that person for 4 weeks, invested management time in training them—all the while feeling that you are trying to bail out a sinking boat. Let’s just estimate the labor cost: 4weeks x 40 hrs/week x $10/hour = $1,600. This doesn’t even touch the cost of management time, lost sales due to mistakes, etc. Figuring out that someone isn’t a good fit before you’ve hired them—and certainly before you’ve invested a lot in training them is obviously better for your bottom lines.

Will using a Pre-test guarantee that you won’t make a hiring mistake? Of course not. But if you save yourself even one mis-hire in a year, you’ll get an excellent return on the investment of the 30 minutes (max) that it took you to develop and type up the test. If you’d like a copy of a Pre-Test that we use here at Zingerman’s, drop us an email at [email protected]. Small investments of time to create tools that lead to positive bottom-line results. That is the “secret” to Bottom-Line Training.