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Assessments 101 An Introduction to Candidate Testing

January 5, 2010
The economic slowdown has produced a wealth of candidates seeking employment.

In addition to those out of work, there are predictions that a number of employees, many of whom are happy to have a job but unhappy with their present place of work, will begin looking for new positions once the market begins to stabilize.

Though it may seem that selecting talent would be easy in the present climate, hiring managers have their work cut out for them with many more résumés to weed through. Assessment tests, when used as part of the hiring process, provide employers with an effective way of deciding which candidates are the most qualified for a specific job.

Though assessments have been used for years, their necessity is all the more evident today. Karen Meredith is president of Predictive Performance International, a company that provides employment assessments.

“In up economies, employers used to be a little more relaxed, wrongly perhaps, about saying, ‘I’m going to go out there and hire 20 salespeople and hope that 10 stick.’ ” Meredith says. “Companies can’t afford to do that today; they don’t have the money to do that.”

Assessment tools provide managers a more in-depth read on the individual seeking employment, leading to more accurate and long-lasting hiring decisions. Assessments go beyond the typical means of analysis to highlight candidate qualities that might not be evident during a more basic interview process.

Most realize that losing an employee is costly. Estimates demonstrate that replacing valued performers can reach more than two times an employee’s salary for high-level or specialized positions. Even replacing entry- to mid-level employees can be expensive, once training and recruitment costs are taken into account.

Another benefit that assessment testing provides is the ability to improve fair hiring practices by standardizing the hiring process. Assessments, when properly created and validated, should treat all applicants in the same, non-subjective manner and should not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability or age.

Assessments can be used for employee development to determine a person’s best role. As is common in companies, workers’ roles and responsibilities change over time, creating the possibility for employees’ satisfaction and suitability to also shift. Testing can shed light onto situations such as these, allowing organizations to move workers into roles that make the most of their unique qualifications.

Before an organization considers assessment testing, there are a number of items to consider. Most important, a hiring manager must know not only the requirements of the job they are looking to fill, but also the qualifications that will lead to success.

Charles Handler, president and founder of Rocket-Hire, a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations use technology and best practices to build effective, legally sound employee selection systems, finds that a good way for organizations to evaluate which assessment is right for them “is to first understand their needs very thoroughly. I think a lot of companies gloss over that part of it and don’t really look at the contextual factors that can really have an impact on the bottom line of an assessment.”

Following are some of the common candidate assessment tests. Not every assessment tool will be clearly defined by one of the categories, as some use a combination of the elements.

• Personality tests
Personality tests measure specific candidate personality traits. The traits measured are those tied to successful performance in the job for which the candidate has applied. Some of the most common traits tested for include extroversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience. This type of assessment has no “right” answers. The questions are simply designed to reveal the candidate’s personality traits and then use that information when evaluating their fit within the organization.

Personality tests are easy and inexpensive to administer and can be issued to large numbers of candidates, and their results differ less by race or gender than other kinds of assessments. On the other hand, personality tests may cause some candidates to answer questions in an untruthful manner to try to make a favorable impression on their prospective employer.

• Integrity tests
Integrity tests are designed to investigate a candidate’s truthfulness and trustworthiness, and can be a measure of overall job performance. Test questions generally focus on a candidate’s past behaviors related to ethics or on interests and preferences. The answers provided by the candidate are used to predict future behavior and determine whether the candidate may be prone to unscrupulous actions in the workplace. Candidates who score low on integrity tests are apt to be less productive, and therefore less appropriate, employees.

In addition to identifying potentially unproductive employees, these tests’ results differ less by race and gender than other categories of assessments and do not require the use of skilled administrators. However, like personality tests, integrity tests may be viewed by candidates as overly intrusive.

• Emotional intelligence tests
Emotional intelligence tests measure an individual’s ability to identify, control and assess emotions. Typically, these tests consist of questions administered to candidates either by paper or electronically and then scored by an expert or by a large-group consensus.

Such tests are especially good at predicting job performance when positive interaction with others is an important aspect of the job’s success. Companies looking to fill positions that require a great deal of teamwork and social interaction might consider this tool. A potential drawback to the test is that results differ more by gender than other assessment types.

• Skills tests
Skills tests are a common form of pre-employment testing. These assessments determine whether a candidate has a specific set of skills required to be successful in a position. They also provide insight as to how much training a candidate would need in order to perform the job. Because skills tests measure a candidate’s ability at the time the test is taken, they are particularly helpful for situations in which there are limited time and resources for training.

Depending on the skills being measured, the tests may require data input, writing a business letter, developing a marketing strategy or lifting a specific amount of weight. Skills tests can help reduce business costs involved in hiring, training and promotion by identifying candidates who possess the desired skills.

• Aptitude tests
An aptitude test measures a candidate’s ability to acquire a skill or do a particular type of work. Aptitude tests help an employer determine the candidate’s potential to learn and to be trained. Unlike a skills test, an aptitude test determines whether a candidate will be capable of doing the job once he or she is trained, not whether the candidate can do the job at the time the test is taken.

These tests can be written or oral. Topics assessed could include writing, verbal communication and reasoning.

• Cognitive tests
Cognitive tests assess abilities related to thinking, such as reasoning, memory, perception, mathematic ability, problem solving and reading comprehension. Cognitive tests can also measure knowledge of necessary functions for a particular job.

