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Managing People in-tray exercise

An exercise for people preparing for an assessment

For use by career coaches, consultants and HR professionals

This version of the Imperial plc in-tray exercise is licensed for use by an individual consultant or HR department. It is downloadable in Word format and may be re-branded but not used externally.

About the Imperial plc in-tray exercise

This In-Tray simulation puts teams and individuals into a "real-world" scenario where they are forced to sift through a complex mountain of information and make difficult decisions under pressure. The object is to quickly identify individuals who are able to work under pressure, prioritise information and make informed decisions in a complex environment.

Candidates are asked to sort through their in-tray, email and voicemail and then answer a series of questions that require them to prioritise, make difficult decisions and prove leadership under fire. Decisions have to be taken within a tough deadline and in the context of an unfamiliar political environment.

They will be tested on your ability to think strategically, anticipate future trends, events, problems or opportunities and develop strategies for addressing them.

You should allow an hour to complete the exercise and then spend another hour reviewing your answers against the notes that are included. If you can do this with others, or with a coach or mentor, you will get better feedback and learning.

Why do employers use in-tray exercises?

Employers commonly find that they cannot rely on a job interview alone to assess a candidate's ability, since at interview candidates adjust their behaviour to meet what is expected of them. By using the In-Tray exercise employers are able to simulate real working attitudes and beliefs. They can find out how the candidate behaves when the heat is on and whether he/she can assimilate facts and figures, prioritise information and make good decisions under pressure.

In-tray simulations can reveal this information, and so could be a vital component of your recruitment process, assessment centre or promotion board.

It is rare for an appointment to be made without an interview. This could be a one to one meeting, a panel or a group session. The purpose is to review a candidate's background gain insight into their experience, test their capability for the job and, possibly also, assess the 'chemistry' between them and a potential new boss.

The in-tray exercise is usually a separate part of the process. Candidates should be asked to work alone to a strict time deadline although there may be the opportunity for group discussion of the results afterwards. The In-Tray is an absolute test of management competencies and there are usually right and wrong answers to the various issues.

The point of doing an in-tray is for the employer to gauge how well suited you are to a managerial role in a real-world working situation. Skills tested may include:

  • Structuring

  • Planning

  • Problem analysis

  • Problem solving

  • Delegating

The in-tray exercise is a chance for candidates to demonstrate qualities and skills that could not be shown during the interview stage.


Abilities recruiters look for

Key things employers look for from you during an in-tray include your ability to:

  • Analyse situations

  • Foresee potential problems

  • Generate practical solutions

  • Plan implementation procedures

  • Identify issues and prioritise sensibly

  • Be aware of resource constraints

  • Consider implications for the business

  • Negotiate to maximise advantage for the company

  • Tactfully handle interpersonal relationships

  • Manage time and people well

  • Communicate clearly in writing

  • Manage paperwork efficiently

  • Work well under pressure

Possible contents of an in-tray

  • Plenty of reading materials (e.g. 20 - 30 items)

  • Telephone message

  • Emails

  • Organisation charts

  • Policy documents

  • Calendar

  • Memos

  • Letters

  • HR information

Some tips:advice to candidates:

  • Don't analyse the topics in too much detail

  • Work quickly and accurately

  • Don't obsess over lack of information - do the best they can with what they've got

  • Allocate priorities

  • Be prepared to indicate the reasons for their decisions

What you get

The Imperial plc in-tray exercise is downloaded directly from the Internet in Microsoft Word. It comes with complete instructions together with an organisation chart, a breakdown of your team and the contents of the in-tray.


All the answers are provided in full together with explanations and a list of learning points.


This exercise has been developed into a UK business context from a special agent in-basket assessment used by the US Department of Homeland Security. You may copy all sheets for your own personal use as long as you retain the copyright note.

Order now 

Purchase the Imperial plc in-tray exercise at the special offer of £75.00 (approximately $90), and you can immediately download it. 

If you would like us to develop and introduce a bespoke management game or business simulation for your organisation, then contact us now.The Imperial plc in-tray exercise is downloaded directly from the Internet in Microsoft Word. It comes with complete instructions together with an organisation chart, a breakdown of your team and the contents of the in-tray.

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