If you’ve ever sent an email while forgetting to add the attachment, you probably know the value of attention to detail.
In fact, it is one of the most cited candidate qualities in job descriptions, regardless of industry or seniority.
Is attention to detail really that important, and does it matter whether your new hires are detail-oriented?
Turns out, only a detail-oriented person would sweat the small stuff – and that’s the kind of employee every team needs to produce exceptional work.
So here’s how you can find out if a candidate is detail-oriented…
TL;DR — key takeaways
- Attention to detail is a person’s ability to complete tasks accurately, thoroughly, and error-free. It’s a critical soft skill that enables analytical and detailed thinking, helps employees focus on the project at hand, and allows them to notice and remember even the small details.
- Depending on the line of work, professionals may refer to this skill using synonyms like meticulous, thorough, detail-oriented, attentive, or fastidious. Still, they all describe the same characteristic – attention to detail.
- Hiring managers proactively seek out candidates with demonstrated attention-to-detail skills. This category of employees can produce high-quality work, work more efficiently by avoiding mistakes and small errors, operate with little supervision, and raise the quality bar of the projects they’re engaged in.
- Specific examples of tasks that detail-oriented employees tackle better than their less attentive counterparts could include documentation, code review, debugging, editorial work, website design, bookkeeping, and many others!
- Detail-oriented interview questions can help the hiring manager identify truly detail-oriented candidates. However, it’s not the only screening method that’s effective at highlighting detail-oriented people. Skills assessments and take-home projects that focus on verifying skills outlined in the job description can also offer major insights.
Why is attention to detail important?
Attention to detail can look different across an organization:
- from the office manager’s consistent success with ordering everyone’s favorite breakfast pastries
- to the QA engineer’s uncanny ability to hunt down bugs
- to a graphic designer‘s superpower to spot a pixel out of place.
But one thing is clear – with so many job ads demanding being detail-oriented as part of the employee skill set, this is a highly desirable character trait for employers.
While it’s not as important for every industry and role, attention to detail ranks very high for most vacancies. Here’s why.
#1 – Great attention to detail means better work
Simply put, employees with high attention to detail don’t live by the mantra of “done is better than perfect”. They don’t let mistakes slip by and are unsatisfied with sub-par work.
In general, the quality of the work they do is much higher than with employees who lack basic attention to detail. And while they might be regarded as perfectionists, paying attention is what helps these individuals listen carefully, ensure quality, and avoid mistakes.
#2 – Attention to detail can make or break your company
Small details can have big consequences, as Delta Airlines witnessed. In 2014, the USA beat Ghana in a World Cup match, which Delta celebrated with a photo of the Statue of Liberty (representing the USA) and one of a giraffe (representing Ghana).
There’s only one problem – there aren’t really any giraffes in Ghana.
In a somewhat related incident, American Apparel wanted to celebrate Independence day properly – with fireworks. On their Tumblr account, they posted a photo, not of fireworks, but of the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded in 1986.
Needless to say, the general public did not find it very funny.
What better way to explain the attention to detail as a core value in an employee than by using cold, hard numbers?
#1 – In a case that has now made history books, NASA launched Mariner 1 into space, the first interplanar probe the world has ever seen. Things were looking swell – up until the launch moment when the probe went off the planned trajectory and crashed. The reason for the failure was just one missing hyphen in the code. This fatal mistake cost NASA $80 million.
#2 – In another, even more dated incident, the US government’s 1872 tariff act exempted “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” from the import tariff. There’s just one thing – there was supposed to be a comma between fruit and plants. The error resulted in $40 million of damage to the US economy in today’s money.
#3 – A Covid-19 blunder committed by Public Health England (PHE) offers a more recent example of how a lack of attention to detail can significantly impact an organization – or in this case, people’s lives.
PHE had set up an automatic process to bring together logs from commercial firms paid to analyze swab tests of the public – to discover who has the virus. And while this sounds highly efficient, the problem was that PHE’s developers picked an old Excel file format to pull this data into a central system, enforcing a hard row limit that caused many cases to be left off.
The result? “The badly thought-out use of Microsoft’s Excel software was the reason nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases went unreported in England,” according to BBC.
While not every job carries the risk of multi-million-dollar damage for a tiny slip-up, cases like these illustrate the importance of attention to detail.
