Businesses relying more on pre-employment testing

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 25, 2010

Your next boss might want to know more than your last one about your personality, thought processes, motivations, work style, values and aptitude for the job. Or perhaps she just needs to screen out three-quarters of the applicants quickly. Either way, pre-employment testing is gaining as a tool for hiring customer-service representatives, mechanics, tutors and software engineers, among other fields. Some employers notify applicants of their testing plans right in the job postings; others spring it on candidates partway through the hiring process.

"Machines are making more and more of the basic screening decisions for corporations," said Robert McGovern, chief executive of JobFox, which matches job seekers and openings online. "The challenging tests are the ones where they're not looking for a right answer," McGovern said. Instead, employers want to understand your reasoning or how you look at a situation or problem. Here's an example of such a question: You're working for a retailer and at the end of a day you find $10 lying at your feet. What do you do with it? "The dumb answer is, 'Put it in my pocket,' " he said. "There's a bunch of potentially right answers."

Some employers use tests as a basic screening tool, but the tests must be well designed and carefully evaluated. Some pre-employment tests have discriminated against minorities, older people and others, leading to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cases and settlements. And some tests can feel like an invasion of privacy.

Sometimes test results reveal that an individual doesn't have the aptitude or natural abilities for the job. Many candidates end up surprised, even devastated when the results are presented, said Anthony Spadafore, director and senior career coach at Pathfinders in Alexandria, which helps people understand their natural abilities and best career paths, using a variety of tests.

"It can be awful to hear a manager say, 'We don't think you can excel here, let alone anywhere in the field,' " he said.

Aptitude tests, which measure inborn skills and traits, can also open the eyes of individuals to a better career choice, Spadafore said. But that isn't what you're likely to hear from the HR manager screening 75 candidates.

Here's some advice for candidates who are about to be tested:

-- Find out some details on the name or type of test, how long it will take, whether you're taking it in a group, and whether and how you will learn of the results.

-- Search online for free practice tests, Spadafore said. Approach the test "with an open heart and an open mind. Say, 'I'm going to give this my best shot,' " said JoAn Mann, chief executive and founder of PREP Profile Systems in Bend, Ore.

-- If you feel more comfortable taking the test in another language, discuss that with the human resources manager well ahead of time. If you need other accommodations, ask for help, Mann said.

-- Don't over-analyze the questions. There are seldom trick questions, experts say. "Do not try to outsmart it," said Mann, who has worked in workplace testing since 1983.

-- If you run into questions that seem culturally insensitive or highly biased, don't take the question too literally, Mann suggests. Ask yourself, "What are they trying to get at here?" and reframe the question into something you feel comfortable answering.

-- Use humor to help yourself through sticky parts of the test. Laugh at yourself for not recalling 11th-grade advanced algebra. Or consider the question as if it came your grandmother who's not attuned to today's diverse and varied cultures; many tests date to the 1940s or 1950s.

-- Ask for your results and use them to learn where you might need development.

-- If you score badly on a test and want to make it up with extra credit, move quickly. Bypass the human resources manager and go straight to the hiring manager with other materials -- a strong letter of recommendation, a sales award, details of other successes -- to keep your prospects alive, McGovern said.


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