Saturday, June 15, 2024

Don’t lean too heavily on pre-employment testing

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In this article:

The psychology of psychological testing

You can’t call yourself a veteran parent until you’ve worked–for months–on getting an unwilling 2-and-1/2-year-old to go to sleep at night. You seek out books, chat groups, pediatricians. You try new mattresses, lullaby tapes, routines–anything for that silver bullet.

But after triumphs and failures, good nights and bad, you realize there is no 100% guarantee. Sure, the lullaby tape works… sometimes. And the new storybook works… if your child feels like reading it that night.

Hiring involves a lot more than skills assessment. A person could get the best results in the world and still be a jerk to work with.

In that sense, putting a 2-and-1/2-year-old to bed is a lot like finding a good IT employee. You yearn for that magical routine that will tell you whether a particular candidate really has the skills he or she purports to have and whether he or she is going to fit into your organization.

While we all know in our hearts there is no silver bullet, the idea is compelling. And it might have something to do with why more organizations these days are considering the idea of pre-employment testing for their IT candidates.

Whereas 18 to 24 months ago you had a month for the hiring process, you¹re now looking at a two-week period, maximum, says James Essey, president of TemPositions Group of Companies, a temporary staffing firm in New York City. In the last six months, even that timeframe has collapsed, with companies making job offers right after the first interview, he says.

In fact, the number of large- and medium-size companies that require job applicants to take a psychological test rose from 39% in 1997 to 48% last year, according to the American Management Association, which surveyed 1,100 of its members. The tests assessed everything from managerial abilities to personality traits to career interests. Meanwhile, nearly 65% of the respondents said that they test applicants’ job skills, nearly the same percentage as the year before.

Tests provide applicant insight

There are tests available in the IT world that measure how deeply job applicants really understand the technology areas listed on their resumes. For instance, TeckChek, a leading provider of technical proficiency tests, offers tests for over 100 skill areas, including C++, Oracle databases, and SAP R/3. Applicants sit down at a PC for about an hour and respond to multiple-choice questions, many of which use actual computer code. The test taker is permitted to select up to three of five possible answers, some of which are more insightful than others. This technique is supposed to help demonstrate the candidate’s range of knowledge.

In addition, the test is adaptive–the questions get harder or easier based on answers to the previous questions. Once the candidate hits his maximum level of proficiency, the test ends.

Once TeckChek scores the tests, employers are given both raw scores and percentile rankings that compare the candidate’s performance to that of all other professionals who have taken the test. You also get a detailed profile of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.

According to Alan Epstein, president of TeckChek’s parent company, Knowledge Testing Enterprises Inc., in Los Angeles, the tests provide employers with insight that just isn’t available during a regular interview. For instance, a candidate might say he’s certified in Lotus Notes. Well, says Epstein, “that’s as if you and I applied to Harvard, and a testing service says we both passed our SATs. It provides assurance of some minimum level of competence, but it doesn’t say much about the candidate’s relative level of competence and his strengths and weaknesses.”

Consider the possibilities–no more in-depth interviews! No more extensive reference checks! No more costly hiring mistakes!

Applicants are people, too

Well, not quite. Unfortunately, hiring involves a lot more than skills assessment. “The person could get the best results in the world and still be a jerk to work with,” says Lina Fafard, a branch manager at Montgomery West, an executive search firm in Torrance, Calif. “They can code on water, but if the chemistry isn’t there, they won’t be hired.”

And therein lies the danger of testing. “It can be too tempting to say, if you’re not above the 50th percentile, we won’t hire you, and certainly some of our clients use it that way,” Epstein admits. In fact, some of TeckChek’s clients have done away with technical interviews all together.

However, even Epstein says TeckChek is just one piece of the hiring puzzle. “If you look at our contracts, there is specific language that says, ‘don’t rely on the test score exclusively.’ It should be one of a package of tools, including interviews and reference checking,” he says.

For instance, a typical company that uses this type of test might otherwise pull its best database professionals off line to conduct technical interviews. Not only are these employees unproductive during this time, but if you have three or four people conducting the interviews, they’re applying different standards, because it’s highly unlikely the company has defined a set of standards for questions to ask and what answers will be acceptable.

