Using Grade Point Averages for Employee Selection

Paper prepared by the Personnel Psychology Centre

About this paper

This paper provides human resources specialists and hiring managers with key considerations and evidence-based suggestions for the use of GPA in employee selection, grounded in the principles of merit and inclusivity.

As federal departments and agencies strive to innovate in staffing and reduce time to staff, there is growing debate over the use of alternate methods to screen applicants and manage a large volumes of candidates. Under the Public Service Employment Act, hiring managers have the discretion to establish the merit criteria and the assessment methods. As such, hiring managers may consider using college or university GPA as an efficient way to assess requirements for the job (for example, analytical thinking, problem solving).

Pursuant to the Public Service Employment Act and the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA), an appointment process must be free from any discrimination on the bases of the prohibited grounds prescribed in the CHRA.

As a result, it’s important to understand the potential risks of using GPA for employee selection because, if it is not used fairly and with due diligence, merit and other fundamental principles of staffing pursuant to the Public Service Employment Act could be affected. This paper outlines these risks and offers recommendations for the use of GPA for employee selection.

What is GPA?

A person’s GPA is typically understood as a measure of their academic performance. Generally, GPA is calculated to represent a cumulative average of performance on curriculum offered by academic post-secondary institutions. However, there is no universal yardstick for how to calculate GPA and as such, how GPA is calculated varies across universities and programs both within and outside of Canada.

Why use GPA for employee selection?

College or university education has increasingly become a minimal requirement for employment in the federal public service. In fact, Treasury Board’s Qualification standards for employment in the core public administration establish that the minimum educational standard for many job classifications is “graduation from a recognized post-secondary institution.” As such, it may be tempting for hiring managers to use easily obtainable information such as GPA to screen applicants.

Many believe that past academic performance can be a powerful predictor of future job performance. As well, research has shown that recruiters and hiring managers are likely to use GPA information to screen job applicants when pools of candidates are large.Footnote 1

Does GPA predict job performance?

A review of different selection methods showed that GPA can sometimes help predict job performance.Footnote 2 However, there are selection tools with higher predictive power, including tests of general mental ability, work samples or simulations, job knowledge tests, and structured interviews. Also, screening tools such as biographical data and years of experience have reported higher predictive power than GPA and could be considered less risky. For these reasons, it’s important to consider how much emphasis is placed on GPA in the overall selection strategy, and to make sure GPA is not used at the expense of stronger predictors, as reported in research on personnel selection.Footnote 3

There are some notable caveats for using GPA for employee selection:

  • When looking at whether GPA predicts performance for specific jobs, research results are mixed. Most experts found that the predictive value of GPA varies across jobs, and many disagreed on which jobs it predicts best (for example, academic jobs, management, engineering, or other technical fields).Footnote 4
  • Although many believe that GPA is best suited for academic-type jobs, one study found that professors with higher GPAs actually had lower performance ratings than professors with a lower GPAs, suggesting there are other, more important factors that lead to exemplary performance.Footnote 5

How can GPA be used fairly?

From a legal standpoint, the standard for a permissible assessment measure is that it is a reasonable method to assess a particular competency or qualification and is fair to all applicants. A fair assessment means that all applicants have an equal opportunity to demonstrate their ability on the required competencies. And, that accommodation measures are provided to individuals or groups protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Employment Equity Act to remove barriers.

