Colonoscopies and Pre-Employment Tests Have a Lot in Common

What I learned recently is that colonoscopies and pre-employment testing have a lot in common. First of all, managers and employees dislike, maybe even detest, the seemingly invasive nature of both evaluations. Second, you can’t fake out the results — what physicians see and personality tests reveal is simply “what it is.” Both assessments, when properly administered, are objective and neutral. Finally, both the colonoscopy and personality tests are critical for detecting or preventing “cancers” from spreading in your body and organization respectively.

How did I come up with this crazy comparison? I’m not sure. Let’s just say the analogy just appeared — one of those “aha” moments — during a conversation with a client. She had just completed an evaluation of several employee assessments for her company.

Here’s a little background that prompted her search.

Several managers, responsible for transportation logistics and safety for a major metropolitan area, are tasked with finding an assessment solution to identify the best job fit for a control operator — the “brains” of their network. A solution must be implemented immediately since human resources is recruiting, operators are retiring, and the pipeline of qualified candidates is nearly dry.

Compounding the problem was an expectation by long-term employees that promotion was near-automatic. In other words, these employees were entitled to the promotion based on tenure. The client astutely recognized that the quality of the talent in the pipeline could not meet the requirements of the job today and the future. As one manager said, “if this was 10 years ago, we’d fill the positions with mediocre candidates who could meet the minimum requirements. Today, the average employee in line to be promoted isn’t prepared or capable of meeting even our lowest expectations.”

According to the client, the performance of recent promotions has been lackluster at best, especially in terms of safety and customer service. The organization needed a better employee screening process and a fair process to justify hiring qualified candidates from outside the organization.

A committee of 10 managers agreed to a core list of essential job skills: critical thinking, crisis management, customer service, and safety focus. Their task? How to assess these skills. I recommended two assessments to start: a 5-factor personality assessment, and general mental abilities test. Two of the managers agreed to be the “guinea pigs” to experience the process through a candidate’s eyes.

Comments during the debrief of these assessments revealed some of the lamest, although common, excuses I’ve heard about why “these assessments won’t work.” This is where the colonoscopy and pre-employment testing comparison comes in.

Most of the attention was focused on the general mental ability test. One manager said, “it was really hard — too hard for our managers.” Similarly the second manager commented, “I felt really dumb after taking it.”

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Both comments are ironically interesting: the reading and math component is validated at a ninth to tenth grade level. Were they telling me that a ninth and tentth grade logic and comprehension level was too high a requirement for workers responsible for the safety of thousands of people? Or were they admitting that their talent pool and maybe even the incumbent workforce were not smart enough to do the job? The mental ability test was the right choice but it was going to make their task of finding qualified people even more difficult. But any employer who believes that finding qualified workers for skilled jobs is going to be easy going forward is living in la-la land.

Just for the record: general mental ability tests, often called cognitive or general reasoning tests, aren’t skill tests for math and reading. These tests assess how quickly and accurately people can apply very basic skills when timed. Considering that the task was to assess candidates for the ability to respond safely, accurately, and quickly during a crisis, testing for general mental ability tests was the right choice. Whether the participants find the assessment hard or not and/or make the participant feel “dumb” is irrelevant.

(The same faulty reasoning is offered for avoidance of the colonoscopy. It is really a relatively simple, although highly effective, procedure that saves lives but people avoid it for countless reasons. Denial, however, does not reduce its effectiveness at detecting and preventing cancer.)

Now back to pre-employment assessments … if the results accurately paint a portrait of how the candidate will respond on the job, it’s the right assessment to use and the right thing to do, especially when other people’s lives are at stake.

The concern for safety elicited the second lamest excuse: “our legal department forbids us to use personality testing.” I’m not questioning the attorneys’ concerns with personality testing as a hiring criterion. There is ample reason for them to be cautious. Unfortunately many employers use personality testing inappropriately and for the wrong reasons, giving all types of employee screening a bad rap. But blanket statements about pre-employment personality tests just reveal naiveté or arrogance. Because the risk of using properly selected tools to screen out unsafe or poor fit employees is far smaller than the risk of hiring an unsafe employee who puts the lives of other people in jeopardy.