With TeckChek, you would still conduct the technical interviews, but there would be fewer candidates to interview, thanks to the prescreening. “We can quickly weed out those who are pretenders and those who are competent professionals,” Epstein says.

The psychology of psychological testing

How do you find a good person to conduct psychological testing for job applicants? Here are some basic guidelines:

There are 6,000 industrial psychologists in the country and only 500 who do this type of testing. Clinical psychologists can also be in this field, but they may or may not know all the legal ramifications of certain questions.

Before you hire, spend time with the person who will be doing the testing. Can you establish a rapport? If you can’t, how is that individual going to establish a rapport with the job candidate? Also, keep in mind that the test-provider represents your firm, and you want him or her to make a good impression.

Psychological testing can expose you to the risk of lawsuits.You may want to sign on with a person who has experience as an expert witness. “They’ll get fired at by lawyers and you want them to be able to present the data in the right way. That’s very, very important,” says Jed Friend, an industrial psychologist and president of Jed Friend Ph.D. Inc., in Tampa, Fla., which conducts pre-employment testing for corporations.

But is skills testing really the right focus? Some experts say no. “If I had a choice, I would spend more of my time looking at the behavioral competencies of the person,” says Linda Pittenger, president of People3 Inc., in Somerset, N.J., a retention consulting firm owned by research firm GartnerGroup Inc., in Stamford, Conn. “Skills and knowledge are easy to identify. What’s below the water line–motives, traits, and attributes–is harder to identify and harder to develop.” If you’re going to test candidates, Pittenger suggests, companies should build a profile of the type of individual they want to hire and test them on that. “You’d be far more successful than if you wasted your energy testing for technical skills,” she says.

And in fact, TeckChek plans to broach that area as well. “Our clients are asking us to add other content to the library to enable us to examine nontechnical areas,” Epstein says, such as leadership, communications, teamwork, and the ability to service an internal client.

Large companies–particularly the Fortune 500–often do this type of testing. But here again, psychological tests are not meant to be any more than 25% of the hiring process, says Jed Friend, an industrial psychologist and president of Jed Friend Ph.D. Inc., in Tampa, Fla., which conducts pre-employment testing for corporations. Smaller organizations, he says, don’t engage in this type of testing as often because either they’re not aware of it, or they’re not sure how to choose a reputable firm (see sidebar, “The psychology of psychological testing”).

Beyond the tools

Cost is another consideration for both the personality tests and the skills tests. TeckChek’s prices vary, but are generally $80 to $150 per test. “It’s a very costly process for us to develop and maintain tests,” Epstein says. “We do exhaustive statistical analysis, revise questions that aren’t working well on a regular basis, and update the tests to reflect changes in the technology.” However, especially with the high cost of hiring IT professionals, Epstein claims his clients are seeing return on investment as high as 30-to-1. “If you’re looking at spending $80,000 to $100,000 a year on an IT professional, I don’t see how a $150 test would be a deterrent. The cost of making a mistake is too high.”

You can get a personality test for $50 to $100, but as Friend says, “You get what you pay for.” If you employ an industrial psychologist, the cost jumps to the $600 to $1,000 range for testing an executive-level candidate. But, Friend insists, “that’s a cheap insurance policy. If you’re paying someone $120,000 or more, what’s a full set of X rays to see what this person cooks with?”

I can remember taking a grueling editing test for a potential employer–in fact, I worked on it over a holiday weekend. When I wasn’t hired, I automatically assumed I had failed miserably on the test. Talk about a blow to your self-esteem! So if you decide to start pre-employment testing, round out the whole process by giving candidates plenty of feedback–whether you hire them or not. After subjecting an applicant to an hour’s worth of testing, it’s only fair to report on the results.

On the whole, the trend toward increased pre-employment testing could really help corporations make better hiring decisions–if used correctly. But just like working with a 2-and 1/2-year-old, you’ve got to go beyond the tools, and use your instincts and creativity. //

Mary Brandel is a freelance writer in Norfolk, Mass., specializing in business applications of technology. She can be reached at

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