With the globalisation of human resources practices, the use of objective assessment in the search for human talent has gained increasing popularity. Countries such as India and China are growing at an enormous rate, with other countries such as those from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are drastically inspiring the world with their substantial growth and vision. Many organisations from these geographical locations have sought the assistance of assessment companies to help them with their selection and development needs. The ability to secure talent has become the key differentiator for companies competing in this global marketplace. Recently, Kenexa has been involved with client work across the globe, including both the middle and far-east. This paper looks at the experiences and challenges with the tools and strategies used by assessment professionals working with clients in these regions.

Talent Shortage

Global demand for skilled workers is growing but the supply is shrinking. When it comes to emerging market economies, this problem is at a whole new level when compared to the rest of the world. With substantial growth in the rates of GDP annually, it is not surprising that many of these countries are attracting talent from all over the world. For example, more than 90% of the private labour force in Dubai is made up of foreigners (The Economist, April 24th, 2008). However, inflation and the increasing cost of living, which is greater than the rates of salary increases (estimated at 10.7% between Aug 2006 and Aug 2007; GulfTalent.com), are causing many of its talent to leave the country. 41% of UAE-based expatriates reported making no savings on their income. To compound the issue, the accelerating growth of gulf-organisations is also contributing to a talent shortage in the region.

Organisations in countries such as Dubai are increasingly feeling the impact of talent shortages as many of them are in a massive state of growth, requiring double the manpower on an annual basis. This limited supply combined with a huge need for quality talent compromises the longer-term objectives of an organisation as they have little choice but to promote individuals into positions in which they are not sufficiently competent. Not surprisingly, this demand for talent has also led many organisations to pay salaries that are sometimes 20% greater than the market value for talent, although many of them are often not up to scratch for the post. Competition between business units and departments of the same organisation can be aggressive apparent as they poach talent both internally and externally at the expense of their own company, sometimes offering greater salary benefits than another business unit or department.

China, one of the world’s fastest growing economies, is also facing a talent shortage albeit for different reasons. This may at first glance seem unlikely given that universities produce three million graduates a year and large organisations in China typically receive thousands of resumes a year, often a lot more than the vacancies available. For example, Intel China Software Lab gets 3,000 to 4,000 resumes a year but only 35 get hired (CNET news.com July 10, 2002). However, most companies still failed to fill their vacancies. One reason is that these organisations utilise a selection criteria of only recruiting candidates from the top Chinese universities (notably Fudan, Beijing and Tsinghua). Recruitment process outsourcing professionals in China revealed that the most common selection methods consist of a resume review and an unstructured interview where most of the time, only candidates from the top universities would be considered. This selection criteria based on university membership is a reflection of China’s enormous emphasis on academic achievement. Naturally, there are limited numbers of graduates from the top Universities and not surprisingly, organisations have found themselves facing an uphill task of sourcing for “suitable” candidates from this highly constrained talent pool. This talent shortage situation is exacerbated by the enormous competition between organisations for this small pool of top university graduates.

One way to address China’s talent shortage is to adopt a more objective and reliable way of assessment candidates. For example, volume screening using psychometric assessment could help large organisations quickly reduce thousands of applicants to a more manageable number while keeping the selection process objective. From this smaller pool of candidates, the use of assessment centres, skills testing and personality assessment could further allow companies to identify the most suitable candidates with the right competencies and potential for any specific role. The main challenge is to educate Chinese companies of the value of using psychometric assessment and convince them to drop the heavy emphasis they place on top university membership.

Issue with retention

Turnover is therefore yet another problem as employees expect quicker promotions and significant annual increases in salary, which if not offered, will often be available by alternative companies. This retention problem is widely apparent and approached in various ways across the gulf

Many organisations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have reportedly been using different strategies for talent retention. Recent qualitative research undertaken by Kenexa heard reports of various organisations employing individuals without the intention of retention, but adopting the idea that the individuals would work hard for a period of for example 2 years, following which they would move on. These organisations hold-off investing in the employee’s training or development and instead adopt a dominantly task-oriented attitude where individuals are chosen to deliver and are dispensable. However, the task-oriented nature of the UAE organisation is not uncommon as the fast-paced work environments erect infrastructures by months if not weeks.

