The great debate.
Employers and prospective employees are lining up on both sides of the controversial issue of pre-employment tests. For some employers, testing can provide important information and cut the cost of hiring and training personnel.
"Administered correctly, pre-employment tests can speed up the natural selection process by helping employers identify an individual with the skills and abilities that match a position's requirements," says Fred Rafilson, an official at E.F. Wonderlic Personnel Test Inc., located in Northfield, Ill.
However, critics of the practice say that testing can also screen out excellent prospects, discriminate against minority job candidates and actually add to the costs of hiring in the long run, because the search can take longer and the process can be costly.
Tests Grow in Popularity
During the 1980s, employers became more concerned about the quality of employees and began putting more emphasis on the selection process, with a focus on such objective measures as written tests.
In fact, a 1990 survey on pre-employment testing conducted by the Center for Workplace Issues and Trends in Horsham, Pa., (sponsored by the Olsten Corporation, Westbury, N.Y.) found that more than 60% of the 577 companies surveyed have implemented or are considering skills-testing as a condition of employment. Companies surveyed ranged from large public corporations to small businesses in a variety of industries across the nation. Another 29% have implemented or are considering using personality/aptitude testing. Insurance companies rank among the highest users of both skills and personality tests. Banking and finance companies and manufacturing concerns are the least likely to use these types of testing when hiring.
Today, there are approximately 1,000 tests on the market most of them listed in the Mental Measurements Year Book (available in most libraries). According to Dr. Laurence Lipsett, a psychologist from Webster, N.Y., large companies, such as Xerox Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc., are more likely to use tests than smaller organizations. Although many prospective employees assume that pre-employment testing is new, Lipsett, whose forte is industrial psychology with an emphasis on personnel selection, points out that testing has been around since 1919. Well-known tests include the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI).
The Wechsler uses 11 subtests to produce a verbal intelligence quotient (IQ), a performance IQ and a full-scale IQ. Because it is often perceived as a measure of achievement rather than of ability to learn, it has been criticized as discriminatory toward those who have had less opportunity to achieve. The MMPI contains hundreds of broad-coverage true and false questions. According to Lipsett, civil rights advocates are concerned that aspects of the objective personality tests, like the MMPI, may produce a bias response. It is important, says Lipsett, that companies use tests with professional guidance. "Tests purchased and used without that guidance can be risky and subject to challenge," he explains.
Today, organizations face the challenge of finding valid employment tests that do not discriminate against certain groups of people. Many believe that the tests with the highest validity (those that measure job skills, rather than test-taking ability) also tend to be discriminatory. The General Aptitude Test Battery (a group of tests including personality and aptitude), for example, is under review by the National Research Council due to questionable scoring practices to minorities.
Additionally, the belief that employment testing screens out the black employee has given rise to "race norming." Race norming involves scoring pre-employment tests so that proportionate numbers of each racial and ethnic group will pass, says Wonderlic's Fred Rafilson. Under this system, white, black and Hispanic people are scored separately and the results converted into percentile ranks. Sometimes blacks with low scores are rated higher than whites with more correct answers. Although this practice is well-known in human resources circles, it's rarely discussed outside their arena. However, it has become a center of controversy after a Justice Department report under the Reagan administration labeled the practice as "reverse discrimination." According to industrial psychologist Lipsett, race norming is now discouraged by industry professionals.
However, there have been success stories. For example, Toyota Motor Manufacturing U.S.A., in Georgetown, Ky., set up a selection system to find individuals who accept responsibility and work effectively with others. The process includes agressive recruitment and assessments of technical and interpersonal skills. Finally, a health assessment includes drug-and-alcohol testing, as well as a physical. Recommendations for hires are made after testing is completed.
Toyota spokesman Jim Wiseman says that for the past two years, the Kentucky plant (where almost 13% of the work force is African-American) has been the highest-quality automobile plant in the United States, according to a customer satisfaction survey administered by J.D. Power and Associates. "I see this as an exact reflection of our pre-employment testing," Wiseman explains. "We believe that every hire is a 1-million-dollar decision [based on a 30-year employment projection] and should be given the same kind of attention that we give to any million-dollar investment. Proof that our assessments are working is that we have an excellent work force."
