Experts Advise HR to Vet, Customize All ‘Personality' Tests

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By Cathleen O'Connor Schoultz

Can pre-employment personality tests help hiring managers predict the future or are they a fast ticket to a discrimination charge?

The right test, designed for the job at hand, validated by an expert, and vetted by a company's in-house industrial psychologist or counsel can be a very helpful tool in choosing job candidates, experts told BNA in recent interviews.

They estimated that 30 percent to 50 percent of large employers are using personality assessment tools to screen job applicants.

Companies use these tests to measure a job candidate's fit with the organizational culture, his or her integrity and safety-mindedness, and the likelihood of the worker staying with the organization, among other things, and new testing applications continue to be developed.

Predicting Harassment Potential

In May, for example, longtime test maker and risk management consulting firm Vangent rolled out its new Sexual Harassment Potential Index.

For the new test, Vangent cross-tested all of the questions with different groups of test-takers, and checked for job-relatedness to assure that there is no adverse impact on protected groups, Vangent Vice President and Chief Scientist John W. Jones told BNA.

Jones led the effort to develop the 21-item test measuring sexual harassment risk, identifying several behaviors and attitudes as indicators of a potential harasser. Among them, he said, are having a higher tendency to shout and shove, indicating a propensity to misuse power; admitting to illicit drug use; and having a tendency to rationalize counterproductive or illegal behavior.

It's part of an instrument measuring risk, not a clinical test,” Jones said, making it an appropriate test for job applicants and also compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Keeping Tests Bias-Free

Keeping personality tests from running afoul of the ADA and other discrimination laws is one employer concern.

Tests that are not designed and validated to be job-related open a company up to bias charges if questions are determined to discriminate against applicants belonging to protected classes, according to Vangent and others.

Tests that ask about preferences, choices, and patterns of behavior are legally viable, management attorney Gavin Appleby, a shareholder in Littler Mendelson's Atlanta office, told BNA, but questions about religion or sexual orientation are out of order.

It is more important than ever to get testing right, Appleby said, especially given the increased focus on testing issues by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

Moreover, in the age of electronic job sites, companies are trying to pare down the number of job candidates at the beginning of the hiring process.

It's cheaper that way, Appleby said, but what we tell [employers] is to make sure the cut-off is legitimate. If the cut-off score is set so that too many candidates are eliminated at the applicant stage, companies risk charges of adverse impact on protected groups, he said.

Tests that ask personal or irrelevant questions can offend applicants and tarnish a company's employment brand, potentially bringing unwanted publicity. This is especially true of “old-school” tests, which tend to ask questions of a highly personal nature that often cover sexual and religious issues, Appleby said.

The newer personality tests focus on what an applicant's traits are, Appleby said, not on what caused them. Traits EEOC does not have a problem with employers measuring, he noted, are honesty, judgment, quickness of temperament, responsibility, and the like.

According to Appleby, the right kind of personality test can save both employers and employees a lot of time and trouble.

At the end of the day, in my view, I don't think it's a question of whether to test, but of what test to use and how you are using it, he said.

Can Do, Will Do

A helpful way to look at employee assessments is to break them into “can do” and “will do” tests, Anthony Adorno, chief operating officer of DeGarmo Group, a Bloomington, Ill.-based industrial/organizational consulting firm that provides web-based training and testing, told BNA.

If a company wants to see how well a person can resolve a customer complaint, for example, it might choose a work simulation to measure problem-solving skills. This would be a can do test, Adorno said. If the employer wanted to determine the likelihood of a candidate remaining with the company, it might use a personality or work tolerance test, a will do test, he said.

Just because someone can solve problems or communicate effectively,” Adorno said, “it doesn't necessarily mean they will tolerate being yelled at on the phone all day for issues outside of their control.”

Examining Tests, Vendors

Eric Dunleavy, industrial organizational psychologist and senior consultant at DCI Consulting Group Inc. and on staff with the Center for Corporate Equality, emphasized the importance of vetting tests and testing firms carefully, advising that employers review a potential vendor's testing manual or have an in-house or third-party attorney or industrial psychologist do this.

Testing manuals are very technical and can be tough going for lay people, Dunleavy said, but they provide critical information on how a test was created and validated and how its efficacy and freedom from bias against protected groups have been ensured.

Companies also need to have a retesting policy, Dunleavy said. What happens if an employee takes the test but feels it was not representative because he or she was ill or running late that day? Or what if the employee was fine but wants another shot at the test?

These are things companies need to consider before implementing any particular tests, Dunleavy said. And there are other concerns.

How long does a test score stay fresh? three months? six months? nine months? a year? There's no right answer,” Dunleavy said.

Test results should not become part of an employee's personnel file in perpetuity, Dunleavy warned.

The vendor created a particular test and validated it for hiring a certain type of person,” he noted, but “it's not valid five years later when an employee who was hired is being considered for promotion.”

Jarrett Shalhoop, senior consultant in the International Consulting Practice of Hogan Assessment Systems, told BNA that a company should do its homework in evaluating the test provider and the tests, because no matter who provides the test, the employer is liable if it turns out to be legally problematic.

Use Multiple Data Sources

Any behavioral test or assessment should be considered as one piece of data, not a sole screener of applicants, and it must be customized to the particular client and application, experts emphasized.

In a recent report on its attitude and behavior assessments, Vangent compared using a one-size-fits-all questionnaire to using a swiss army knife as a scalpel for delicate surgery.

It is critical for employers not to rely on personality tests as a single screening process, Deborah Hoffmann, founder of Chicago-based Eclipse HR Solutions and a recruiting and HR process redesign specialist, told BNA.

In addition to providing effective tests, a good vendor will provide a system to measure results to be certain the test is doing what it was designed to do.

Tests can be constructed in various ways to better meet an employer's needs, Hoffmann said. If job longevity is something that is built into a company's corporate culture, for example, applicants' “flight risk” may be built into the cultural fit test they take.

Companies need to be careful how and where they use behavioral tests, however.

If you're using them as a gateway, yes or no, you have to be careful,” Hoffmann said. “It sounds efficient to do it that way, but not unless you have other data points.”

Determining cut-off scores that reflect a company's particular risk concerns is important, Jones said, giving as an example a hypothetical company that is testing applicants for risk of theft, avoidable accidents, sexual harassment, and cyber-crime.

Let's say the company is an information services firm where employees might have access to other people's personal information—for example, a call center,” Jones said.

In that case, a company would likely put greater emphasis on test results related to cyber-crime than those related to safety, particularly since call center employees are generally not in particularly safety-sensitive positions.

Assuming sexual harassment is not a particular problem for the company and that the firm has a sexual harassment prevention program in place, this issue might also warrant a moderate cut-off, Jones said.

Finding a Balance

Dan Ryan, principal of Ryan Search and Consulting in Nashville, told BNA Oct. 6 that he prefers the term “assessment” to “testing,” because of the latter's connotation of pass-fail.

Ryan said behavioral assessments can be a useful tool but that there is a tendency for some companies to put too much reliance on them, without actually examining the job-relatedness. Assessments can become a “crutch,” providing a “quick and dirty” approach to hiring to the detriment of both employers and workers, he said.

Interestingly, some companies test applicants for various risk factors but do not screen any of them out and do not want to know who they are, Jones noted. In these cases, an employer is using the aggregate information as part of its strategic risk and talent analytics, he said. It wants to know what the risks are, Jones said, but not for the purpose of screening out applicants.

By Cathleen O'Connor Schoultz

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