KSAOs/Individual Differences

Vocational Interests: An Alternate Approach for Personnel Selection

Personality assessments are often used to help identify the applicants who are likely to succeed in a perspective job.  However, they are not the only solution available to help select an applicant that will be successful in the available position. Vocational interests may also serve as strong predictors of a job applicant’s future job performance, job knowledge, and intentions to continue with an organization.  Whether it is reading books on a specific topic, attending certain sporting or musical events, or spending time doing yard work, individuals tend to have strong preferences for activities that they find interesting. Although we may not often stop to consider it, our interests have a significant influence over the approach we take towards an activity, as well as how we choose to spend our time on various tasks. This same principle, that we are motivated to do activities we find interesting, also impacts the way employees act in the workplace.

Vocational Interests Defined

Vocational Interests (“VI’s), or interests specific to the workplace, can be thought of as having three important characteristics:
  • Contextually-Grounded:  VI’s are embedded in the work context, and focus on the types of activities and work-environment that an individual prefers
  • Stable over time: Just like personality and work values, an employee’s VI’s remain relatively consistent over time.
  • Influential over behavior: Employees are more motivated to complete tasks that they find interesting, and are more likely to seek opportunities to increase their knowledge and skill levels if they find a topic interesting.

Points to Clarify

VI assessments have not generated as much hype as personality assessments in HR literature, in part because some of the information available is not correct. A few of the questions commonly associated with VI’s include:
Are VI assessments effective predictors in employee selection?
Yes – Vocational interests have been shown to predict employees’ intentions to stay with the organization, interpersonal knowledge, technical knowledge, and other important job-related outcomes.  Like all assessment methods, these results can vary.
Why have I heard that VI assessments don’t really predict job performance?
The answer may be very obvious – Some vocational interest surveys are, in fact, poor predictors of job performance.  This is because they were designed for another purpose.   For example, the Strong Interest Inventory is designed to guide individuals in finding a career that fits their interests, not to differentiate between high and low performers within that career. To effectively use VI assessments in employee selection, you must select an instrument that is designed for that specific purpose.
I thought most job applicants only applied for jobs that they found interesting?
Although people do tend to want jobs that align with their interests, this option is not always feasible. The decision to apply for employment is based upon a multitude of factors, such as the state of the economy, compensation rates for a job, location of a job, the applicant’s education level and prior experience, present or future rewards that a job may offer, etc.  These, and other factors, may supersede an individual’s desire to match his or her interests with the sought-after job.
How are applicants’ VI scores related back to the job?
Not all VI assessments are the same, but one common way is to organize and score the applicants’ interests by grouping their ratings of the various work activities into six categories of interests, known as Holland’s RIASEC model. These six categories of interests are as follows:
  • Realistic – Practical, hands-on activities (i.e. Carpenters, Electricians, Athletic Trainers)
  • Investigative – Scholastic, intellectual, and/or scientific activities (i.e. Pilots, Chemists, Police Detectives)
  • Artistic – Creative and expressive activities (i.e. Interior Designers, Editors, Photographers)
  • Social – Teaching, caring, and helping activities (i.e. Flight Attendants, Tour Guides, Concierges)
  • Enterprising – Persuasive and leadership-oriented activities (i.e. First-Line Supervisors, PR Managers, Head Chefs)
  • Conventional – Routine and well-ordered activities (i.e. Bank Teller, Accountants, Pharmacists)
HR managers or employers must have an idea of the work context prior to assessing applicants, so that the correct interests are focused upon during employee selection.

Practical Applications of VI Assessments

Vocational Interests should not be thought of as a reason to throw away personality assessments in selection.  Instead, they should be viewed as an option that offers you something unique to consider in the selection process. Unlike predictors such as cognitive ability, the validity of using VI scores in selection depends on the extent to which interests are reflected in the performance requirements of a job.  In jobs where this relationship is strong, VI assessments can help HR managers to select candidates that will actually enjoy their work and perform it well, have motivation to learn about their job, and stay with the company.

Kelly Whalen


This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Van Iddekinge, C.H., Campbell, J.P., and Putka, D.J. (2011). Reconsidering vocational interests for personnel selection: The validity of an interest-based selection test in relation to job knowledge, job performance, and continuance intentions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(1), 13-33.