Reviewing past accomplishments and experience

This guide is intended to provide practical information on reviewing candidates' past accomplishments and experience. It outlines a general approach to collecting and evaluating such information.

The review of past accomplishments and experience consists of the consideration and evaluation of information about a candidate's past from one or more sources. These various sources of information include application forms, résumés, performance appraisals, reference checks, supervisory checks, samples of previous work and personal knowledge on the part of board members. Even the interview contributes to this review, when candidates are asked to provide information about their past.

A review of past accomplishments and experience is useful to different assessment situations. Sometimes, as in the assessment of Education or Occupational Certification qualifications, this review will consist of no more than a verification of some basic facts. At other times, as is usually the case in assessing Abilities and Skills and Personal Suitability qualifications, the review of past accomplishments and experience will involve more than simply checking off specific items. In the latter case, this review will require the careful sifting, evaluating and integrating numerous pieces of information.

A separate guide has been written for reference checking and appears as #4 in this series. The present guide complements the guide on reference checking and encourages the reader to consider other sources of information about candidates' past accomplishments and experience.

Three basic questions.

There are three basic questions in reviewing past accomplishments and experience:

  1. what kind of information you are looking for,
  2. how you are going to obtain this information and
  3. how you are going to integrate and use this information.

The information you are looking for...

The most useful information is that which indicates to what extent, in the past, the candidate has demonstrated the qualification being assessed.

Three types of information may be obtained about a candidate's past:

  1. descriptions of behaviours,
  2. biographical data,
  3. opinions.

Descriptions of behaviours consist of examples, or incidents, which are relevant to a given qualification. Such descriptions relate to observable events and are usually verifiable by others.

Biographical data includes:

  1. achievements and
  2. activities

Achievements refer to degrees, awards, professional accreditations, publications, etc. Activities refer to memberships, participation in various groups, etc.

Opinions are distinguished from the other two types of information in that they involve a value judgement, an evaluation of some sort, based on facts. Opinions go beyond the facts. Different considerations are introduced with each type of information. Let's briefly discuss each in turn:

Descriptions of behaviour

A thorough description includes not only what the candidate did or failed to do, but also the situational context in which the behaviour (or lack thereof) occurred and the impact of the behaviour.

Descriptions of behaviours allow you to judge for yourself the relevance and importance of the information for the qualification being assessed. Descriptions of behaviours are often useful to support evaluations. For example, a rating of superior for "initiative" can be supported by the comment "when asked to reformulate a draft procedures document, this candidate assembled a panel of users to describe the appropriate content for the document, and this resulted in a better document."

The most important concern with respect to descriptions of behaviour is the representativeness of the observations. You will want to know not only what the candidate has been capable of, but what he or she typically did over a period of time.

Biographical data

Biographical data is "factual" but interpreting it is not always easy.

Consider, for example, the fact that a candidate has obtained a university degree. This fact may be relevant to different qualifications. It may satisfy an Education qualification. It also indicates an ability to learn. It may also be evidence of the required knowledge. On the other hand, if the degree was obtained some time ago, the knowledge may no longer be up-to-date.

Of course, further information may be sought to clarify the relevance of a given biographical "fact".

Activities are to be distinguished from achievements in that they may indicate the interest of a person rather than his/her competence. What can be said about a candidate's ability to give presentations from the fact that he/she has been a member of the local public speaking club for the last year? Has the interest in public speaking developed into a competence? A description of the candidate's activities at this club will probably provide a better evaluation of this candidate's public speaking skills.


It may be easy to get a referee to give his or her opinion. The problem with an opinion, however, is that the opinion giver may have a very different frame of reference than the selection board. One must remember that the opinion giver may have observed the candidate in a context very different from that of the position being staffed. The opinion giver's standards may also differ from yours.

Extra care is necessary, therefore, in using opinions. An attempt should be made to take into account the opinion giver's frame of reference. The weight to be given to unsupported or marginally supported opinions will depend on the pattern of other evidence.

Behavioural descriptions are best!

Behavioural descriptions are the most direct kind of evidence and are therefore to be preferred. Where possible, you should seek out behavioural descriptions. This is not to say that biographical data and opinions are to be discarded; only that extra care should be taken in using them.

To determine the kind of behavioural descriptions that may be relevant in a given situation, consider the following questions:

  1. in what kind of situations would the candidate have had the opportunity to demonstrate the qualification?
  2. what do people who possess the qualification do compared to people who don't have it?

It may be possible to identify behaviours that correspond to increasing levels of a qualification, thus distinguishing the inadequate from the acceptable, the acceptable from the good, and so on.

Obtaining the information.

Having decided what information would be most useful to have, you must now obtain this information. There are two ways of doing this, either by an active or passive method.

Active vs. passive methods

The various methods of obtaining information about a candidate's past can be divided into active and passive methods. With active methods, you are in control of the information gathering process. This is the case with interviews and reference checks. With passive methods, you are dealing with information which you must take "as is" (i.e., as it is given to you). This is the case with performance appraisals, résumés, examples of previous work, letters of reference, and standard application forms.

