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What is Attention to Detail and How Can We Test Applicants for It?


Nothing says ‘we’re unprofessional’ more than lack of attention to detail. Missing these details can result in anything from a mild embarrassment to a client-losing mistake, or worse. When staff members miss the details, minor or major, they put business and people at risk.  The internet is full of business-mocking typos from the smallest mom-and-pop store to the biggest corporate snafu. After all, everyone knows that the “devil’s in the details”.

Detail-orientation, or attention to detail, is a high-value trait in employees. To err may be human, but errors cost money, time and can jeopardize safety. Pre-screening staff for attention to detail will reduce the chance of errors, which will build a better bottom line and a safer work environment.

There’s a world of difference between ‘No price is too high,’ and ‘No, price is too high.’ A missing or misplaced comma could result in not having a needed item or maybe an excessive purchase order. From the smallest transaction to the most complex operation, getting it right on a consistent basis means employees have to be detail-oriented.

Employees that exercise attention to detail work more productively – a plus for every business. Unfortunately, attention to detail is not a trait every job seeker has. The challenge for recruiters is to spot those who have it and avoid those who don’t.

Read on to learn more about:

No Attention to Detail? Mistakes Can Happen…

Pulling the wrong item off the shelf can result in an unhappy customer; shipping it across the country can result in a hefty delivery fee. It can take hundreds of hours to spot a single wrong line computer code that’s knocked out your webpage. These mistakes can have a lasting effect on business and consumer confidence.

Not all mistakes have an immediate impact. Some take days, weeks or more to manifest. Missing out on meetings because of a forgotten calendar check may seem harmless. If that same meeting described safety protocols, a domino effect that leads to injury or worse could be the result.

Some mistakes are costly in time and effort: correcting your own mistakes is often seen as an opportunity to learn and grow. Correcting the mistakes of others, often retracing their work to find where the error occurred, wastes resources and is frustrating for managers and co-workers.

Employees with strong attention to detail don’t miss these little things. They don’t miss meetings, and they don’t let errors slip through and assume someone else will fix it. You rely on these employees and look to find new hires with the same characteristics. But finding those employees can be challenging.

Attention to Detail is Always Needed

Recruiters have always looked for attention to detail, many without even realizing it. The resume full of typographical errors, the sloppy cover letter or the incomplete application often lands at the bottom of the pile. The recruiter knows that if the candidate can’t put their best foot forward when they want the job, their detail-orientation won’t improve after they’re hired.

Beyond the obvious messy resume, there’s been little that Human Resources can do to verify this important soft skill. Asking a job seeker if they’re detail-oriented is a typical interview question and few candidates will admit they’re not. The rehearsed answer is expected and often followed up with a request for an example, which results in an equally rehearsed reply. Until now, there have been few options to verify this sought-after skill, but there’s a way to spot those who have strong ATD and screen out those who don’t.

Attention to Detail Raises Productivity

Some industries use technology to work around skills lacking in attention to detail. For example, bar code scanners never type in the wrong code and such tech reduces possibility for human error. But if the person who first inputted the bar code didn’t have strong attention to detail skills, the mistake could be nationwide, rather than at a single warehouse. We all know word processing programs spot the typo – typically. They can just as easily miss the grammatical error, which can make a final copy seem like a first draft.

So few jobs can be performed effectively without at least a minimum level of detail-orientation. The most entry-level customer service worker mistake can result in refunds and exchanges. Leaders in charge of safety provide protection for workers and business must be in tune with all safety protocols. Professionals who steer businesses need the ability to spot the error before products go to market. The fact is….businesses rely on attention to detail.

Nature versus nurture

Very few resources are available to help workers develop or hone their detail-orientation. That suggests the characteristic may be inherent: you either have it or you don’t. ATD may be learned in childhood, genetic, or something developed over time. The challenge for businesses is to identify those workers who actually have the skill, as opposed to those who include ATD on their resume.

Can Attention to Detail Be Improved?

While limited training is available to train employees to improve this skill set, there can be ways to improve on the job. Good managers may correct employees by having them redo work until they get it right, encouraging them to slow down, proofread more carefully, and submit final-copy product. This can be time-consuming, costly, and often has to be repeated. You may catch mistakes here, but they may be cropping up elsewhere when you aren’t looking.

Of all the training available, for nearly every hard and soft skill American workers could possibly need, attention to detail training is difficult to find. For business, knowing how difficult it will be to develop it after hiring, should require screening before making a job offer. This is where pre-employment testing, including cognitive ability testing, can help businesses hedge their bets. These tools help organizations spot the candidates with an eye for detail and exclude those who don’t possess strong ATD skills.

Attention to Detail Testing? What is that?

Attention to detail testing is a key component of cognitive ability testing. Cognitive ability testing is the most reliable and predictive pre-employment testing available. It quantifies how well the candidate uses mental processes to assess information, resolve problems, and grasp complex data. It measures real and abstract thinking and the ability to learn.

The recruiter’s job goes beyond finding a candidate with similar experience and necessary qualifications. They need to anticipate whether the new hire will be a success on the job and will fit well with the team and the organization. That can be challenging because each hiring team has a limit on the tools available to assess job seekers and limited time in which to do so.