EEOC Enforces Fairness Guidelines
"Although testing appears to be a mystery to many," says Donnie Perkins, an associate director in the Office of Educational Opportunity at the Connecticut Department of Higher Education, "the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] has established clear guidelines to make it a fair and legal hiring practice, when used as another selection--not screening--tool and in conjunction with the interview and reference checks. The guidelines state that the relevancy of the test to the job is extremely important."
Popular pre-employment tests include: * Skills testing (usually written), which can include job-related testing and/or job analysis; * Behavioral identification and personality assessments, which measure "traits" such as honesty or introversion and extroversion; * Aptitude testing to determine job ability and evaluate physical dexterity, mechanical or clerical comprehension; * Achievement (paper-and-pencil tests) to measure degree of knowledge in specific fields (some also detect learning difficulties); * Polygraph tests to measure honesty; * Drug/alcohol usage tests; * Intelligence tests to measure learning ability; * Handwriting-analysis tests;
"Tests should not be the sole basis for hiring," says Archie B. Savage Jr., Ph.D., director of affirmative action for the University of Connecticut Health Center at Farmington. "However, in some government classified positions, testing is used for screening even before the interview. In the private sector, testing is commonly used in conjunction with a multi-interview process, job-skill appraisal and a reference check. A hiring decision should be made based on all the available data.
"In fact," Savage points out, "the entire interviewing process, from the initial meeting to the final reference check, can fall under the umbrella of employee testing. However, when speaking of pre-employment testing most people think of pen-and-pencil tests, and in that case, if testing is not regulated, it can be used--intentionally or unintentionally--to eliminate women and minorities."
Savage holds up the 1971 landmark case of Griggs v. Duke Power as a case in point. Griggs was a black applicant who, when he applied for a laborer position with Duke Power in North Carolina, was required to show a high school diploma and take an intelligence test. The case, which he won, ruled that a high school diploma wasn't relevant to the job in question. This was also the first time pre-employment testing had been recognized as discriminatory. Although the Wonderlic Personnel Test, which includes verbal analogies and arithmetic problems can no longer be used at Duke Power, the test is still being administered at other companies that consider the questions appropriate to their job requirements. "The findings ruled that any testing conducted must be valid and relevant to the job," says Savage. "Because of these findings, states like Connecticut have taken precautions to assure that all testing is administered under the strictest supervision. For those applying for state jobs in Connecticut, a psychometrist administers and oversees all of the testing, including interviews. Under this scenario, testing is fair, consistent and relevant."
However, not all of the experts agree on the accuracy of the tests. Linda Bond, director of Human Resources at GTE's Management Development Center in Norwalk, Conn., is very cautious. "Some opponents say that minorities are at a disadvantage when it comes to testing because individual exposure in general areas may be more limited, which is reflected in the testing results," she explains. "Actually, we at GTE have not found testing too reliable. Other than a management assessment and developmental tool, we shy away from it. We use testing for technical skills (typing and computer), but not paper-and-pencil testing. We are concerned that there are no reasonably valid statistics to prove that the tests do not discriminate."
Bond does believe in using tests as a developmental tool in training programs, however. "This is especially true when a person moves into a supervisory position for the first time," she explains. "If an employer wants to focus selection on future potential rather than past education and work experience, tests and simulations are helpful. A position can be analyzed, listing critical behaviors such as the ability to communicate, the need for logical and analytical thought, the ability to identify and solve problems and self-starter initiative. Additionally, management trainees can be tested for these abilities and developmental programs can be established to enhance their skills."
In many companies the question of testing is still being debated. Avon Products' Yvonne Jackson, vice president of human resources, recalls the impact of employee testing at a company where she previously worked. "We discovered that blacks consistently scored low in any questions that dealt with trust," Jackson says. "Their answers were based on past experience, which for the most part had not been positive. When we realized this, the question was given less weight."
