The In-Basket Exercise and How to Use It

A full inbox next to an empty inbox.
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It's a dog-eat-dog world out there and businesses advertising for help or that otherwise put out the word that they're hiring can be inundated with applications. Many of them come from qualified applicants, making the decision as to who to hire particularly difficult.

Enter the in-basket exercise. It's an activity (a tool, really) that can help potential employers gauge how well applicants perform job-related tasks within a certain period of time. Some exercises also test applicants’ prioritization skills.

They're called in-basket exercises because employees used to have physical in-baskets on their desks where others would place assignments to be completed. That's not always the case today, but most employees do have some method or procedure in place by which they can track their work assignments.

When These Exercises Take Place

In-basket exercises are usually administered when candidates come in for interviews. They complete the exercises immediately before or after the interview. The hiring manager uses information from the application materials, as well as from the interview and the exercise, to make a decision on which candidate will receive a job offer.

Elements of the Exercise

When managers want to test applicants’ prioritization skills, they may put more tasks in the exercise than can be completed within the given amount of time. Managers should tell applicants when this is the case. Otherwise, candidates might be leery about taking the job because they perceive the hiring manager has unrealistic expectations on how much work can realistically be completed on a certain schedule.

Most applicants believe that they're expected to complete the entire exercise within the assigned time period, and this is a reasonable assumption, particularly if they've never faced in-basket exercises before. But the manager actually expects them to complete the most important tasks first, then any others that can be tackled and completed within the allotted timeframe. Failing to inform the candidates they don't have to complete the entire exercise completely defeats the purpose of seeing how candidates prioritize the tasks within the exercise.

Tips for Applicants 

Candidates should work quickly to complete in-basket exercises, but not so fast that they become sloppy. After all, employers are not just looking for speed but for competence as well. If they have time, candidates should read over their completed exercises before they turn them over to the hiring manager. There's no advantage in finishing early if the work is sloppy, and there's no shame in taking the whole time to complete the jobs well. 

Some Examples of In-Basket Exercises

  • A manager is hiring an administrative professional to assist her. She devises an in-basket exercise that includes editing a piece of written correspondence, completing a purchase requisition and filling out a travel voucher.
  • The hiring process for a public information officer position might include an in-basket exercise which is comprised of writing a press release, responding to a reporter’s written questions and providing feedback on a draft brochure intended for the general public.

If you're a potential employee, an in-basket exercise can be your opportunity to shine and show off your amazing skills. If you're an employer, it takes you a step beyond the written resume and the interview questions to help ensure that you're hiring the best person for the job.