As the popular saying goes, denial is not a river in Egypt. Denial does not negate the accuracy and reliability of pre-employment assessments (or colonoscopies). Denial does not prevent mistakes and accidents. Mental discomfort, inconvenience, or unexpected results should not preclude hiring managers from using pre-employment testing if the employee assessments reveal the information they need to make the right hiring decisions.


14 Comments on “Colonoscopies and Pre-Employment Tests Have a Lot in Common

  1. The colonoscopy thing may or may not be such an apt comparison (it’s no big deal, colonoscopy, by the way), but this article has more important truth and insight than the large majority of things one reads, including on ERE. It should be easy: science has demonstrated the right way to do hiring (just like medicine has demonstrated the right way… OK, you get that). Why don’t more companies get it? Also, it’s the 21st Century, no need to have complex, agonizing decisions about which tests to select and so on. We know enough to get that right quickly and easily (not that companies always do, as this article correctly points out). This is terrific article – may it be widely seen.

  2. Ira, I love your hook. Using colonoscopies as your comparative is excellent as managers and candidates look on assessments the way so many people view colonoscopies. Both have a place and a purpose in today’s society. Thanks for a well thought out idea and a well delivered thesis.

  3. No question candidates always feel that the entire process is one big colonoscopy!

    Very few ever come out of it thinking they had a wonderful exciting adventure: the way HR managers post the job description!

    Most report a gruelling, long and miserable experience as candidadtes.

    The issue I think is simply: How Do People Make Decisions:

    and there is no compelling argument that people use pure logic: nor is there any argument that pure logic delivers superior results.

    There is plenty of research that suggests the intuitive decision is usually best in high pressure situations.

    The value of math testing may or may not mean anything at all in a real life scenario:……other than one has avoided hiring someone without enough intelligence to use either ability: intuitive or rational intelligence.

  4. @ Ira: This was a very good article. Did your people drill down further to find out the real causes/concerns for the managers’ resistance?

    @ Paul: Thank you. With respect, I completely disagree.
    1) I do not believe that there has been enough empirical research done to say “science has demonstrated the right way to do hiring,” which is why I am interested in working with like-minded professionals in recruiting, behavioral economics, and elsewhere to create a practical, fact- and evidenced-based “Generally Accepted Recruiting Practices” (GARP).

    2) I also do not believe there is a “one-size-fits-all” method that works for all organizations in all circumstances. Rather, I believe there can be a finite variety of types of hiring reflecting various types/classifications of organizations.

    3) I think that even if it turns out that *the best hiring methods may be largely impractical (too expensive, time-consuming, complicated, discriminatory, etc) for most organizations, I think we can come up with the worst methods to avoid, i.e. “We can’t tell you what does work, but we can tell you what doesn’t.”

    4) I believe that one of the chief reasons we don’t already have GARPs is that a large portion of recruiting makes its money based on the current inefficiencies that companies often display when hiring, reflecting the GAFI principles of Greed, Arrogance, Fear, and Ignorance/Incompetence of the people responsible for setting up the hiring policies. I suspect that should we ever get to the point of having GARPs, a lot of very high-level people will have been shown to be be very wrong, and nobody likes to lose face….


    Keith “Ask me About Developing GARPs” Halperin

    * I do not believe this is so- rather, it is a possibility

  5. @Keith,
    You have disagreed with a great deal more than I said. I have seen a lot of your comments on posts and find them useful, professional, thought-provoking. We can do a lot more than most organizations seem willing, yet, to accept to improve hiring and Ira’s article articulates reasons for this. I don’t consider these reasons to be impassable obstacles.

  6. Thank you, Paul. You are very kind, and I value your comments. I agree with you that we can do more than we are and that these reasons are not impassable.


  7. Thanks everyone for the comments.

    @Paul Interesting you ask why more companies don’t do use assessments. Ironically I just posted an article on my blog about a recent SHRM survey. You can read it here
    but in a nutshell, 71% of the participants said testing was helpful but only 18% of the companies used them! Sounds like the same rationale as the colonoscopy…I might found out I have cancer so I’ll just keep on hoping I don’t.