However, some businesses are now becoming aware of the idea that to sustain the substantial growth of the organisation and minimise turnover, they need to shift away from the task-oriented extreme of the continuum and towards a more people-centric approach by dedicating more significant investment into the employee’s development and well-being. While some construction companies have kept their focus on delivery (which is why we have had the privilege of observing the emergence of islands in the sea, e.g. Palm Jumeriah in Dubai), some have realised, albeit ironically, that the infrastructure of an organisation, just like a construction, needs to be aligned and strong to maintain the growth of the business as a weaker foundation poses the risk of the organisation collapsing as it increases in size.

In the far-east, Chinese companies are also struggling to retain their professional and support staff. Similar to the UAE, China found itself having to pay higher salaries and often excessive recruitment costs. Individuals with transferable skills have become a valuable commodity, and companies are battling to keep hold of them. For example, a leading IT outsourcing service provider in China is facing 40% turnover and this has a huge impact on their hiring cost which is around 4,500 RMB per hire (around USD 600). When employees threaten to leave the organisation, many companies often respond by paying a higher salary. However, this is often only a short term solution as more often than not a competitor is willing to pay just as much if not more.

Companies are now starting to realise that they need to be more sophisticated in their approach to employee attraction and retention. Retention strategies such as on-boarding, employee engagement survey, competency-based performance management and exit interviews are crucial in enabling organisations to diagnose areas of employee dissatisfaction and improve employee engagement and commitment. These will then in turn help to reduce employee turnover and positively impact organisation’s bottom line.


The use of assessment tools developed in the West and used across cultures and environments poses interesting challenges. For example recent research has suggested that regions in the far-east such as China, which makes up nearly 1/5th of the worlds population, may have a 6th dimension to the well recognised 5-factor model of personality, that of “Interpersonal Relatedness”, discussed later in this paper. Similarly, it would be a reflection of ignorance or naivety to assume that these default tools could be used as effectively (as the West) in countries based in the middle-east, due to substantial variations in cultural values and behaviours. Variations in the perceptions and experiences of the target-audience add to complicating the issue further. However, there is more familiarity with psychometric testing in countries from the gulf, and therefore less resistance when compared to the far-east. This is hardly surprising as the majority of workers in the UAE are expatriates from countries such as Europe, US and Australia – countries that are more familiar with the value of psychometric testing.

Other considerations include the way that individuals complete the assessments, that is if they even choose to attempt them at all, although the main objectives of assessment is to get reliable responses with minimal bias and a decent sample of respondents. Some of these concerns are discussed below.

Receptiveness to assessment

The use of psychometric testing is not as apparent in the UAE as it is in the western world and individuals who are not familiar with these may be wary of the intentions for the use of such tools. Individuals are likely to either not participate, or participate with a positive self-bias. Although there are those who are familiar with the process and participate more openly, they constitute the minority in most cases.

Due to the fast-paced delivery focussed work environments, many in the UAE have reportedly compromised quality for quantity and speed of delivery. This fast-paced approach is reflected in the general participation in these tests by candidates as:

  1. individuals do not have time to take the test, but
  2. Those who do make the time to participate, do not bother to read the instructions properly, if at all, and tend to jump straight to the questions. This frequently compromises the quality of the data and often some tests often remain incomplete.

One simple method of improving input and minimising quality is to emphasise confidentiality at the onset and repeatedly where possible, ensuring that the candidates get this message. The use of shorter questionnaires with short instructions are also likely to help.. One final challenge is to get the buy-in of individuals taking the assessment. Indeed without a decent sample size, it is unlikely that reliable variations between groups will be identified.

In contrast, China is less familiar with psychometric testing than the UAE. Despite the increasing use of psychological testing for personnel selection, it seems that there is still a low level of professional knowledge in both the individuals in the industry, and HR professionals. For example, the Chinese campus recruitment team of a Chinese business partner shared that they experienced substantial resistance when introducing Kenexa’s assessment tools to University teachers and career guidance personnel.