Preparing For Pre-employment Testing
"It is difficult to prepare for a test that you don't know you are going to be asked to take," acknowledges Lewis Rambo, Ph.D., an industrial psychologist and director of human resources for Arthur D. Little Co. in Cambridge, Mass. "Results for the most part depend upon life experience." That's why it helps to understand why the tests are being used. "Companies want to eliminate |job jumpers' and assure themselves that the person hired will be able to begin contributing immediately." says Rambo. "They want to be careful that costly mistakes are not made. Also, a shortened learning curve is important."
An applicant can certainly practice interviewing skills. Since there are more than 50 different types of tests it is almost impossible to prepare for each one, but test-taking is a combination of basic knowledge and good management judgment. "As you take the test, use your best judgment to answer the question," continues Rambo. "It is important to relax and trust your first instinctive response. Just answer truthfully with the simplest answer possible."
Testing can be uncomfortable, according to Kimberly Gaston, a telecommunications specialist for Southern New England Telephone Co. (SNET) in East Haven, Conn., who recently went through a battery of tests before being hired permanently at SNET. For several summers she had been an intern with Inroads (an organization that provides career development in business and industry for talented minorities), but she worried about the testing. "Although I had a degree in mathematics," she recalls, "I was flown from Virginia to Connecticut and tested with nine others. The test included basic math and calculus, reading comprehension and a concentration exercise. Wearing earphones, I had to try to sort out one voice from several and follow those directions."
Gaston had worried about the testing because she has difficulty with standardized exams. "It has nothing to do with race," she explains. "I just get nervous, and I felt it was important to do well. But I passed, and I'm glad that I did, because I like my job."
Trudi Musselman, a management consultant from Lancaster, Pa., felt that two of the questions on her pre-employment test for New York Life Insurance Co. were too personal. On her initial interview, she was given an aptitude test; most of the questions were sales-oriented as she expected. "But when I saw that they were asking me how much money I had in my savings account and the net worth of my home, I was offended and left those questions unanswered. Although the directions clearly stated that all questions should be answered, I didn't think that information had anything to do with my aptitude for sales."
Even though Musselman left the questions unanswered, she passed the test.
Mental Preparation Is Crucial
It is important to prepare before any interview or test. To brush up, you may want to glance through a general reference book like Cultural Literacy: What Every Amercan Needs To Know, by E.D. Hirsch Jr., (Random House, N.Y.), read some articles on testing, and maybe buy some instruments like the Personal Profile System or the Role Behavior Analysis from companies such as Carlson Learning Co. in Minneapolis. Just before taking the test, practice relaxation techniques: slow, steady raising and lowering of the shoulders, and even a knee bend or two. Most importantly, however, remember testing is just another management tool to prove what you already know.
Following are sample questions from a variety of employment tests: BEHAVIOR: Choose one of the four adjectives in each set that most describes your behavior and one that least describes your behavior in the workplace: * gentle, persuasive, humble, original * fussy, obedient, unconquerable, playful * respectful, pioneering, optimistic, accommodating JOB-FACTOR ANALYSIS: Evaluate each phrase to reveal its importance in the successful performance of a specific job. Using numbers 1-5 (1 being low/poor and 5 being high/excellent). * Ability to make unpopular decisions in carrying out responsibility * Necessity to stay at one work station * Ingenuity to create new ideas * Ability to initiate contact with strangers * Concentration on detailed work * Exercising caution in calculating risks * Vision to plan ahead on a large scale TEAM PLAYER: How important are the following: 1 low/poor-5 high/excellent * Supporting a high level of effective communication within the team. * Conducting team meetings that produce results worth the time and energy involved. * Analyzing and changing the team climate if you believe it is having a negative effect on performance. * Evaluating the team as a whole, rather than each individual on the team. PERSONALITY INVENTORY: Divide 12 points among the groups of items listed below. Truth + Wisdom + Justice = 12 Servant + Leader + Teacher = 12 Bridging + Surrendering + Resisting = 12 Iris Randall is a management consultant and president of New Beginnings, a Connecticut- and New York-based training company.