    I meet all types of objections but the most common are:
    1. Skepticism and no amount of research and data can change their mind.
    2. Naïveté -don’t know what they don’t know and don’t want to know.
    3. Money- don’t know how much hiring mistakes cost and don’t believe the studies. Therefore assessments just become an expense not an investment with a high ROI.
    4. Legal – let’s just call it irrational diligence. The fear of a discrimination suit supercedes logical and reliable solutions. It just doesn’t make sense since many more suits arise from terminations than hiring. And the % of claims based on the assessment is negligible. The often cited case law involving Pre employment testing has almost always been the misuse of the assessment, not the assessment itself.
    I’m sure you and others can add to the list.
    Thanks again for the comment.

  8. @ Ira: “Whether the participants find the assessment hard or not and/or make the participant feel “dumb” is irrelevant.”
    Unfortunately, this is not the case. A useful procedure quickly loses its value if participants refuse to use it. All else being equal, the quickest and easiest hiring procedures win. If applicants have a variety of places to chose from, a lengthy and cumbersome hiring process will diminish the candidate pool. In my own case: unless it were very tempting, I wouldn’t want to submit to a lengthy assessment until very late in the hiring process….



  9. Keith,
    I absolutely agree about the need to establish an applicant friendly process. But I disagree that an employer should lower the bar on its screening criteria to avoid turning away a potential applicant. I have a simple guideline for my clients. If a candidate contests or refuses to complete an assessement and the job requires independent thinking and a willingness to assert themselves, they pass. No need to test them (other than for EEO purposes.) But then don’t expect them to be the great team player, collaborator, and align willingly to company values and policy. If a candidate is willing to challenge your selection system, that’s a pretty good assessment in itself – good or bad.

    Now I have seen companies use tests like Wonderlic to assess IQ when the job doesn’t require even average skills to succeed. I agree that could turn away qualified candidates. But in the situation I described, it was not the applicants who resisted using the assessment but a few managers. They all agreed average or above average mental abilities were required. They just didn’t like the fact that their own skill level might not meet the baseline if they were being hired today. It is also interesting that the lower the score was on the pilot group, the more objections I heard.

    So I agree that an employer can’t erect unrealistic or unnecessary barriers to application but they can’t lower the entrance exam to accommodate attitude either. We delivered well over 20,000 assessments last year for clients and I can count on one hand the number of candidates who refused to complete whatever assessment was offered. And maybe this is surprising but I receive many more thank you’s from applicants to tell me to pass onto the employer how they appreciated the diligence of my client in ensuring the right fit. That’s branding 101 where the applicant wants to work for an employer whose screening process is much more difficult than having the ability to fog a mirror and submit a resume.

    Thanks again for the comments and challenge.

  10. The discussion about how willing candidates are or are not to complete assessments is one that occupies a lot of my attention. It is of course true that many individuals resist assessments and tests – that’s why Ira wrote this piece – and this is a concern. But there are proven techniques: to highlight the “bright spots” where people take tests and love them and learn a lot about themselves; to make people feel more appreciated and important because they are selected for assessments; to gamify the process so it’s more fun, more palatable; and so on. We really need to spread the use of valid assessments, used with care and professionalism because it will make a big difference to placing the right people in the right jobs. Obstacles to that objective (they exist, as we know) are there to be overcome.

  11. Thanks, Ira. A company can lower its application barriers without lowering its hiring standards. Furthermore, I maintain that if a company is an employer of choice, it can submit any but the “politically-connected Fabulous 5%” of applicants to whatever it wants them to do, and they’ll line up around the block and beg for more. If a company is not an employer of choice, it can submit any but the “Fabulous 5%” of applicants to whatever it wants them to do, and they’ll line up and beg for more…I think it’s a matter of degree- some people are unwilling to do anything, others are willing to go through multiple rounds of badly-handled interviews after spending a frustrating hour or more trying to fill out a clunky online application that keeps kicking them out and requiring them to start over, and some positions inherently require much more work to apply (such as those requiring clearances)….Sometimes a willingness to put up with frustration is a necessary component of a job, but I think far more often, the frustration comes more through an indifference to the applicant’s time than a deliberate intent to see what hoops they they will jump through….But enough of me: when would someone be asked to take the assessment, and is such an assessment (or other similar procedure) a routine practice in your field?


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