Small mistakes, such as typos or omitted punctuation marks, can have dire consequences. You may think you won’t lose sleep over an error like this, but the truth is that the effects can be devastating.
#3 – Your internal processes get better
Imagine if a project manager routinely got deadlines wrong or a recruiter frequently missed important information from job descriptions; while many tasks require attention to detail, some have zero margins for error.
A detail-oriented employee continuously works on improving their own workflow and processes and aims to be quicker, more efficient, and have a higher quality of work.
Having a detail-oriented person on your team benefits your company greatly as they can create new and improve existing processes to ensure everyone does a better job.
This is of special importance to startups that don’t have an established hiring process and might still be relying on unstructured interviews to flush out great talent. Spoiler alert: they don’t work!
The easiest way to find out if candidates are detail-oriented is to combine asking the the right interview questions (see our detail-oriented interview questions below to design a better hiring process) with skills assessments that double-check candidates’ ability to stay focused and deliver quality work.
It’s important, but not for every position
The Center for European Policy Studies analyzed more than 30,000 job ads to find the most common requirements in education and formal qualifications, cognitive and non-cognitive skills.
Attention to detail was listed as part of the reliability skill within the non-cognitive skills group of job seekers.
According to this research, on the scale of importance, ‘reliability as a skill’ ranges from 0% to 13% compared to the rest of the non-cognitive skills. And it very much depends on the job position. In other words, the importance of attention to detail is highly dependent on the role in question.
Common ways to spot a detail-oriented candidate
So, what are the most common ways to find out if your job applicant has great attention to detail?
Besides simply asking them, there are some more systematic screening methods.
Small details in a Resume or Cover letter
One of the first places recruiters and hiring managers look for proof of attention to detail is the candidates’ resume or cover letter.
It’s no secret that HR reps spend mere seconds reviewing applicant resumes. When they do glance over a resume, they’re scanning for reasons to put candidates on the no pile. Formatting, spelling, and grammar errors are among the easiest ways to narrow down many applicants.
In fact, 59% of recruiters admit they disqualify candidates based on spelling mistakes.
This is one of the most common ways to assess candidates’ attention to detail.
While spelling is hardly a relevant skill for a role such as a systems administrator, for example, it is relevant for showing how detail-oriented the candidate is in their application.
Fair or unfair, there are hundreds of job applicants for a single position, and by making their application pixel-perfect, the candidate is sending a message they really want the job.
Skills assessment test
When you open a detail-oriented position, evaluating candidates’ ability to spot errors, notice small discrepancies, and limit distractions helps you predict which candidates will produce high-quality work on the job.
And it’s better to know that before you hire, right?
There are also many personality tests out there designed to assess candidates’ cognitive abilities, including attention to detail. And while any form of standardized, consistent evaluation is better than nothing, we recommend taking the results of such tests with a grain of salt.
For practical, measurable results, we suggest opting for a job-specific assessment that relies on subject matter experts and purpose-built questions. See our Assessment Library for inspiration!
📚 Check out these top 30 personality interview questions if you want to get to know your candidates better!
Sample work or portfolio review
If the role suits it, one of the easiest ways to assess attention to detail in candidates is to glance at their previous work.
As they apply for the position, ask for a portfolio from past employers or a representative sample of what they did at their last job.
For example, I’ve had to hire and interview quite a few writers, and samples were always the easiest way to assess their attention to detail. As writing is one of those roles where this character trait is of utmost importance, I had to ensure that the writers I hire actually care about the quality of their finished work – besides knowing that present perfect is a tense and not a new meditation technique.
Likewise, many developers assess new applicants’ quality by looking at their code before even considering a resume. They want to know if the code is clean and can easily be read, followed, and maintained.
As a skill, attention to detail can be improved and developed over time by employing the right tools and work methods. That’s why looking at past work can tell you how self-aware the candidate is and actually predict future work.
20 Attention to detail interview questions
The interview is a great setup to evaluate how detail-oriented a candidate is. But you need to ask the right attention-to-detail interview questions to get to the bottom of the truth!
Since they have to respond immediately, there’s very little room for doctoring the replies that aren’t true to their nature.
Here are some of the best interview questions you can use to assess attention to detail.
