The In-Basket Exercise and How to Use It

A full inbox next to an empty inbox.

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An in-basket exercise is a hiring assessment tool used by companies to gauge how well applicants perform job-related tasks within a certain period of time. The name “in-basket exercise” is a nod to a bygone era when employees used to have physical in-baskets on their desks where others would place assignments to be completed.

These pre-employment exercises are simulations usually administered when candidates come in for interviews and they’re generally expected to be completed immediately afterward. Upon completion, hiring managers assess the candidate’s performance and weigh their results with the candidates’ credentials to help them make a decision on which applicant will receive a job offer. 

The Traits That In-Box Exercises Measure 

Many in-box exercises are intended to test how well a potential employee can organize and tackle assignments, from understanding the scope of an assigned task to planning and executing the individual initiatives. In the process, hiring managers can see how well the applicant manages their workflow.

Some exercises are also designed to assess the critical thinking skills of candidates, how adept they are at facing challenges and problem-solving, from identifying potential pitfalls to making informed decisions of how to proceed. These exercises also reflect in real-time how well applicants perform under pressure when on deadline.

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 appear to be done slapdash. After all, employers are not just looking for speed but for competence. 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 them. They devise 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.