When you are asking the questions, you can ensure the relevance of the information by aiming your questions at a pertinent area. You can also ask questions that will elicit descriptions of relevant behaviours rather than opinions.

When dealing with information that has already been assembled, the approach is different. Here, it is a matter of sifting through information that was assembled for some purpose other than yours. Performance appraisals are a good example of this. Other sources of information, such as résumés, may have been professionally written and designed expressly to conceal rather than to reveal.

It makes sense to consider information from passive methods first. At this point, potentially significant information can be identified in a preliminary way. This information would then serve as the basis for an in-depth inquiry in an interview, reference check, or supervisory check.

In pursing either active or passive methods to obtain information, consider the following aspects of the information source:

  1. relation of the informant to the candidate,
  2. oral vs. written sources,
  3. personal knowledge on the part of a board member,
  4. performance appraisals.

Relation of the informant to the candidate

It is important to distinguish between information that is provided by the candidate and that which is elicited from others. Information is obtained from the candidate using interviews, application forms and résumés. Information is obtained from others using performance appraisals, reference checks, supervisory checks and personal knowledge.

Although you should not be unnecessarily suspicious, you should assume that candidates will present information about their accomplishments and experiences in the most favorable light. You cannot expect candidates to be as forthcoming about information that could be damaging to their chances of securing a position.

Information obtained from others can also be subject to some distortions. Sometimes these distortions are intentional. For example, a referee may have a personal dislike for the candidate, or may wish to get rid of a less than productive employee. A referee can also be picked because he/she has an exaggerated view of one's skills. Other distortions may not be intentional. For example, some bias may be introduced by the fact that the referee has only had the opportunity to observe the candidate in specific situations where the candidate's performance may have been a typical.

The candidate's immediate supervisor is the source of information most often used. You might also consider contacting the candidate's peers, subordinates and clients. These persons will often have useful information to contribute.

Oral vs written sources

Another distinction that can be made is between information that is transmitted orally and that which is in writing. Written sources of information, such as performance appraisals and letters of reference, are usually more formal and may be less candid for a variety of reasons. Oral exchanges are more spontaneous and can sometimes be more revealing.

Using personal knowledge on the part of a board member

It is legitimate to use personal knowledge of a candidate on the part of a board member. This information can and should be used even when such information is not available for all candidates.

This situation should be treated the same as any reference check, only in this case the particular referee is a member of the board. The same considerations would apply as in any other reference check:

  1. Only information that is relevant to the qualification(s) being assessed should be considered.
  2. The board member should relate behaviours rather than opinions. These behavioural descriptions should be recorded as with any other reference check.
  3. The board as a whole should evaluate the information that is supplied by this member. The board should not automatically accept the opinions of this board member/referee.

Using performance appraisals

Performance appraisals require care in their use. The approach here is to review the available information and to identify that which is relevant to the qualification(s) being assessed. This is often difficult to do because:

  1. the information is not specific enough,
  2. the information is geared towards the meeting of goals rather than the qualifications that were involved in meeting these goals and
  3. the performance of the candidate may have been evaluated in a context that is quite different than that of the position being staffed.

In addition, performance appraisals may not be available for all candidates.

Despite these potential problems, performance appraisal can provide useful information, especially when it is supported by information derived from other sources. Performance appraisals can be used even when it is not available for all candidates. It is important, however, that clear links be made between the information extracted from performance appraisals and the qualification(s) being assessed.

Integrating the information.

The information that results from a review of past accomplishments and experience is varied. In some cases, the review of past accomplishments and experience will be the only method which is used to assess a given qualification. In other cases the information will be combined with information derived from other assessment methods in order to achieve an overall evaluation of each candidate on the relevant qualification(s).

The following considerations are useful to keep in mind when integrating information about past accomplishments and experience:

1. Assign points to qualifications, not to sources of information

The selection board should identify all the information, from all sources, that is useful for assessing a given qualification. Each board member considers the information available for each candidate on that qualification and makes a global or overall rating of each candidate on that qualification. (This rating is not broken down for reference checks and/or appraisals and/or other sources.) The board member should then compare and discuss their ratings and reach a consensus. This method facilitates assessment in situations where one or more sources (e.g., appraisals) are not available for some candidates.

2. Evaluate each piece of information on its own merits

Consider the relevance of the information and its source. Consider whether it is a behavioural description, biographical information, or an opinion

3. Consider the pattern of evidence

Single isolated incidents, or unsupported opinions, should not be given as much weight as well supported patterns of evidence.

  1. Watch for trends, or sudden changes in performance. There may be signs of burnout, where recent performance is much lower than at some time in the past. Then again there are "late bloomers", where some candidates have recently "come into their own".
  2. Consider collecting more information if warranted. When there are aspects that are still uncertain, consider giving another referee, contacting the candidate for further information or given a second call to a referee that has already been contacted.

In integrating information from a review of past accomplishments and experience, the selection board will need to make judgements. However, when these judgements are based on a careful consideration of the evidence at hand, they will represent the best assessment reasonably obtainable of candidates' qualifications.

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