There is nothing new about a recruitment exercise which aims to assess applicants through a ‘real life’ work situation. But as organisations struggle increasingly to differentiate between candidates it is fair to say that this type of activity is on the rise. What’s more, the traditional ‘in-tray’ exercise has largely been replaced in assessment centres by the more sophisticated ‘e-tray’ exercise – one that contains exactly the same principles but which is completed as a more realistic computer-based in-box task. Another development is that the e-tray exercise, which used to sit within the domain of the graduate recruitment arena has started to make an appearance in school leaver scheme assessment centres. And with good reason, for it gives assessors the opportunity to see how applicants deal with day to day business multi-tasking, and will therefore give them a good indicator of how they are likely to perform with such challenges in the workplace proper.
What to expect:
Most commonly, this exercise will take the form of a business simulation in-box, where the applicant will play a particular member of staff, dealing with the tasks of a busy day, set in a relevant industry environment. The background scenario will be described through attached documents, typically involving the applicant dealing with a build-up of work within a tight deadline. So, perhaps it will be that the staff member in question has returned form a weeks’ annual leave and needs to clear their in-box before leaving for a meeting later that morning. Or it may revolve around the principle of juggling a range of fast-approaching deadlines. The candidate will be given a range of supporting attachments, usually including information on the company and an organisational chart, showing where they lie in the company hierarchy and who your direct colleagues are. The contents of the in-box may include diary schedules, memos, emails, letters, messages and work related documents and reports.
Candidates will be given a time limit to complete a number of tasks relating to the items in their in-box. Some tasks may be straightforward and just require a yes/no answer or will ask the candidate to select the best course of action from a short list of options. Others may need a longer response or thought process, such as drafting a reply to a client query or analysing given information in order to make a recommendation to company superiors. Candidates may be asked to classify the items by level of priority, indicating those which are highest priority and those which are less urgent. Some assessment centres include an e-tray debrief session, where candidates are asked to discuss their choices with an assessor or to present them in a written document. However, more commonly these tests are taken online and at home, as part of a pre-interview/assessment centre selection process.
What are the assessors looking for?
The beauty of the e-tray exercise, and the reason for its increasing popularity, is in its relevance. It allows recruiters to identify those candidates who take an organised and logical approach to their work; who manage tasks appropriately and efficiently. The timed element means that candidates are forced to take in and comprehend information quickly while staying calm under pressure. If done well, it is indicative of the ability to make sound business decisions based upon a mature commercial awareness and, depending on the ins and outs of the exercise, it may also test written communication skills. It is, in many ways, a ‘day at the office’ wrapped up in a short, neat exercise. And while assessors won’t be always be looking for perfect answers the results should tell them enough about an applicant’s potential to function and develop.
Any tips for success?
It is hugely important not to panic and rush into things. Candidates should take sufficient time to read the background information and skim through all the tasks first before making any decisions on what actions to take. However, as with most things, it is a balancing act. Timing is important so candidates should also try not to spend too much time analysing the topics in excessive detail. The assessors want evidence that they can grasp the essentials of an issue rather than its subtleties. Managing workloads both upwards and downwards is usually crucial to success and candidates should be careful not to take on too much work themselves. They should consider tasks that can be delegated to more junior colleagues and should escalate those that require it to the next level up, being careful not to shirk expected responsibilities. They should be aware of the difference between importance and urgency, and should be on the lookout for conflicts between tasks and schedules (and the business and commercial implications of decisions made). Yet, in spite of what may seem a complex exercise, the other thing to be aware of is that much of the e-tray exercise relies heavily on common sense. A logical and uncomplicated approach is often the best to take.
Are there any ways to practice these tests?
Students who are looking to practice an e-tray exercise may wish to try this free resource. A number of payable practice options are also available on the internet.
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