The main reasons for the resistance were lack of awareness and understanding. Many of these educational personnel were either not using any assessment or using locally produced tests that were poorly researched and not psychometrically robust. The majority of these locally produced tests were designed for classifying candidates but not for predicting their job performance (Higgins and Sun, 2002). Moreover, most psychological testers in China underwent short training programmes rather than accredited systematic professional training. This increases the likely misuse of psychological tests which adversely affects the quality of psychological testing and decreases people’s trust in it. Some HR personnel in China may also prefer using inferior locally produced tests instead of scientifically developed and psychometrically robust assessment tools due to the higher costs associated with the latter. They need to understand that the psychometrically robust tools would more accurately differentiate better candidates from poorer ones and in the long run prove to be more cost-effective. Psychometrically robust assessment tools from reputable organisations like Kenexa would also demonstrate the predictive relationship between attributes measured on the instruments (e.g. test scores) and actual job performance and potential.

Relevance and Response styles

Suitability of psychometric tools has also become a growing concern for assessment professionals. An interesting observation when providing feedback to some Chinese sales account managers using Kenexa’s Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPI) was that almost half of the profiles displayed a response style of 10 which usually indicates an extremely high tendency to portray oneself in a socially desirable or overly favourable manner. However, the profile of these Chinese managers did not display the typical characteristics exhibited by someone who intentionally distorted their profile to be viewed in a positive light (e.g. highly extraverted, highly conscientious and extremely low on anxiety). Instead, the profiles were fairly moderate and their accuracy corroborated during the feedback. Likely explanations for the extremely high score in the response style included a strict moral code, adherence to a traditional framework, a strong need to be liked, or a very high self esteem.

Implications from this observation are that local norms need to be established for personality questionnaires including the scale of response style. The content of the questionnaire also needs to be evaluated to ensure a better fit with the cultural expectations and values of the culture in question.

It is also important to add that a direct translation of English language tests into other languages is not likely to be the solution. Most psychologists agree that personality could be explained by five factors (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness). Some psychologists have evaluated the applicability of the five-factor model (FFM) to Chinese populations and while some have found that the FFM holds up for Chinese samples (e.g. Tyler and Newcombe, 2006), others uncovered additional factors such as ‘interpersonal relatedness’ (e.g. Cheung, F.M et. al, 2001). Furthermore, the impact of the one-child policy in China is becoming more apparent as children born under the policy are now joining the workforce. Anecdotal evidence from HR professionals suggests that they are less likely to embrace the traditional Chinese values and they tend to more self-centred. More research into this area would help us to understand the implications of this trend for organisations.

Apart from personality measures, this is also true for ability tests, particularly verbal reasoning tests. This is because societal and cultural differences have a heavy influence on the appropriateness of the test content. For example, when translating English to Chinese tests, a verbal passage on conservatories (an enclosure with glazed walls and roof used as a living space) would easily be understood in the UK because it is common to build such an enclosure at the back of one’s house or garden. This however would be out of context for the Chinese; they are most likely to interpret conservatories as music schools.

Similarly, response style is an issue in the UAE. The trends noted in the UAE reflect a tendency to rate oneself highly and favourably. Kenexa is currently working with an organisation based in the UAE, that employs approximately 5,000 individuals from over 80 nationalities and this has proved to be an interesting challenge for Assessment professionals. In some recent quantitative research undertaken by Kenexa across various levels of the organisation’s hierarchy, individuals were asked to rate the level of importance associated with certain work actions necessary to competently perform a job similar to theirs. For example, the question items listed some very clear operational actions which would have been more prevalent and important for individuals working hierarchically-lower in an organisation, and less important for those working at the top strategic-end of the organisation. It was noted that virtually all individuals felt that all of these actions were in the main “highly” important for someone doing their job effectively. This then does not provide much deviation in the distributions of data and therefore statistics cannot be sensibly applied unless some artificial data modelling takes place initially; this adds limitations to the solution produced. Therefore, it is likely that individuals in this region may score high on a conventional Social Desirability scale too – although this may not be entirely due to social desirability, but an amalgamation of this with cultural values of the region.

Performance Ratings

There are interesting differences in the attitudes to business between those from the UAE and those used in the western world (not limited to the western-world of course) of effective business management.

