InBox/In-Tray Assessment

Uncovering how an Employee Will Perform on the Job

InBox Assessment

Find out how candidates would deal with the work they'd be doing.

© iStockphoto/VallarieE

You've got a job opening... again.

The last two hires didn't work out so well. Their resumes had all the necessary qualifications; and in the interview they gave all the right answers. They were both pleasant and appeared capable. You really believe that each of them would turn out to be a fabulous employee. But when it came time to actually do the job, they were both disasters.

The first one had no clue how to prioritize her activities and she ran around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to meet deadlines and failing miserably. The second wasn't much better: he could organize his day but couldn't solve a problem to save his life. He was constantly at the door, asking you to make decisions and tell him what to do.

You can't go through this again. You've now learned the hard way that what an employee says that he or she can do or will do is often very different from what he or she actually does do.

So you've got to find a way to assess how an employee will actually perform when faced with the reality of daily tasks. What do you do? You use an Inbox or In-Tray Assessment.


The name of this technique could lead you to believe that this approach is only good for selecting junior staff. Read on, and find out why this isn't the case!

Candidates can tell you just about anything to get the job you are offering. In an interview, the person sitting in front of you is ideal. Well. maybe they tend to be "perfectionists who really want to do the job right", or they are "a bit too over-zealous at times." They assure you however, that they have "made great "

Seriously though, if you want to find out how a person will perform, have them show you.

With an Inbox Assessment, you give candidates a real taste of "a day in the life of the role" and then evaluate them on how well they handled or managed the variety of directions, demands, requests, and questions that crossed their desk.

You're looking to see how well they:

  • Prioritize.
  • Organize.
  • Analyze.
  • Plan.
  • Delegate.
  • Communicate.
  • Solve problems.
  • Make decisions.

Essentially, an in-tray exercise is a simulation. You are simulating the types of things a successful candidate would encounter in his or her in-tray on a daily basis. Various types of correspondence, including faxes, emails, and memos, are given to the candidate, who is then required to sift through the information and decide what to do with each item — and then describe why they chose that course of action.

Examples might include:

  • A variety of requests for service – how should they be prioritized?
  • Memos from executives – what action steps emerge from the information obtained?
  • Complaints or grievances – how are they handled?
  • Conflicting schedules – which activity takes precedence?
  • Directions or mandates – how is the work delegated and assigned?


Inbox/In-Tray Assessments are applicable to a wide range of positions and levels of authority. For administrative employees, the emphasis might be more on how the items in their inbox are prioritized. For customer service positions, you might want to evaluate how well the person deals with conflict and manages people's expectations. In management positions, the items presented will require actions and responses. And for professionals, these assessments may focus on their execution of professional skills, and on their ability to deal with clients in a way that reflects well on the company.

Who are the tasks delegated to? How well is follow-up communication written and conveyed? While the different types of positions will have different items in their in boxes, the value of the simulation remains the same.

Creating an In Box/In-Tray Assessment Exercise

The trickiest part of using these assessments is deciding what types of item to include in the simulation. You want the items to be varied and have a moderate degree of difficulty attached, yet not be so extreme that they are not relevant.

Step One: Decide What Items to Include in the Simulation

A good place to start looking for items is with actual issues that have come up in the last six-month period. Look at job- and project-specific tasks as well as general items that pop up in

  • Go back through the emails and memos you sent out and received, and decide which ones would have been handled by the person in the position you are hiring for.
  • Ask people in your department, and others, to submit items they would work on with the new person.
  • Use the job description for guidance when deciding which tasks to include.
  • If there is a person currently working in the position, have him or her fill out an Activity Log   for a week or two.


When you write up the sample items, be sure to include all the necessary information. Dates, times, deadlines, levels of confidentiality and the impact on the organization are all things that should be provided to help the person put the item in the correct context. The objective is not to trick the person. You want to simulate reality as closely as you can.

Step Two: Develop a Scenario

Before you can ask someone to decide what to do with a bunch of competing tasks, you need to give them sufficient background information. Look at the items you intend to use, and then provide as much information as the person will need to make the best decision he or she can.

Things that might be useful are:

  • An outline of their role.
  • A time frame.
  • An organization chart.
  • A description of ongoing projects.

Other detailed information can be included in the item description itself.


Remember, too, that you can create conflicts that are not immediately obvious. For example, if you provide dates for important events in your description for one item, you can then set up a conflict by introducing another obligation on that date. The challenge for the candidate then is to notice the conflict and schedule accordingly.

Step Three: Map out the "Correct" Course of Action

For a fair evaluation, you need to have a "correct" answer figured out. There will always be room for interpretation with an exercise like this; however, there should be an objective standard against which you judge the candidate's performance.