A 1998 Industrial-Organizational Psychology study by Frank Schmidt, PhD, and John Hunter discussed eight areas recruitment pros can use to assess a candidate’s skill set and predict future performance: cognitive ability tests; structured interviews; unstructured interviews; assessment centers; job knowledge tests; job experience, in years; biographical data; and education level. Of these, Schmidt and Hunter found cognitive ability testing had the highest validity to predict future job performance.

For most recruiters, standard interviews and background checks provide some insight, but are low predictors of success. This shows the need to dive deeper to find the right fit for the job. Pre-employment cognitive ability testing helps hiring authorities make successful new hires. Baked into these cognitive ability assessments is attention to detail: an integral component that outlines the job seeker’s current capacity, as well as their ability to learn, grow and develop on the job.

Attention to detail testing spots real talent; not just the job seeker who includes the skill on their resume. These tests look for competence and measure results in several key areas. The data they provide can predict whether the new hire will be a success on the job, or if they’re likely to fail. Topics include:

Problem solving testing

From basic to complex, problems arise in every workplace. The ability to resolve them is key to a successful business. For a role that relies on an employee to think on their feet, problem solving is a necessary trait. For those under less immediate pressure to come up with a solution, these tests find who will likely be competent in resolving issues without needing micromanagement.

Reading comprehension testing

Strong reading skills are necessary for almost every role. Even the most entry-level position will need to understand notices and warnings to perform their work safely. For more complex roles, understanding and digesting data may is critical. ATD in reading comprehension avoids mistakes as well as resolves them. This trait is a core measurement of detail-orientation assessment testing.

Numerical skills testing

Not every job requires math ability, but numerical skills can reveal an employee’s capacity for attention to detail. Pre-employment ATD testing doesn’t involve complex algebraic problems. It instead verifies the ability to work with numbers accurately.

What Hiring Research Says

Of all the pre-employment assessment tools available to business, cognitive testing – tests that measure knowledge and attention to detail – are the most widely validated and considered the most effective predictors of job performance.

Validation studies

Multiple scientific studies have concluded cognitive ability assessments are valid and reliable. The testing measures the ability to understand basic to complex ideas, learn from experience, solve problems and think abstractly. Applicants that score high on cognitive ability testing have 84% higher job performance. Over 80% of Fortune 500 companies rely on cognitive ability testing for recruitment.

More predictive of performance and success

In a 2016 study Schmidt and Hunter found cognitive ability is the most useful tool in predicting performance on the job. Their findings outline that of the major selection tools utilized by business to assess candidates, cognitive ability testing is the highest predictor of future success: more than 5 times more accurate than education level and more than double years’ experience.

Attention to detail tests drive better hiring outcomes

Almost every business benefits from employees with a strong eye for detail. From the front-line worker who is your brand ambassador, to the C-suite, detail-orientation results in better business outcomes internally and externally. A recent survey rated the negative impact of low attention to detail by managers:

  • 28% decreased productivity
  • 26% decreased product quality
  • 16% decreased customer service quality
  • 13% decreased employee morale

Key to successful hires and long-term employees is the ability to screen for ATD.

Industries that Benefit from Attention to Detail

While all industries benefit from detail-orientation, some are more likely to value and target the skill set than others. The more complex the work; the more attention to detail is needed. Healthcare, finance and legal professions rely on high levels of accuracy. These will benefit greatly from employees who have strong ATD skills

Any industry that creates – from architects and structural engineers to product development and design – is dependent on ATD. Whether in skilled trades like electricians, aviation, public safety or a front-line customer care professional, ATD is a trait that’s a must.

Jobs Requiring High Attention to Detail

Intricate work requires strong ATD skills, but it’s not just for clockmakers and artists. Virtually everything IT relies on ATD; accountants, journalists, pilots, physicians, mechanics and more require the level of attention to detail their work demands. It might be easier to list jobs that don’t need at least some ATD.

Highly complex work requires strong attention to detail, but so do project-oriented assignments. For administrative, marketing and sales professionals, the need to keep an eye on deadlines and due dates is as important as making sure the T is crossed and the I is dotted. Without a strong ATD skill set, deadlines may be missed and customers may be disappointed.

How Assessments Reduce Hiring Bias

In addition to finding candidates with the attention to detail appropriate for the job, pre-employment assessments reduce bias in hiring across all metrics. Testing measures mental acuity and performance ability alone. Traits, characteristics and history are not part of the results.

An applicant whose educational history is similar to the recruiter’s may be reflexively selected during the screening process. This type of unconscious bias can be limited with pre-employment assessment testing. Only the skills required for the job are measured. All other immutable traits and history are set aside, eliminating bias in the process.

For business leaders, the benefits of attention to detail are many. Employees who get it right the first time save time, energy and resources and boost morale. Those in positions that interact with the public are better brand ambassadors and those with high levels of responsibility execute their work flawlessly. This valuable skill is easily uncovered with pre-assessment testing and is indispensable to every organization.

If your company or organization needs help identifying the top applicants for your team, EmployTest is here to help – try our free attention to detail test sample today.