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To get the job, ace the test

Personal-assessment tests have leaped from the pages of teen magazines to become a standard practice for corporations evaluating job applicants.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Before job applicants set foot in the Dulles office of SER Solutions Inc., before they come face to face with an interviewer, the company wants them to rate themselves on statements like these:

I enjoy the thrill of meeting new people.

I like to be alone most of the time.

It's hard for me to make conversation with people I don't know.

I like being the center of attention.

Similar probing questions await many job seekers this summer, as personal-assessment tests have leaped from the pages of teen magazines to become a standard practice in corporate America. An increasing number of companies use these tests to sift through thousands of résumés and assess the acceptability and future success of prospective hires.

Before SER started using the tests, "it was just a gut feel," said Juan Navarro, SER's chief executive. "A lot of times we'd hire sales people through recruiters or through people we knew. But there was no standardized way to find out if they were the right people."

Companies are turning to standardized tests partly because previous employers seldom provide detailed references for former employees out of fear of lawsuits. They also use the assessments to sift through thousands of résumés sent indiscriminately over the Internet. And with firms much more aware of the cost of replacing a bad hire, they are on a constant quest for the perfect way to find the perfect employee.

"You spend so much money and investment getting someone up to speed and giving them resources, paying them for six or seven months of investment, it's about $120,000 per person if you keep them nine months and they don't produce," Navarro said.

The tests have been around for decades and have been used by the military and law enforcement agencies to assess personnel. During the 1960s, the tests spread to the private sector, but they fell out of favor after passage of the Civil Rights Act, as companies feared they could have a disparate impact, and therefore be discriminatory.

"What we've had recently is a return to the old psychological measures of personality, but in a way that requires them to be much more carefully scrutinized," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worchester, Mass. "In the bad old days, you could put anything out there."

Today, about 50 percent of all companies ask candidates to answer questions that aim to measure their success at particular jobs for which they apply, industry experts said. Tests generally fall into three categories: cognition and ability tests, which measure an innate capability or intelligence; simulations and skill tests, which measure facts that a person knows; and personality and other indicator tests, which measure values and the right orientation for a specific job.

The National Football League, for example, requires potential draft choices to take the Wonderlic test, a questionnaire that measures intelligence and personality. How players score on the test is taken into account with such information as how fast they can run 40 yards.

"What you're doing is making an assessment of the athlete not only for basis of selection, but if you get him, you know the best way to teach him your system," said Jeffrey Foster, president of National Football Scouting, which holds an annual NFL combine.

Grocer Giant Food LLC added assessments to its hiring process in 2002. At employment kiosks in its stores, job applicants enter personal information, then take a short test that measures attributes such as attitude, dependability and ethics. A hiring manager then looks at the results and decides which candidates to interview, said Jeanine Jones, director of business transformation for Ahold USA, which oversees Giant's operations. "It helps us create an unbiased and objective hiring process," she said.

Tests may help remove subjective bias from the interview process, as well as do a better job of pinpointing promising hires, according to some experts in the field.

"A typical interview where you think of questions at the last minute, or ask them without understanding demands of the job, doesn't help you identify who has potential," said Paul Hanges, director of the University of Maryland's Industrial and Organizational Psychology program. "Or you're confirming your own biases."

But the use of some tests has been questioned as a form of bias itself. Last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said it was investigating complaints that tests of cognitive ability used by FedEx have an adverse impact on black and Latino applicants. The investigation surfaced after the EEOC asked a judge to order the company to comply with a subpoena for information.

In some cases, cognitive tests have been challenged because performing well on them requires a proficiency in English that could discriminate against candidates who are not native speakers.

Other assessment tests have also been disputed. A court ruled last year that Rent-A-Center Inc.'s use of a psychological assessment to screen candidates for management positions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which bans pre-employment medical examinations.

In that case, brothers who worked for Rent-A-Center in Illinois filed a class-action suit objecting to the company's use of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test, created by clinicians to help diagnose their patients' mental disorders. Although the company argued it gave the test to measure only personality traits, the court ruled that the testing violated the ADA because it could detect such conditions as depression and paranoia.

‘True character’
Mary O'Neill, the regional lawyer for the EEOC's Phoenix district office, said she has seen an increase in testing in the past year. "All of a sudden we see a resurgence in this," she said.

While companies may embrace testing as the next big thing in hiring, job applicants are far less enthusiastic about it.

When Monica Slovik applied for a job in customer care at a utility company three years ago, she was asked to take a skills and a personality test on site. A few days later, she received a phone call saying she had done well on the skills but failed the personality test. The company would not explain what happened and would not take any follow-up phone calls from Slovik.

"I have a very negative view of those tests," she said. "I don't understand how they can show a person's true character. And I don't think giving it to someone under pressure is a good environment."

Now working for small firm in the District in marketing and event planning, she said she's still wary of the tests, even though she took one and "passed" at a different company later.

For employers, the most effective tests are specifically tailored for each job, said Joseph P. Murphy, a vice president with Shaker Consulting Group Inc., which recently created what it calls a "virtual job tryout" for Quest Diagnostics Inc. The test measures how well candidates handle work situations, follow standard procedures and know computer systems, as well as probes candidates' work history and work style.

All of the answers might have value, but there is a minimum total score that the company wants applicants to achieve, he said.

"How do you measure reliability, sales drive, persuasiveness? You use multiple questions like a caliper," Murphy said. When an applicant is called for an interview at Quest, the interviewer can see where the candidate ranks on each subject and can focus the interview, he said.

New technologies are also on the horizon. Although it is illegal to give a polygraph in pre-employment screening, two groups are creating MRI technology that they say shows "hot spots" on the brain when someone is lying. Joel Huizenga, founder of No Lie MRI Inc., said hopes to build a franchise, starting with a site in Philadelphia by the end of the year.

Decreased turnover?
Huizenga said the test could be used to screen for previous drug use, for example. "It's very expensive for companies to hire the wrong person," he said. "This should scare people even if they don't undergo testing because they know there's a way to find out."

For SER, the search for a way to screen its applicants led to Chantilly-based online testing company Brainbench, which claims that turnover can decrease 20 percent or more when a company uses assessments.

Brainbench psychologists starting in February conducted a business analysis of SER, looking at hiring processes and job requirements. Then they talked to sales people and managers. From that, they created tests that the psychologists said would show more than just specific sales skills and measure a candidate's potential future success.

SER, which sells computer hardware and software to call centers, has already used the tests to hire three employees,

"People coming out of college, or a year or two out of the military . . . might have the absolute drive" the company needs, Navarro said. "You might want to grow them into an organization versus the people we brought in with 10 to 15 years [experience] that you hoped would fit in because they did well in the last company."