It is important to establish the link between GPA and the job requirements and how to best use the assessment results to make staffing decisions. When deciding how GPA might be used, managers should consider the characteristics of eventual job applicants and whether the method could unfairly advantage or disadvantage employment equity or other diverse groups. Different ways of using GPA may mitigate potential issues or exacerbate them. Some issues to consider when establishing a fair assessment method include:

  • GPA from different universities and programs may not be comparable. It is quite common for universities to use different rating systems both within and outside Canada. Also, different programs (for example, engineering and law) can have different standards for GPA. As a result, it is important to ensure that comparisons of GPA information across universities and programs are relevant to the position and fair across individuals and diverse groups (for example, only compare GPAs from the same academic program, convert grade points from different systems to a common metric).
  • The use of GPA is not immune to possible adverse impact against employment equity group members. Group differences on GPA have been reported in scientific literature.Footnote 6 Researchers found that the higher the GPA cut scores, the greater the risk of adverse impact on members of employment equity groups.Footnote 7 Therefore, it is important to avoid a top-down approach when using GPA information for selection and to only use pass marks that correspond to the minimum qualifications required to do the job.
  • Be prepared to provide a rationale for using GPA in a selection process as an occupational requirement. In addition, be able to provide a clear link between academic performance and performance on concrete tasks on the job.

In the federal public service, hiring managers have a legal duty to accommodate the specific needs of candidates to the point of undue hardship. If GPA is used to evaluate applicants, there must be a clear link between academic achievement and the requirements of the job. Departments and agencies should also consider adaptations to the assessment tool or alternate methods of assessment when accommodation measures need to be provided to an applicant with a disability or other relevant needs. We encourage hiring managers to consult their staffing advisors and other relevant experts within their department. Public Service Commission assessment experts are also available at the coordinates provided below.

Recommendations for using GPA in employee selection

Hiring managers should carefully consider the benefits and risks of using GPA in their own staffing processes and job requirements, and whether there are alternatives. If after due consideration, a manager decides to use GPA, we offer the following recommendations, grounded in scientific literature to illustrate ways that GPA could be used to complement a staffing process.

These recommendations are not exhaustive and should not be considered in isolation, but rather as one aspect in establishing a comprehensive staffing and assessment strategy.

Practical example: Use GPA to screen applicants for an internship where tasks and challenges are comparable to those in the academic program.

  • Use GPA as part of a comprehensive selection strategy
    • Do not use GPA information exclusively as a measure of any competency or to demonstrate academic achievement
    • Combine the use of GPA with other strong predictors (for example, work samples, job knowledge tests)
    • Do not emphasize GPA over more relevant predictors in the selection strategy or alternatively, apply appropriate weights to the various predictors

Practical example: Use GPA across programs or universities, with a minimum pass mark, as a partial assessment for a job requirement (for example, ability to learn) to manage volume and screen out applicants who are unlikely to be successful on the job. As a next step, assess the successful applicants using assessment tools that have demonstrated high reliability and validity.

  • Consider in advance alternate methods of assessment
    • Use GPA as one of multiple methods to assess the same qualification (for example, combine with a test of cognitive ability to assess reasoning or learning ability)
    • Address requests on a case-by-case basis to ensure each candidate is able to demonstrate their ability on the targeted competency
  • Consider using only the relevant GPA information
    • One study found that using only the last 60 hours of coursework in a student’s major can yield higher predictive validity than overall GPAFootnote 8
    • Course-specific or in-major GPA is more likely to predict job performance when the content of the academic experience aligns with the demands of the jobFootnote 9
  • Increase the accuracy of GPA information
    • Use an approach that accounts for university and program variation in GPA, since these variations may advantage or disadvantage certain applicants
    • Although researchers have found a low prevalence of cheating and misrepresentation of GPA, asking for transcripts can be both a powerful deterrent for misrepresentation and an objective verification of the accuracy of information

We hope the information provided here will guide hiring managers to make appropriate decisions when considering alternative methods of assessment such as using GPA.

Have questions about selection tools and strategies?

The Public Service Commission offers:

  • free consultation to help you develop an effective selection strategy
  • validated tests with low risk of adverse impacts
  • tailor-made assessment tools on a cost-recovery basis
  • experts in assessment accommodation
  • guidance on effective merit criteria, flexibility in assessment methods and duty to accommodate (see Guides and Tools)

For more information, contact us at 819-420-8671 or by email at cfp.cpp-ppc.psc@canada.ca.

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