Is pre-hire testing worth the time, expense and legal risk? You know the answer: It depends on what you’re trying to find out, and why.
A SHRM survey from a couple of years ago said about one in five employers administer a standard personality test; seven out of 10 HR pros said the exams were useful in determining whether or not a candidate would be a good cultural “fit.”
Nowadays, however, many companies are looking for information that’s a little more in-depth. And that’s where things can get tricky.
Condon McGlothlen, writing on the Employment Law Lookout blog, recently put together a comprehensive two-part analysis on applicant testing. What follows is a sampling of what he had to say.
Some easy calls
It’s a no-brainer to test applicants for some positions, McGlothen said. Call center employees are a good example: These jobs often draw a large number of applicants, many of whom have basic qualifications. Faced with a deluge of people with the same basic attributes, this makes it necessary for employers to find a tool in addition to an application form, a resume, and a 10-minute interview to identify top candidates.
Even here, though, there’s a caveat: Some call center jobs involve only receiving inbound calls and answering customer questions, writes McGlothlen. Other call center jobs are essentially sales jobs: They involve outbound calling, and they require persistence and resilience; they could involve a scripted sales pitch, but they could also involve unscripted dialogue and require people with an outgoing personality and a certain “marketing flair.”
In other words, employers shouldn’t assume seemingly similar jobs are alike — and test for just one set of attributes.
Dealing with vendors
There’s been a growing trend in recent years of organizations testing applicants (and current employees) for “deeper” info on what makes them tick — things like readiness (and willingness) to take on management assignments, attention to detail and whether they’re “big picture” thinkers.
For that type of testing, companies need to turn to vendors. Here’s McGlothlen’s advice on navigating that potentially dangerous path:
First, get beyond the sales reps. Most are uniformed about federal laws concerning hiring; you need to talk to someone in the firm who knows what’s legal and what’s not.
Here’s the key, via McGlothlen:
Unless a test has been validated for a particular employer’s specific job, the test is not valid as to that job, i.e., it isn’t valid for the hiring employer’s purposes. Any reputable vendor has industrial or organizational psychologists on staff who know what validity means, whether the vendor’s instruments have been properly validated for other employers, and what it would take to validate the test at issue for the purchasing employer. Ask to speak with the organizational psychologist on staff.
That a test has been validated for other companies, perhaps in other industries, for use in filling positions that may or may not resemble the jobs in question, typically means nothing.
There’s also a question of who should validate the test — meaning making sure there’s a clear connection between success on the test and success on the job. Some large employers considering a test or multiple tests have the luxury of “in-house” experts. Others hire outside consultants.
Legal issues lurk
With testing comes legal dangers. The question, then, McGlothlen writes, is
… how best to manage that risk and at the same time enable the employer to choose the most qualified candidate(s) in a cost-effective manner.
Should the test be given early in the hiring process to all or most candidates? A test given early on will screen out more applicants or potential applicants – perhaps hundreds instead of a handful. However, individuals rejected at pre-interview stage typically don’t know why they were rejected, and are thus less likely to file a charge or bring suit challenging the test’s validity. These individuals may have applied to dozens of companies, and may or may not view the position in question as their “dream job” (or at least their job of choice).
By contrast, the candidate who fails a test late in the hiring process will likely know (or have a good sense of) why she was rejected. If she feels the test was biased or the testing process was otherwise unfair, she’ll be more likely to make a legal stink – not only because she knows, or thinks she knows, why she was rejected, but also because she’ll have invested more time, energy, emotion and thought into the job in question as compared to someone rejected earlier in the process.