Test before you hire

How can you tell whether an applicant is suitable or not? One manager had a foolproof way of telling if an applicant would be assertive, active and a go-getter.

He would invite the person into his office, offer the person a seat and immediately say, “Let’s go and get a coffee.” Then he would walk out of his office as fast as possible and dash around the corner to the elevators.

“If they could keep up with me,” he once explained, “I knew they would be great. If they couldn’t, I didn’t hire them.”

He had been doing this for years and claimed it worked perfectly, in spite of the fact that his company was in deep trouble and the HR department despaired of every appointment he made.

Another strategy is to rely on gut instincts, as did a CEO who prided himself on his ability to judge character. The CEO once took a real shine to the bartender at his favourite watering hole. When the man told him that he had his accounting degree — he didn’t — and that he had worked for several major firms in another city — he hadn’t — and was looking for a job, the CEO offered him a position as an accountant and never bothered to investigate any further. It was only when the tax people did an audit and found that the books were a mess and funds were missing that the truth came out.

Resumés, references, and gut feelings may be interesting but they are neither entirely accurate nor trustworthy. So how do successful recruiters spot the good from the bad and the qualified from the unqualified? There is no single process that will do everything in one step. Successful recruiters know that they must screen applicants, check references and conduct carefully thought-out interviews.

One of the most useful tools they can also use is the standardized test. A standardized instrument is one that has been tried out with groups of subjects representing a cross-section of the population. Often referred to by the catch-all term, “psychometric tests,” these standardized tests may measure for skills and abilities or aptitudes and personal attributes.

Tests will uncover things that may not come to light in any other way. For example, a property management firm was on the point of hiring a couple as superintendents for one of its largest apartment buildings. They had interviewed well and their references — from friends as it turned out — were excellent. Just before hiring them and turning over the master keys to 200 suites, the owners administered a test that measured a variety of things, including honesty.

The owners were amazed to learn that both people had scores indicating that they were very dishonest. Further investigation revealed that the man had just been released from prison after serving time for armed robbery and the woman was due to appear in court on shoplifting charges. Still shaken from the thought that they were about to give this pair access to everyone’s apartment, the owners decided not to hire them.

But what should and can employers test for? What does one look for in a test? Where can good tests be found? The first question is easy. There are tests for everything from sales skills, to manual dexterity, from managerial ability to colour-blindness. You can be sure that there is a test available for every skill and ability required for any job.

Remember, however, that you can legally only test for aspects that are clearly job-related. If you fail to hire someone based on the results of a test that has nothing to do with the job, you can be in deep trouble. This applies especially to personality testing. While a recruiter may think that the best salesperson is outgoing and aggressive, there’s no proof for this impression: there are many successful salespeople who are quiet, not very assertive and sometimes even shy.

Although instances of employers getting into legal trouble over the use of these tests are relatively rare, the risk is not just hypothetical. Where HR professionals can really get into deep water is when they feel compelled to say to an unsuccessful job candidate, ‘No, you did not get the job because your test scores were low,’ or ‘Our tests indicate you are too introverted and that’s why you did not get the promotion.’ Avoid such explanations.

There are hundreds of tests available and unless you are an expert in tests and measurement, it can be very difficult to determine the one that is best for you. Take sales tests for example. There are at least a couple of dozen different tests to choose from. Each one is slightly different and designed for different purposes. Tests for sales positions may be designed specifically for technical sales, retail sales or sales managers. There are even ones to help decide if someone who is not yet in sales would be good in a sales position.

For those in non-managerial positions, a sales test might include such things as sales work experience, sales interest, energy level, sales skills, business ethics, attention to customer service and an overall sales potential index. A test for sales managers would include most of these aspects, plus measurement of leadership and management skills

The same thing applies to managerial and supervisory skills and abilities. You can test to see who would be good, who is ready for a promotion and exactly what skills and abilities a manager may already have. There really is a test for everything.

What should you look for in a test? Look for ones that are valid (accurate), proven and reliable. Use only the ones that have been validated. This means that they have undergone a long, arduous and expensive process that will enable you to prove that the test does what it says it does. This will be important if a decision has to be defended in court. This is also why firms cannot and should not use a test that someone has made up on his own — before it has been validated or put through any research to prove its value.

Finding the right kind of test and determining whether it has been validated, how easy it is to score, how much it costs and whether it will do the job for you is the most difficult part. Unfortunately, the companies that develop the tests aren’t set up to do much more than take your order.

If you want advice and assistance, you must look elsewhere. This is particularly true if you want to compare tests produced by two or more different firms. There are firms and consultants that can do this for you. Look for them on the Internet and try to find ones that do not have a vested interest in promoting their own or one particular firm’s tests. An independent professional can save you a great deal of time and money plus give advice on what test is best suited to a firm’s particular needs.

Testing has become an important and essential tool for HR professionals but it is unusual to find someone who can remain an up-to-date expert in this rapidly changing field. That’s why they too rely on other professionals.

John Towler is a psychologist and senior partner of Creative Organizational Design, a leading test supplier based in Kitchener, Ont. He can be contacted at (519) 745-0142, [email protected] or www.creativeorgdesign.com.

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