Cognitive tests can easily be administered to a large number of candidates and have been demonstrated to effectively predict job performance, especially for more complex positions. The tests can, however, be time-consuming to develop if not purchased from a vendor, and are more likely than some other test types to differ in results by gender and race.

• Job knowledge tests
Job knowledge tests focus on the professional or technical expertise required for a specific position. Unlike aptitude or cognitive tests, job knowledge tests do not measure a candidate’s potential to learn or to be trained. They evaluate what the candidate knows at the time the test is given.

These tests often use multiple-choice or essay questions. Basic accounting principles, computer programming and contract law are examples of subjects a job knowledge test might measure.

• Sample job task/simulation tests
Sample job task tests measure a candidate’s ability to perform specific work assignments. These assessments can include performance tests, simulations, work samples and realistic job previews. Sample job task tests are used only to assess candidates on competencies they are required to possess upon beginning the job for which they are testing. The candidate’s performance is measured by trained assessors who observe the candidate while he or she completes the test or measure its outcome.

Since this type of test has candidates perform tasks similar to those that will be encountered on the job, the test work environment is re-created as closely as possible to the real work environment.

• Behavioral tests
Behavioral tests are used to predict how a candidate will react in given situations, based on responses to a series of multiple-choice, short-answer or essay questions. These tests use the candidate’s past behavior to predict future behavior, and can help determine the level of compatibility between a candidate and company.

Information gained from these tests has use beyond the hiring process, such as determining the best ways to manage an employee, develop a team or understand team dynamics. Additionally, these tests can be used for process analysis. A behavioral test may be appropriate for organizations that place high importance on cultural fit and for positions that require high levels of motivation. Because of the insights gained, these tests may also be beneficial in situations where there is less time for a manager to build a relationship with a new hire, such as with an employee who will be working from home.

There are a number of factors to research when selecting the specific test that will be used, once the appropriate test type has been determined. Some of the most critical aspects to consider are the way in which the test is structured; how the results are reported; the tool’s legal compliance and validity; and how the test is introduced into the hiring process.

• Assessment layout and reporting options
One of the most important aspects of assessment layout is ensuring it is user-friendly. This includes confirming that it is easy to read, the directions are clear and the length is manageable. David Wade, president and owner of GRW Solutions, a partner of Predictive Performance International, asserts that the layout of an assessment tool “has to be very intuitive, very easy for a candidate to use, so they don’t get scared by it. I think a candidate will, quite frankly, be somewhat intimidated by an assessment anyway and how it’s presented. The easier it is to use, the better off [the testing experience] is going to be.”

Assessment results can be presented in many formats. The amount of detail can range from a simple percentage score to 20 pages of descriptions, explanations and recommendations. Length and breadth of reporting will depend, partially, on the type of test.

• Legal aspects
One of the most critical factors to consider, with regard to pre-employment tests, is legal compliance. Properly administered, assessments can help keep a company’s hiring process legally compliant. Failure to understand and comply with laws pertaining to assessments and hiring decisions can be very costly for employers.

There are a number of equal employment opportunity laws that affect employment testing. Many of these laws are based on the requirement that the test is job-related and consistent with business necessity, thus stressing the importance of an employer understanding what makes someone successful in the position for which they are being tested before selecting or developing an assessment.

• Validation
Making sure a test is valid is another critical step in the selection or development of a pre-employment assessment. Validity not only helps ensure legal compliance, but also can provide insight as to the return on investment associated with the tool.

There are two aspects to validation: content and criteria. In order to establish content validity, the necessary characteristics for job performance must be documented. Establishing criteria validity requires a more in-depth statistical evaluation of the relationship between successful job performance and the selection measures.

• Hiring process integration
The way an assessment is integrated into the hiring process and presented to the candidate is incredibly important. According to Handler, if a candidate “is applying online and all of the sudden gets a test without an explanation of what the test is or why, that can be a problem. So framing the context of it and providing some explanation within the process is always important.”

Some test types, such as emotional intelligence and integrity tests, may include questions that candidates feel are intrusive. They are less likely to find offense with, or be confused by, this type of questioning if it is made clear why the test is being administered and that the test is indeed relevant to success in the position.

“I always encourage people to take the test yourself and see how the test makes you feel,” Handler says.

There is not a right or wrong time to administer an assessment. The way a test is given and at what stage is dependent on the organization, the position and the current processes.

• The future of assessments
Organizations have employed candidate assessment tests during the hiring process for a number of years. In the current economy, however, they may be more necessary than ever before. Previously, employers might have been concerned about losing applicants who had multiple employment prospects and were unwilling to spend time completing an assessment test, especially one that is lengthy and in-depth.

“Because there are so many people in the market employers are bolder with their assessments,” Wade says.

As assessments become more common, Handler believes the market will see shorter assessments that are more powerful and more integrated into the hiring process. Assessments will also be more readily available to smaller, midmarket companies that were not using them before.

The format of assessments will also continue to evolve. Handler suggests there will be “slow movement toward more simulation-based assessments and away from the traditional test” that will provide candidates an opportunity “to do the job or what the job requires in a virtual environment.”

Meredith believes that the future of assessments includes corporations adopting them for use beyond hiring.

“All of that capability is available today,” she says. “But I think it’s the exceptional client that’s forward-thinking about organizational development-type issues that are the ones that are implementing it.”