  • With prioritization items, plot them using Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle   according to the scenario you set up.
  • Determine whether the person should deal with each item themselves or delegate it.
  • Should anyone else be consulted or informed?
  • Should the item be referred to another person or department?
  • Should a decision be made on the spot?
  • What type of analytical process should be used?
  • What is the importance of the item to the overall organization?
  • How should a response be constructed and delivered? By email, by phone, or face to face?


Always ask the candidate for a brief explanation of their decision. Their rationale provides great insight into how they process the type of information you give them. Include notes on why you consider your action or response the best. Be prepared to accept answers different from your "correct" version if you're given solid arguments for why the candidate did what he or she did.

Step Four: Test Your Assessment

When you have a final draft of your simulation exercise, have one or two people in your department complete it. Compare their answers to each other's and to yours. Talk about the items where you disagree and make adjustments where necessary. Perhaps you need to provide more details to prevent incorrect assumptions or you need to be more specific with your directions?

Tip 1:

These Inbox/In-Tray Assessments can also be used for development and training. Use them to coach team members on how to prioritize and solve problems by having people complete the simulation and then share their answers. The differences in priorities and actions will provide lots of fuel for discussion. In the end, the team will have a much better appreciation of how other people perceive situations. This has the potential to improve team communication and reduce team conflict.

Tip 2:

Sure, this takes time to do. But think about the time wasted and the pain associated with getting the wrong person for the job. Do this right, and you'll be investing a few hours of your time in making a good decision. Fail to use the technique, and you risk spending months regretting that you didn't do the job properly.

Key Points

Inbox/In-Tray Assessments are a great addition to your selection process. Use them to make final hiring decisions when you have narrowed down your candidates to the most qualified, in terms of ability and fit. By creating as realistic a "real life" situation as you can, you are in a good position to see how a candidate will actually perform in a work setting. This helps you get past all the interview bravado, and uncover the actual performance you can expect from the person you're interviewing.

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Comments (8)
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Good point John! Selection is probably more art than science in many respects so it needs constant revisting and revision. And certainly, when you start getting a revolving door there is something wrong. Simulations have a place in the selection process however they can't be relied on as the only assessment nor can they be viewed as black and white. A person who does well in the simulation may or may not do well in the real job. Just like if they do well in the interview, the aptitude testing, the reference checks, etc...

    The hope is that the more of these situations a candidate performs well in, the better fit he/she will be in the long run. And we can't ignore the need for ongoing training and evaluation.

    It's also important to continuously monitor the validity of the selection "tests" being used. Simulations, assessment tests, and interview questions can get out of date very quickly, and as you point out, the people doing the testing may not always be the best choice or sufficiently trained for the responsibility. Since there is so much riding on making good hiring decisions it makes sense to look at the entire process critically and regularly.

    Thanks for the important reminder!

  • jpb555 wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All

    This is a great article and a practical exercise, unfortunately it only presents one point of view. I've been in "a revolving door" employment situation where I was the third person in five years to hold the position and too soon afterwards there was a fourth person in over 6 years.

    Employers have to set realistic expectations and live up to their promises. (I don't want to sound bitter, I've happily moved on from the experience of a few years ago) I've had these questions/simulations in interviews and they are just that until you add in real-life office politics, trying finding time to speak with a supervisor or other people who are too busy... insert your own life experience.

    If two or three hires don't work out maybe its time to look at who is doing the hiring or setting expectations.

    Cheers John
  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all
    I think this type of assessment is a great idea too, and I am interested to hear from Pamela that it's used at such a senior level in her company. It really does highlight how universally important prioritization is. And though we know that intuitively, it's probably under utilized as a selection technique... perhaps until now...?!
  • PamelaA wrote Over a month ago
    In our business for more senior posts, a scenario is created and candidates are asked to, for instance, analyse some management information and make a presentation to a panel about what issues need to be addressed and their plan for tackling them in say 30/60/90 days. This tests a range of skills and abilities and has proved successful.
  • keng wrote Over a month ago
    Let us know how it works Ian. I'm seriously considering it as part of recruitment around here. Hadn't heard of it before but it does sound interesting. I wonder how long coming up with really get scenarios will take though. I suppose I could just go back through real paperwork from a year ago and start there???

    Any other ideas?
  • hesmank07 wrote Over a month ago
    Dear All,

    Like this approach very much and definitely reduces the possibility of a hit and miss outcome to a very important function of getting the right people to do the job in the right way! I like it and will be putting it to the test shortly.


  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    It really is a great method for selection and training. It's a low cost simulation exercise that give the trainer/recruiter a reasonable picture of how the person might choose to react on the job. As always, what people "know" they should do and what they actually "do" do can be different things so for selection at least, you need to supplement these kinds of assessments with good, solid behavioral interviewing.

  • lulu wrote Over a month ago
    I liked this idea for using at an interview. Interviews really don't normally tell you enough about a person's 'fit' to the organisation and to the role - as we all know, a candidate will tell you what they think you want to hear, whereas this assessment idea actually tests their ability to do the work. Certainly something I will use in future trainings.


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