Making the Right Hire

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Finding the right person for the job is one of the biggest challenges faced by managers in almost every line of business. Talk with anyone who has done a certain amount of interviewing and hiring and you’ll probably hear at least one horror story about the employee who aced the interview process but failed miserably on the job. Unfortunately, a great resume and interviews don’t always predict strong on-the-job performance.

Because interviewing job candidates is such an inexact science, many companies have turned to assessment tests to learn more about a candidate’s technical aptitude and personal qualities. According to the Harvard Business Review, at least three-quarters of companies with more than 100 employees rely on aptitude tests and personality assessments when doing external hiring. In addition to using tests to identify candidates with the skills and traits required for a particular job, some companies believe that testing can help weed out candidates who misrepresent themselves on their resume or in interviews. Companies are also using testing to help reduce the pool of candidates before conducting face-to-face interviews.

Aptitude testing does not mean standup puzzle-solving, a practice made famous by Silicon Valley companies when interviewing candidates for tech jobs. Questions such as “How many golf balls would fit inside a 747?” are now seen as mostly testing a candidate’s ability to fake an answer to an unanswerable question. Even Google, once notorious for this line of questioning, has abandoned it in favor of questions related to the skills required to do the job.

Fred Oswald, a psychology professor at Rice University, has conducted research on employee testing. The results found that the best predictors for how a candidate will do on the job are tests that measure a candidate’s technical competence for the job or standard tests of cognitive ability, also known as IQ tests. For some jobs, technical competence can be measured by evaluating candidates on a sample piece of work that is similar to the actual work they will be doing. For example, a candidate who will be using a software application such as Photoshop on the job is given a task to complete in Photoshop. For more complex job skills that can’t be measured with a sample task, many companies use general cognitive tests that measure verbal, numeric, abstract or logical thinking.

To evaluate aspects of a candidate’s personality and values that affect work performance, unstructured face-to-face interviews have been the norm in the past. Too often, however, a manager will form a first impression at the beginning of an interview and allow that impression to guide how the rest of the interview progresses. According to Oswald, structured interviews in which every candidate is asked the same set of questions with clear criteria for assessing their answers can be far more useful when comparing candidates.

The main drawback of structured interviews is that they can be difficult to construct and score. Many companies rely more heavily on standard personality tests such as Myers-Briggs or the DiSC Profile test. In researching personality testing, Oswald found that candidates who score high on tests that measure conscientiousness tend to have a higher level of work performance. Employees who score high on cognitive ability but have a low measure of conscientiousness don’t perform as well on the job as people who have high scores on both.

Other traits that employers may be looking for in personality test results include agreeability, emotional stability and extroversion. The last trait could determine how well a candidate will interact with other people, a critical trait for sales positions, and how well he or she will fit into a team.

Oswald has also done research into whether positive personality traits are always a predictor of good job performance. For example, can being too conscientious be detrimental under certain circumstances? Research conducted on members of the U.S. Navy confirmed that under emergency conditions during which snap judgments are needed, excess conscientiousness could have a negative impact. Unfortunately, companies that try to screen out individuals with excessive personality traits would have to figure out how to assess how much is too much of a certain trait, a costly and difficult process. Many companies just assume an employee can’t have too much of a good quality.

Today’s job seekers should expect to be tested in some way during the interview process. To avoid test-taking anxiety, many people are preparing in the same way they’d prepare for the SAT or other high-stakes tests. Taking practice tests can make the process more familiar and can also help you develop or recall some test-taking strategies and skills. Finding out from a recruiter, past job candidate or current employee about the type of pre-employment tests a company administers can give you an edge over the competition. ■

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