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Evaluating potential candidates for a job is difficult, but personality tests can help you avoid costly mistakes.

August 1, 2008   By Gail rieschi

Evaluating potential candidates for a job is difficult, but personality tests can help you avoid costly mistakes.

You have devoted hours to reviewing resumes, conducting interviews with the most likely candidates and checking references. Feeling confident you have the right person for the job, you present your offer and welcome him into the company. Only a few days later, the bubble bursts. Jack’s skills aren’t as strong as they appeared in the interview and on paper. Worse, he’s not fitting into the work group. Jack is stressed and floundering, his colleagues are unhappy, work isn’t getting done and you’re frustrated!

It’s a familiar scenario. But how could you have been so wrong about the person you interviewed? One reason is that today, job seekers are trained and counselled in how to conduct themselves during an interview and how to present their resumes, making it tough for employers to accurately assess their skills and suitability.

The cost of bad hires –in training, reduced productivity, increased performance management, de-hiring, and the accompanying negative impact on employee morale –is just too great. One estimate has placed the cost at between $50,000 to $100,000 for each mistake.

Firms are looking for ways to help them avoid these costs and hire right the first time. To do this, many are incorporating pre-employment selection tests as part of their recruitment strategies. Traditional selection methods are no longer getting the job done.

Pre-employment testing can be used to evaluate skill, aptitude and work-related personality traits.

The most widely accepted and commonly used test methods are standardized tests and criterion-based tests. Standardized tests compare the candidate’s test results against the performance of others, referred to as the “norm” group. Criterion-based exercises measure the candidate’s abilities or behaviours against the actual job tasks or demands, and they include work simulation exercises. The most important consideration is ensuring that the test content matches the job’s tasks and activities.

Employers use testing most frequently to confirm the individual’s technical competency, i. e. their knowledge, skills and abilities, or to explore for aptitudes relevant to the work. These might be numeric aptitude, mechanical reasoning, verbal, clerical or spatial reasoning, or form perception. Positions in engineering, drafting or surveying, would demand, for example, above average aptitude in spatial reasoning and form perception.

When testing for technical competency or aptitudes, work simulations are far superior to paper-and-pencil standardized tests. Work samples duplicate a set or sub-set of a job’s real work activities, including the use of tools. Commercially available tests are available for a wide range of positions, from doing very basic product assembly, to management, and for highly skilled technical positions such as in computer-aided design, robotics and programming. Where commercial work samples are not available for specific jobs, you can create your own customized work simulations and achieve the same reliable result.

Personality testing for the right fit

The use of personality tests to help determine whether a person is the right “fit” is on the rise. This trend is supported by a growing body of research that confirms the correlation between personality factors and job performance. Terminations tend to occur because of a mismatch between the person and the organization.

Personality testing can be very effective, as has been demonstrated by a plethora of academic research. See, for example, Eisenbraun, A. “The pros and cons of personality testing in the workplace,” Law Now, Volume 30, Issue 4, or “Advances, issues and research in testing practices,” Applied Psychology, 2004.

The intent of personality testing is to identify those candidates who best fit the underlying human factors of the job. While many professional engineers build careers in design or production, others use their technical knowledge in management areas, or in areas such as client liaison and business development. Different human factors prevail in different career areas; a penchant for detail and an enjoyment of teamwork in one; an outgoing nature and an ability to persuade and influence in another; and more creative, big-picture thinking in a third. While the underlying technical competency requirement remains the same, how an individual prefers to apply that knowledge, and the degree to which he or she can be successful in different work situations and roles is a factor of the candidate’s personality.

Personality and personal work trait tests are generally in a multiple-choice format. The person is presented with a statement reflecting a behaviour or attitude and has to identify whether the statement is true or false for them. Sample questions might be:

• I prefer to attend large parties where I can meet new people over quiet dinners with a few good friends;

• When given a new work assignment I take time to plan each activity before I begin the work

• I am bored by research

• When problem-solving with a work group I wait for someone else to speak first

• After an argument, I am usually the one to apologize first.

Increasingly, a selection of skill/aptitude-based and personality tests will be bundled to address all factors relating to the person-job and person-organization “fit.” Employment agencies can assist in customizing the test process to meet the individual job and company requirements.

Five key steps

To ensure the appropriate and successful use of testing in personnel selection, consider these five key factors:

(1) Advise all candidates up front that testing is part of the selection process and obtain written acknowledgement of the candidate’s willingness to participate.

(2) Ensure that any test chosen for use has evidence-based support. This means, ensuring that the test was properly constructed, for example, and that the norm group upon which the test was developed matches the type of person you are testing, and that it has strong reliability and validity. This information would be included in the test’s technical manual.

(3) Test only for personal factors that are directly applicable to the job and organizational demands.

(4) Take a multi-faceted approach. Use test results only as one factor in the selection process.

(5) Use test results as a basis for further candidate questions in a subsequent interview. Test questions can sometimes be misconstrued. Also additional questioning during the subsequent interview will give you the opportunity to validate the test results and discover whether a candidate might have made a deliberate attempt to falsify the results or overstate (and in some cases understate) their suitability for the job. Most well-developed tests, however, do have built-in methods of identifying and reporting false responses.

Employee selection is not just about purchasing a needed skill or extra manpower. It involves the initiation of a series of relationships –between the candidate and the job; the candidate and his co-workers; the candidate and the organization. Misalignment at any level impacts productivity and morale, and it increases costs. Engineering firms should use all methods at their disposal to make good personnel selections. Personnel testing, used thoughtfully and appropriately, can help employers achieve this goal.

Gail Rieschi, M. Ed, is president and CEO of vpi Inc. Employment Strategies, Working Solutions of Mississauga, Ont. The firm has offices throughout south-central Ontario and specializes in employment and HR management services, www.

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