A Simple, Effective Hiring Test? Not Likely

In the first three parts of this article series, we discussed the tendency for people to request solutions that incorporate their existing competencies, are easy to fix, and are cheap. I went to great lengths to explain how each of these requests pretty much serves as a band-aid on a bullet hole. In other words, they can never be more than a temporary cover-up to a major problem. Here in Part 4, we’ll continue the discussion and focus on the concept of simple. Time, Money, and Pick-Up Lines A man (woman) walks into a bar. He (she) spots a nice-looking person of the opposite sex and goes over to talk. One hour later, they decide to get married and live happily ever after. What would a normal person’s reaction to this be? Yeah, right! They’ll be happy until the first time he catches her shaving her upper lip and she mistakes his hair piece for a wombat and beats it senseless with a broom. How many times have we heard people say, “We don’t have time!” or “We only want to use one test!” or “We don’t have enough people!”? Ever heard the old adage, “Marry in haste, repent at leisure”? That concept applies to hiring or promotion decisions when people are reluctant to fully evaluate a candidate’s skills pre-hire. Organizational Fairy Tales Only fairy tale authors end stories with, “and they lived happily ever after.” Reasonable people know the hard truth. Life lasts considerably longer than the honeymoon. So why do organizations rush through the evaluation process?

  • Avoiding more fishing. It takes considerable time and energy to find a viable candidate; deep-skills investigation only makes the search harder because many applicants have to be thrown back into the pond.
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  • Short-sightedness. Some people think placement stops when the applicant is hired or when the guarantee period expires ó as opposed to when the employee starts doing (or trying to do) the job.
  • “Not my problem.” In many cases the new employee becomes the problem of a line department, not the problem of the person who recruited him or her.
  • Time delays. It often takes months to determine whether low performance is associated with either job learning or being able to do the job.
  • Uncertainty. About half of hastily-hired employees do just fine; it’s the other half that disappoint.
  • Short staffing. The organization is not willing to commit resources to improve pre-hire or promotion screening.
  • Cost accounting. No one ever took the time to calculate the money associated with poor employee performance.
  • Shift in responsibility. HR and recruiters (the self-proclaimed people experts) abdicate decision-making responsibility to line managers (production experts who are ill-equipped to quickly evaluate human job skills).
  • First impressions. It’s human nature to quickly form a first impression, then act as if were true (pretty women, tall men, and people who “resemble” the corporate image tend to get more job offers, regardless of their job skills).
  • Sweat equity. It takes work to study a job, choose the right tools, and use them effectively. Unfortunately, we continually seek shortcuts. Some people might notice that many instruction manuals now come in sets: a “traditional” version and a “quick start” version.
  • Status quo. People don’t know what can be achieved with a good pre-hire system.

I’m sure people can add a few more examples of their own, but let’s switch to why pre-hire evaluation will never be simple. Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire! Ever lie on a test to get a job? Well, maybe not outright lying, but exaggerating strengths and minimizing weaknesses? We all do it. It’s human nature. Take honesty tests, for example. Which answer can we trust more? A) I am a totally honest person who never even though of stealing, or B) I have a tendency to steal anything that is not nailed down. Self-reported tests are just that: self reports of how the applicant wants to present him or herself. Although test designers use a few little tricks to reduce error, actual test results can seldom be verified. My research, for example, shows that self-reported trait test scores showed correlations with mental and interpersonal performance ranging only from .01 to .08. Put another way, only about 1% of mental and interpersonal performance (good or bad) was accounted for by scores on self-reported tests. Yes, that also means they were 99% inaccurate. Will self-reported tests reduce hiring mistakes? Just a teeny-weeny bit… and then only if the trait is directly related to the job. This goes for self-reported tests such as sales, customer service, personality, and so forth. They are part, but only part, of the pre-hire picture. Aside from the self-reported error, inaccuracy also comes from the huge leap of faith between self descriptions and job skills. What about other kinds of tests? Well, that takes us to interview data and performance on pencil-and-paper-type instruments. Interview data has low accuracy for the same reason as self-reported tests. Interviews are subject to faking and questions unrelated to job skills. Faking happens when the applicant says anything the interviewer wants to hear. Research shows that smarter people tend to get hired more often because they better manage the interviewer. But do these people do better on the job? Only when the interview questions are highly structured, the interviewer is fully trained to reduce faking, the questions are highly job related, and interview answers are defined beforehand. Otherwise, interview data is only about 50/50 ó right half the time, and wrong the other. “Performance” tests such as sales simulations, customer service simulations, in-basket assessments, case studies, and problem-solving tests are different. They act as “rule outs.” That is, if the person cannot demonstrate skill on a performance test, the odds they will be able to perform in the job are slim. This applies to jobs requiring more than the average amount of brain power, persuasive skills, coaching skills, and so forth. Sorry, folks, there are no magic bullets to shortcut any step ó just poor practices. 99-44/100% Pure Hiring The only thing 99-44/100% pure about hiring is the nonsense marketed as “quickie” hiring tests. Hiring is actually a probability game. Unstructured interviews and magic questions yield about 50% accuracy. Why? Because they only tend to keep out the riff-raff: people who are blatantly incapable of faking an interview. Adding a good self-reported test (i.e., one developed for hiring with scores directly related to job performance) can raise hiring probability to about 55%. Mental alertness tests and interpersonal simulations bump up the accuracy to about 75% (i.e., they are usually highly job related and very hard to “fake good”). Finally, systems that incorporate a full evaluation of the job, structured interviews, self-reported tests, mental alertness tests, and interpersonal simulations provide the best results (about 90%). Why? They use a full compliment of hiring tools to screen-out candidates unable to perform the basics of the job before the job does. Screen Out Qualified People? I often hear the complaint that a comprehensive hiring system might screen out qualified people. Interesting. I reply with a question, “Which process do you think screens out the fewest qualified people: a subjective interview or a well-designed series of tests that accurately measure job skills?” Hmmm. Every hiring system screens out some percentage of qualified people. On the other hand, every employee costs money, whether a poor performer or a good one. A hiring professional’s job is to find and hire qualified people to solve an organizational need, not hire the unskilled and unemployable. Pre-Hire or Post-Hire Testing? That is the question. Calling oneself a pro means being able to do something well enough to get paid for it. Pro golfers do not join the tour to learn how to play. Pro tennis players do not go to Wimbledon to practice. Professional recruiters and HR basically have two choices: 1) they can do their utmost best to use professional testing principles in the pre-hire phase; or 2) they can “let the job” do the testing for them. Simple solutions? Aside from fogging a mirror, none that actually work.

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