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Pre-employment testing…should you or shouldn't you?

There’s a lot of talk about testing job applicants before you hire them, but is it really all that easy, effective, and necessary?

Most hiring managers or owners rely on the application or resume, job interview, and references in selecting the best people for the job openings they have.  However, the interview is still considered the best way to make a sound and defensible hiring decision provided you have a plan, work off a list of prepared questions and don’t rely completely on gut feelings.  If you are interested in learning more about testing, consider the following:

Types of Tests

Tests range from a simple typing or computer abilities test to a specific skills test or even a psychological or personality test.  Other tests screen for aptitude, attitude and drug and/or alcohol use.  Generally speaking, testing a skill or set of skills, is considered acceptable and not in violation of the law provided the test truly measures or evaluates a skill necessary for the performance of a specific job.

The psychological, attitude, or personality tests are usually in a multiple choice format and are designed to learn more about personality and/or psyche.  Using these tests can put you in a position of having to defend your decision to request applicants to submit to testing.  Defense costs add up.  For example:

  1. A multiple choice aptitude test may be viewed as discriminating against minority or female applicants because it reflects the ability to take a test more than it does actual aptitude for the job.
  2. Personality tests are often viewed as an invasion of privacy because they frequently include questions of a personal nature such as sexual preference/practices or religious beliefs.
  3. Psychological tests are tricky because the answers may indicate a mental disorder.  The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protects job applicants from this type of questioning and potential discrimination.

Several years ago I conducted an informal survey among pizzeria operators regarding the use of pre-employment tests—who uses them and exactly what tests were being used.  I found that many operators were reluctant to share information.  Others agreed to speak, but anonymously.  I got the impression that some of them felt that they were doing something underhanded or illegal.  I have no doubt that some of them were putting themselves in jeopardy.

The liabilities and threats of potential lawsuits that can arise if an applicant challenges the test or testing procedures create a concern for many owners and managers.  The cost-per-person tested was also mentioned as something to consider.  Some operators saw the costs as minimal when compared to the price of a bad hiring decision.  Others said that money was a big factor in deciding whether or not to use pre-employment tests.  I also found that independent operators were the least likely to test because of the expense and because, in their words, “We don’t know enough about it.”  Whether you’re already testing or merely considering it, here is some basic information about pre-employment testing.

Evaluate the Need

Like anything, testing has limitations.  There is no single test that can measure everything.  Therefore, testing should be only one part of the hiring process.  Interviewing is still the most critical piece.  To determine what needs the pre-employment test(s) might fill in your business, be able to answer these questions:

  • In what areas (leadership ability, customer service, culinary skills, personality, honesty, integrity, etc.) would you want to test applicants?
  • Is testing the only way you can get the information you need regarding skills, and applicants’ strengths, and weaknesses?  If you answer “yes”, you’re fooling yourself.
  • Is the financial cost justified in relationship to the information you’ll obtain?
  • Will you test every applicant that you interview, or only the finalists?  It is recommended that only the final candidates be tested.

Find the Right Test

There are several directions you can take when it comes to selecting a pre-employment test.

  • You can buy a professionally developed test from a testing company such as The Psychological Corporation.
  • You can set up mock work scenarios to test prospective employees with the help of a company that specializes in employee assessment.
  • You can customize a test to find applicants with specific skills to match your needs with the help of an industrial psychologist.

Resist the temptation to “develop” your own test to save money.  To do so will put you at risk for a lawsuit should applicants you tested not be offered the job and challenge the test instrument you used.  Hire a professional to help you.

Test Administration

Most owners/managers who are using tests don’t realize how important it is to carefully select a test administrator, someone who will be responsible for testing on a consistent basis.  This individual must be well-informed, articulate and have complete understanding of the test(s) and how to administer it.  A legal challenge based upon discrimination during the testing process or use of an invalid instrument could cost your business thousands of dollars.  Don’t take a chance.  Make sure the test administrator is trained in what to do and does so consistently.

The “Red Flags” of Pre-employment Testing

Employers that decide to test don’t always think about the problems inherent in tests, whether they are a test of skills or psychological/attitude tests.  Here are some things to consider before making the decision to test:

Some tests don’t accurately predict success on the job.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the courts require that pre-employment tests must be valid for the particular job that the test is used.

As mentioned earlier, some tests are complicated to administer and interpret.  Many tests were developed by psychologists who are experts in the field of test development.  It’s unlikely that the average pizzeria operator has the special skills or training to interpret the results.  Incorrectly administering or interpreting tests could result in a lawsuit.

Some applicants will play “beat the system.”  Experts at taking tests and answering questions to their best advantage, they try to convince you they are the perfect choice because they “did well” on the test.  However, what some people don’t realize, is that many tests have built-in safeguards against individuals who try to manipulate them, but some tests don’t.  Carefully selecting the type of test you use gives you the best chance for identifying the manipulator from the honest test-taker.

Some people are lousy test-takers.  They become nervous when faced with a pencil, paper, and a lot of questions; they fail as a result. This can unnecessarily eliminate a good worker from the next step in the hiring process.  Case in point, I would be willing to bet that you have people working for you right now who could not pass a pre-employment test if their lives depended on it.  Yet, they are excellent employees.

The Liabilities

Professionally developed tests are based on scientific principles and have both benefits and liabilities.  Pre-employment testing can provide you with information that may be helpful when making a hiring decision.  Pre-employment tests can be dangerous if you’re not familiar with selecting tests, use them improperly or make them the sole reason for rejecting applicants.  To avoid liability you must be able to show that:

  • All tests are directly related to the specific position you’re filling.  For example, would an individual have to read above a seventh grade level in order to wash dishes?  Or could that person learn without being able to read at all?  Of course he or she could, so you have to ask yourself why are you testing them with a test that requires reading at a seventh grade level?
  • Your test questions don’t screen out a disproportionately large numbers of minorities.  If that happens, the test is considered invalid and not appropriate for use as a pre-employment tool.

The test doesn’t have an unreasonable level of difficulty.  Unnecessarily high standards often exclude qualified minorities who don’t have formal education, but who can perform the job.  The many state and federal laws that govern pre-employment testing, along with privacy rights laws and negligence laws, protect the individual’s right to equal opportunity without regard to race, color, gender, religion, national origin and physical handicap.  More specific information is available from your local Department of Labor.

In summary, am I against pre-employment testing?  Absolutely not, however, I am against negligent use of an instrument that may unfairly eliminate qualified applicants.  I’ve seen it happen all too often.  Keep in mind that state and federal laws impose numerous restrictions on what you can do.  The laws are often difficult to interpret. Proceed with caution and don’t try to figure it out alone.  There are plenty of people out there that can help you.