In the latter model, as an individual moves vertically through an organisation, their level of responsibility increases and they are held more accountable. Their hands on work may minimise as they become less operational and more strategic. However, in the UAE, it is claimed that most local individuals adopt an approach that the higher up in the hierarchy they reach, the lower their responsibility becomes as they observe their position as one of a reward for reaching that stage. So how do they lead the organisation? Well, these leaders then delegate to individuals to do their work, and often to individuals who are not at their level of competence for a strategic role. This compromises the organisation’s objectives.

Interestingly, when considering a performance-potential matrix such as the one below, organisations that adopt models similar to the ones in the west would be inclined to manage out those employees who were poor performers, with little potential. However, the Emiratee approach does not believe in removing these individuals from the organisation, but instead chooses to leave them in their role with no focus on improvement or promotion. Although this is not proactive for the growth of the organisation, it is in line with a local value of not standing in the way of a “man and his bread”. However, use of assessment in the UAE is not without its difficulties.

Although the need for objective assessment is apparent, there is some concern about the refinements that are needed to conventional methodologies used. For example, with performance ratings such as 360 degree feedback, there are reports of emiratee tendencies to rate all individuals positively, and not to focus on critiquing anybody. This ties in with the performance-potential matrix above, where emiratee’s are reluctant to phase out anybody from their organisation, regardless of their poor performance and potential levels. Indeed, this limits the types of assessment that may be used in such environments.

In contrast, Chinese organisations may not be reluctant to remove poor performers but this may now be more challenging as even poor performers are heavily protected by China’s new Labour Contract Law, which was passed at the beginning of this year (China Daily, 1 January 2008). An employer who wishes to terminate on poor performance grounds needs to invest considerable time and effort to justify the decision and increase the likelihood of such a termination being deemed lawful. While this enhances the protection of workers’ rights, the new standards imposed may not sit well with performance management principles and make it more challenging to get rid of poor performing employees.

The use of performance management systems is growing rapidly. A survey of twenty Chinese company directors from the construction industry revealed that most of these Chinese-owned companies have implemented some form of performance management system (Cooke, 2005). However, one key observation from the survey is that performance-related pay and bonus schemes were not very effective due to resistance by employees to reflect performance differences among themselves (Cooke, 2005). The use of 360-degree feedback met with similar resistance. Chinese managers from a foreign-owned manufacturing company in China were found to give themselves and their Chinese colleagues more favourable ratings than that provided by their European colleagues. This suggests that Chinese employees were not comfortable in delivering appraisals and particularly negative criticisms. They also reported feeling uneasy in providing behavioural data to support the ratings they gave to their staff and peers. This dilutes the effectiveness and value of the process and employees often reported feeling frustrated that the feedback they received were not specific, accurate or clear (China Staff, May 2003).


With China’s open-door policy and move towards market economy, there are more and more foreign (and joint) enterprises in China. These enterprises have the autonomy for personnel selection and are likely to use objective assessment in their recruitment and selection process. This may be mandated by a possible head office in Europe or the USA (to be in line with a global recruitment strategy) or motivated by a deeper appreciation of the benefits of using objective psychometric measures in reducing hire costs and employee turnover. However, the main challenges faced by Assessment Consultancies would be getting the local enterprises onto the same bandwagon alongside a rigorous development of culturally appropriate and robust measures suitable for use in China.

In Dubai, the recognition of the need for objective assessment and development has never been greater, and this trend is ever-increasing as the concern for sustainability becomes more apparent by the day. Organisations have expanded at an enormous pace and as such have spent more time focussing on sustainability and less time on employee development and assessment. The use of learning management systems (LMS) will help streamline individual and company objectives and ensure that the majority of employees are sticking close to the path laid out by the company vision.

As some of these companies globalise, there is a need to shift away from local models of business and focus on those that dominate the majority of businesses worldwide. There is also a need for identifying talent objectively and reliably so that individuals with correct attitudes and capabilities are placed into more appropriate roles – this in turn will contribute to streamlining the organisation’s drivers and help achieve organisational objectives more efficiently. These shifts are essential if these countries intend to address the issue of sustainability in these fascinating markets.