Inbox Assessments

Evaluating How an Employee Will Perform on the Job

Inbox Assessments - Evaluating How an Employee Will Perform on the Job

© GettyImages

Use in-tray and e-tray assessments to see if candidates' actions live up to their words.

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

Your last two hires didn't work out as successfully as you'd hoped. Their résumés looked great, and they interviewed well, but neither quite lived up to expectations.

One had no clue how to prioritize his activities and, as a result, he repeatedly failed to meet deadlines. The other lacked initiative, and was constantly asking you to make decisions and to tell her what to do.

You've learned that what an interviewee claims to be able to do is often very different from how he actually performs.

How, then, can you truly assess how a potential employee will perform when faced with the reality of daily tasks? In this article, we explore an evaluation method called Inbox Assessment.


This approach is variously known as the "Inbox Assessment" and "In-Tray Assessment," and sometimes as the "E-Tray Assessment." We refer to it here as the "Inbox Assessment" because it is the most commonly used name, and because in most instances the assessment is conducted digitally.

What Is an Inbox Assessment?

Inbox Assessments are simulations of real-life situations. They are a way to give job candidates a taste of what they'll likely hsve to deal with in a day – for example, complaints and grievances, directions and mandates, schedules, and service requests.

For you, as a hiring manager, Inbox Assessments can complement competency-based interviewing. They allow you to test how candidates would perform as new members of your team. And they can show you whether they are as skilled or knowledgeable as they claimed at interview!

During Inbox Assessments, candidates work through emails, documents, web pages, and so on, and decide what to do with each item and in what order. They then explain their actions to you, and you evaluate how well they handled everything and what questions arose.

You can conduct these assessments for a range of positions and levels of authority. For administrators, for example, your might focus on how they prioritize or organize.

For customer service roles, you could evaluate how well the person handles conflict. In management positions, the items you present will require actions and responses. And for professionals, the assessment may focus on their execution of certain skills.


You can also use Inbox Assessments as a team coaching tool, by having people complete a simulation and share their answers.

The differences in priorities and actions will provide 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 to reduce conflict.

Creating an Inbox Assessment Exercise

There are four steps to creating an Inbox Assessment:

Step One: Develop a Scenario

You might decide, for example, that the candidate has returned from vacation and needs to "catch up" with emails and tasks that have piled up during her absence.

You could include a crisis for her to tackle – a supplier that has delivered faulty goods, for example. Or, you could create "hidden" conflicts, such as giving dates for one task that clash with another, equally important, task. The challenge is for her to notice the conflict, and schedule accordingly.

A good way to start developing a scenario is to review real job- or project-specific issues that your team has dealt with recently, and recreate one for the assessment.

Look at the job description; what tasks will the new hire be responsible for, and what skills will she need? If someone currently works in the position, have that person fill out an Activity Log for a week or two to help you to create a realistic simulation.

Also, ask your team members to suggest tasks that they'd expect her to be involved in.

When you settle on a scenario, gather all the information that the candidate will need to complete the assessment, such as:

  • An outline of her role.
  • A timeframe. (Most assessments last between half an hour and two hours.)
  • An organization chart.
  • A description of ongoing projects.

Step Two: Choose Items to Include in the Simulation

Now you need to gather or design all the emails, meeting agendas, instant messages, appointment reminders, voicemails, and so on, that you'll need to create the simulation.

To simulate reality as closely as you can – and to put the task in the correct context – include all necessary information, such as dates, times, deadlines, levels of confidentiality, and the likely impact on the organization.

You could use whatever relevant emails and memos that you sent and received at the time, for added realism.


If you don't have the time or resources to put together your own inbox assessment, you can use "off the peg" or tailor-made versions provided by specialist companies.

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

For a fair evaluation, you need to have an objective "correct" answer to judge a candidate's performances against. Bear in mind, though, that there will always be room for interpretation with an exercise like this.

Consider, for example:

  • Whether he should deal with each item himself, or delegate it.
  • Whether he should consult or inform anyone else.
  • Whether he should make a decision there and then.
  • The most appropriate analytical process to use.
  • The importance of the item to the overall organization.
  • What the best construction and delivery of response would be. (Would email, instant messaging, or face-to-face communication be most appropriate?)
  • Introducing him to Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle to prioritize tasks in the scenario.

Step Four: Test Your Assessment

When you've created your final draft of the assessment, have one or two of your team members complete it.

Compare their answers to one another's, and to yours. Fine tune the assessment by discussing any disagreements and making adjustments where necessary. (You may, for example, need to provide extra details or be more specific with your directions.)


Setting up and testing a simulation in this way will take a while. But, investing a few hours in its development can be a real time-saver in the long run, and a great aid to making better-informed recruitment decisions.

Using Your Inbox Assessment

Designing your assessment is only one part of the process; using it properly is just as important.

Preparing for the Assessment

First, tell the candidate that she will be taking part in an assessment, and give her enough notice so that she can prepare and research the role properly.

Before assessment day, check that all files and folders are available and that all equipment and software is working. If you're using hard copy rather than electronic files, make sure that everything is printed out and ready.

Finding This Article Useful?

You can learn another 301 team management skills, like this, by joining the Mind Tools Club.

Join the Mind Tools Club Today!

Then, on the day, give her clear instructions about the assessment. Give the same information to all candidates, to ensure fairness.

If you've designed it well, the actual assessment should be self-explanatory, but asking the right questions, at the right time, is a valuable skill in itself, so encourage this where appropriate.

Conducting a Debrief

Conduct a debrief after she's completed the assessment. This will give her an opportunity to explain her actions and decisions, and to highlight any areas that she felt confident or unsure about.

Then, share your "correct" course of action with her, but be open-minded about her decisions – she may have interesting or revealing reasons for acting in the ways that she did.

Lastly, remember to tie the debrief back to the interview. For example, if she claimed to have excellent organization skills, but did not demonstrate this in the assessment, give her a chance to explain why this occurred.

Key Points

Inbox, In-Tray or E-Tray Assessments can be a great addition to your selection process. They can take some time and effort to create, but the more realistic the simulation, the better position you will be in to gauge how a potential new hire will perform in the work setting.

There are four steps to developing an Inbox Assessment exercise:

  1. Develop a scenario.
  2. Choose items to include in the simulation.
  3. Map out a "correct" course of action.
  4. Test your assessment.

A key part of the assessment is to talk through the candidates' decisions and actions with them, to allow them to explain their reasoning, and to feed back on the experience.