Following World War II, testing was used extensively as a means for selecting new hires. The popularity of testing as a selection tool continued for several decades, only to decline toward the end of the 1990s. However, due in part to a globally competitive economy, heightened security concerns, and a shortage of skilled labor, preemployment tests are once again becoming a favored means for selection. For HR practitioners, this may mean reexamining existing or previously used tests to support an increasing array of on-line test options, while remaining sensitive to certain applicant populations, e.g., older workers, who may be more comfortable with traditional paper-and-pencil tests. It may also mean revisiting areas to be tested: Quantifiable skills, such as computer knowledge, and personal qualities, like honesty, are among the most common testing categories, but also popular are interest tests and tests that purport to measure learning and thinking ability. HR test givers must also be vigilant about possible adverse impact, job-relatedness, and overreliance on test scores as the basis for selection.
Can tests accurately predict how individuals are likely to perform in any given job? Even the strongest supporters of tests agree that not all tests are equal and care must be exercised in their selection, implementation, and interpretation.
How Preemployment And Employment Tests Are Used
Mystic Marketing, Inc. is having trouble finding qualified workers. Of the eight employees hired in the past six months, one quit, another requested a transfer, one has been written up for chronic absenteeism, and another has been referred by the employee assistance program to a drug rehabilitation program. Mystic does not currently use testing as a selection device, but, given the hiring problems it is encountering, three members from the HR department are meeting to explore testing as a possible solution to their problems. It quickly becomes apparent that the three HR representatives do not agree on the overall role of testing in the employment process. Michelle believes she knows if a person is right for a job based on the interview, information on a completed application or resume, and thorough reference checks. Therefore, she declares that tests are unnecessary and unreliable. Don feels very differently. He maintains that tests produce an accurate and unbiased evaluation of a job candidate's ability to perform on the job, and that they are near-absolute predictors of job success. He has little use for subjective interviews. Josh falls somewhere between his two colleagues, asserting that testing should constitute one phase of the employment process, but that no test should ever be used in isolation to evaluate job suitability.
Employers typically use preemployment tests to accomplish two primary objectives: (1) eliciting a candidate's undesirable traits and (2) identifying characteristics that most closely match the qualities required for the available job. Specifically, tests given to prospective employees may help:
Advocates of preemployment testing believe that employers can acquire this information through the use of a wide range of tests, including skills and aptitude, integrity, personality, psychological, drug, and physical. The exams may be conducted at any point in the selection process, depending on the extent of an employer's commitment to test scores. Firm believers in testing generally require applicants to complete one or more tests as the first step. If the applicants achieve a predetermined minimum score, they will be interviewed and given further consideration. Otherwise, they are rejected. Employers who place a greater value on the face-to-face meeting usually require tests only after the interview process is completed. These employers place little weight on test performance unless it conflicts with information acquired during the interview or through reference checks. Those employers who place an equal emphasis on each of three main aspects of the selection process-interviewing, testing, and references-usually first discuss various aspects of the job with the candidate, then conduct tests, talk further with the applicant, and, finally, conduct reference checks. At this point, the results of each phase are studied and a hiring decision is made.
Employment tests are commonly used to evaluate existing employees' promotability or to identify hidden skills and talents for purposes of career pathing. Additionally, they may be used to ferret out certain suspected traits, such as drug use or a propensity toward theft. Specifically, these tests may:
As with preemployment testing, employers tend to place varying degrees of emphasis on the testing of existing staff members. They may regard scores on tests for evaluating promotability as the first step in the evaluation process, ruling out anyone who fails to achieve a certain level. On the other hand, scores may play a lesser role, being used along with a current manager's evaluation, the employee's past performance appraisals, and a survey of the employee's interests. When used for career planning, test results are often evaluated along with questionnaires that target employee on-the-job accomplishments and demonstrated job-related skills and knowledge, as well as short- and long-term goals. Managers must also take into account organizational and departmental objectives and managerial recommendations.
Employment tests used to confirm suspicions about undesirable activities, such as on-the-job drug or alcohol use, are often controversial. Although some see them as an invasion of privacy, others argue that they are a way to protect the health and safety of other employees, customers, and the general public. When such testing is done randomly, it becomes even more controversial.
HR practitioners are urged to work closely with their hiring managers and come to an agreement as to the role preemployment and employment testing plays in the selection process.
Testing Advantages And Disadvantages
Michelle, Don, and Josh are frustrated. They can't agree on how tests should be used and dread the prospect of discussing the remaining topics. Josh suggests that each of them modify their thinking somewhat: If Don were willing to acknowledge that testing has certain disadvantages, and Michelle were willing to concede that testing offers several benefits, they should be able to move forward.
The threesome agrees to begin with testing advantages. Since Don is a staunch supporter of testing, he clears his throat, and begins: "Proponents of workplace testing maintain that the process enables employers to match an individual's abilities and potential with the requirements of a given job. It also identifies certain desirable and undesirable traits. Among the positive traits are honesty, reliability, competence, emotional stability, integrity, and motivation. Negative characteristics to be screened out include substance dependency and a propensity to steal. In security-sensitive jobs ferreting out such traits becomes particularly important." Michelle and Josh agree; Don continues.