- Tell me about a time when you made a mistake in your work. How did you find it, and what did you do to make up for it? – Everybody makes mistakes, even the most detail-oriented of employees. Admitting they made a mistake is a sign they own up to their errors, and the weight of the mistake will tell you how much of a mishap it was. Finally, you get to see their methods for correcting the mistake.
- What tools do you use to ensure that there are no mistakes in your work? – You can learn about the processes and tools candidates use to double-check their finished work. E.g., for writing, I use Word’s spell checker, Grammarly, and the Hemmingway App.
- How do you ensure quality when there are tight deadlines? Have you ever had to sacrifice quality just to meet a deadline? – See how well the candidate works under pressure and whether they prioritize the quality of work or deadlines.
- Have you ever found an error that wasn’t obvious from the start? – If the candidate can review a colleague’s work and catch mistakes that were missed, it’s a sign of great attention to detail.
- Have you ever had to explain to someone in a superior position that they made a mistake? How did you approach it, and what were the results? – You can see candidates’ attention to detail skills even when it’s out of their zone of influence and get an idea of their communication skills.
- Have you ever worked on something where it was crucial to be accurate? – You get to find out the candidate’s experience with tasks where attention to detail was of utmost importance.
- Do you have a specific process you follow in your line of work? – If the candidate uses a standard operating procedure for everything they do, this is when they’ll show it off.
- How do you manage your daily workload? – Candidates with great attention to detail can organize their time well. This is especially important in freelance and remote roles.
- Are you a detail-oriented worker? – Sometimes, the simplest question is the best. See what the candidate says to a direct question about their attention to detail.
- How do you go about getting all the important details from an important customer? – How well they pay attention in client-facing roles.
- A customer/client sends over a request, and you don’t understand it. What do you do? – Knowing all the details is crucial to getting the job done, as is wanting to know them.
- Your co-worker makes a mistake in their work, and you spot it. What do you do? – Find out how a candidate handles errors that others make.
- What does perfectionism mean to you in a work context? And would you describe yourself as a perfectionist? – Detail-oriented people often think of themselves as a bit of perfectionists. While candidates might avoid stating they’re perfectionists, they’ll most likely divulge their passion for sweating the small stuff.
- Describe a situation in which some aspect of a project or task was overlooked. What were the causes of the omission, and what were the results? How did you correct the mistakes? – This behavioral interview question is designed to reveal candidates’ ability to analyze, identify inefficiencies, apply better processes, and take responsibility for their errors. Quite a meaty one, too!
- How do you stay on track when you are constantly interrupted while working on a project? – The ability to stay focused is crucial to a detail-oriented person. Candidates who value attention to detail will have a work routine they use to stay organized.
- Describe a situation when a project you were working on did not meet established deadlines. What caused the delay(s)? What did you do? – Yet another question designed to show candidates’ commitment to quality in the face of a challenge.
- How do you feel about taking shortcuts with projects? – Candidates with extreme attention to detail often feel uncomfortable compromising their work quality just to complete the task faster. However, sometimes speed matters, and having the right system to iterate and improve continuously could be a better approach.
- How does detail orientation help you better solve problems? – Ask this question to see if candidates understand how they work and apply their strengths in daily situations.
- Give me an example of how being detail-oriented enabled you to contribute to big-picture plans and discussions. – One criticism detail-oriented people suffer is that they’re ‘too much in the weeds’ to see the big picture. But it isn’t always the case!
- What area of self-development are you working on right now? – Someone with a highly developed attention to detail is typically highly self-aware and should have no problem rattling off a few personal growth projects.
Final thoughts on assessing attention to detail
While attention to detail is not equally important in all roles, it is one of the most essential personal non-cognitive skills for employees, regardless of the industry or job.
Mind you, assessing detail orientation is not always a walk in the park, but it’s essential to know if a candidate is detail-oriented to ensure that they perform well in their role and benefit your company.
Who knows, maybe a comma out there could also cost your company millions. 😱
Do you want to test your candidates’ skills and attention to detail in a way that can be measured? And even better, in a way that shows you if the candidate can do the job well.
Juste loves investigating through writing. A copywriter by trade, she spent the last ten years in startups, telling stories and building marketing teams. She works at Toggl Hire and writes about how businesses can recruit really great people.