"Another good reason for workplace testing is to protect against charges of negligent hiring, the charge sometimes faced by employers who fail to exercise reasonable care in hiring or retaining employees. Increasingly, employers are being held responsible for the criminal, violent, or negligent acts of their employees, both in and away from the workplace. Generally, the deciding factor is whether an employer can establish that reasonable care in ensuring the safety or others was exercised. One way of accomplishing this is through preemployment and employment testing."
"Proponents also support workplace testing as a substitute for reference checks. Fear of being charged with invasion of privacy and defamation of character has led many employers to refuse to divulge all but the most basic information about former employees, such as dates of employment and job titles. This is unfortunate; more information than is commonly given could, in fact, be shared, not only because truth is a complete defense, but because the common law doctrine of qualified privilege states that an exchange of job-related information is in the best interest of both employers and the general public. Still, the fact remains that the sharing of reference-related information is limited; consequently, employers are turning to other ways, like testing, to determine job eligibility."
Michelle and Josh agree that reference-checking can be challenging. They will not concede, however, that testing should be viewed as a substitute for references. Don ignores their protestations and presents additional advantages.
"Another advantage of workplace testing is its overall objective nature. Assuming it's been validated, a test can help employers make unbiased job-related decisions. When tests are fair representations of the skills and knowledge needed in a given job, employers are likely to be seen as impartial; this, in turn, can enhance the overall image of an organization."
Josh says, "That may be true, if certain factors are in place."
"I agree," Don replies. "Just let me give you one more advantage and then we can talk about those factors. Tests can also help distinguish among otherwise similarly qualified candidates. Although no two applicants may ever be perceived as identical in terms of skills, abilities, and potential, it is sometimes difficult to choose the one person likely to be the best. Tests may help with the final decision."
"That wasn't as distressing as I thought it would be," said Michelle. "But I'm interested in hearing about those factors Josh mentioned."
Now it is Josh's turn to speak. "HR needs to take five steps before testing: (1) complete a thorough job analysis, (2) develop a sound testing policy, (3) select the most suitable tests in terms of validity and reliability, (4) ensure that test givers are qualified and testing conditions are equitable, and (5) make certain that test results are scored and interpreted in an unbiased manner."
"That's the second time you two have referred to validation; what's that all about?" asks Michelle.
Josh replies, "I can explain that in a minute, but first I think it's only fair that you talk about testing disadvantages."
Michelle begins: "One of the greatest concerns expressed by testing opponents is a tendency to rely too heavily on tests. Certainly this is true when employers conduct tests prior to interviewing applicants, immediately dismissing those who do not score at a minimum level. This occurs frequently when the interviewers are not confident in their ability to ask questions and interpret answers because of a lack of training or experience. Also, it is often seen in organizations that have been burned, that is, involved in some sort of legal action that could have been avoided by a more thorough selection process."
Don interjects, "Are you suggesting that I don't know how to interview?"
Michelle answers, "I'm saying that some interviewers use testing as a substitute for effective interviewing skills. Why not just administer the test at the end of the interview?" Don doesn't say anything, so Michelle continues.
"Another common complaint about preemployment and employment testing grows out of the tendency to believe that tests can point to people who will do well, as opposed to those who are likely to do well in a given job or work environment. The predictive abilities of any exam are limited; results can only indicate which individuals are most likely to succeed. This is true even if a test is well designed and properly used."
Josh nods in agreement; Don remains silent.
"Opponents to testing point out that many people react negatively to the mere idea of a test," continues Michelle. "There are individuals who may, in fact, be qualified but do not do well on tests, resulting in a distorted or incomplete picture of their abilities if test scores are overemphasized. Rejecting such a candidate is a disservice to the person and, possibly, to the organization."
Don has to admit that Michelle's last point has merit, and he does so.
Michelle moves on to another testing disadvantage. "Concern that tests may be misused is also on the negative side of the testing ledger. Test misuse may occur when employers are interested in seeing what abilities a candidate possesses beyond those called for in a given job. This is usually done to help evaluate potential and future growth; after all, what employer doesn't want its employees to stay for a long time? This motivation cannot be faulted, but the method is inappropriate; tests should be given only to evaluate the specific skills, abilities, and traits the available job requires."
Josh is quick to agree with that statement. "You can consider potential, but you can't test for future job skills."
Don grunts, then asks, "Are you finished?"
"Almost," replies Michelle. "I have two more disadvantages to cite. First, testing may be inappropriate when the qualities being sought can be acquired through a minimal amount of on-the-job training or education. In such instances, testing is an unnecessary expenditure of time, money, and energy.
Finally, testing is too commonly viewed as the solution to virtually every employment problem. Sometimes workplace problems are best addressed by improved employer/employee relations."
Michelle has finished listing testing disadvantages. After a moment, Don speaks: "All right, I agree that there are some disadvantages to testing."
"And I agree that there are some advantages," says Michelle.
Josh grins and states, "Of course I knew there were advantages and disadvantages all along. Glad the two of you are now on board so we can continue!"
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