Test Applicants for Ability, Not Work Style

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By Maeve Allsup

Oct. 12 — Whether applicants can do the job should be the focus of pre-employment screening testing, rather than how they’ll get it done, according to Aaron Konopasky, senior attorney adviser for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Modern technology is simplifying the job search process, making it increasingly easy to apply for hundreds of positions in a very short amount of time. As a result, many employers are facing much larger applicant pools, and are turning more to skills assessments to quickly identify the most qualified candidates.

Employers should make sure these assessments, whether purchased from vendors or developed in-house, are designed so that all applicants can demonstrate the ability to do the job if they have it, Konopasky told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 7. This will help employers stay compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and others, he said.

“As a preventative measure employers should try to formulate their qualification standards and assessments in a way that isn’t too focused on particular physical movements,” Konopasky said.

“It is possible to make the test too specific on a physical level,” Konopasky said, “you can end up constructing a model of a particular type of worker rather than of the job itself, which could cause ADA compliance issues.”

Test the Test

This is where it may be important to formally validate the assessment itself, said Eric Dunleavy, an industrial and organizational psychologist at DCI Consulting Group.

“When used properly, the results of these tests often correlate with performance and other important work outcomes,” Dunleavy told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 30. In order to effectively use these assessments, an employer may want to verify via research that its chosen assessment is relevant to the position of interest. Validation research is one way to justify subgroup differences on test results should they exist, he said.

“The research literature shows us that these types of skills and abilities assessments often produce differences in favor of non-minorities,” Dunleavy said, “and there are a variety of theories explaining this phenomenon.” However, it can be permissible to have adverse impact if tests are demonstrated to be job related, he said, “and this is why it may be important for employers to validate the inferences made from their selection procedures. Test users should talk to their legal representation on this issue.”

Testing Increases Compliance

Human resources departments face increasing pressure to conduct the hiring process in a standard way that is both compliant and efficient, Eric Friedman told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 5. Using these tests will reduce exposure to HR legal risks and help employers hire more accurately, said Friedman, founder and CEO of eSkill, a Chelmsford, Mass.-based company that sells customizable software for skills testing. “Using a test that is tailored to match a job’s requirements, as determined by a job analysis, is more compliant than using an off-the-shelf test or not using a test at all,” he said.

“As for determining what test scores are objectively good and meaningful, we suggest giving your new assessment to employees whose relevant knowledge and skill you know. Their scores, and feedback on the selected test questions, are the most valid ways to confirm whether the test is appropriate and obtain scores to serve as a benchmark.” Friedman said.

However, the type of test best suited for an employer’s needs will vary, according to Jeff Luttrell, director of the North Carolina Society for Human Resource Management state council.

Larger companies likely have the in-house resources to create their own exams, Luttrell said, but he says small and mid-size companies shouldn’t attempt this. “Because there are a lot of unknowns when developing an exam it’s important for these employers to purchase one that has been verified,” Luttrell told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 7.

Successful Testing Tips

Whether tests were created in-house or purchased from a vendor, employers should keep several things in mind to screen applicants well and avoid compliance issues:

  • 1. Test for the End, Not the Means.
“In the office world, there are almost always several different ways to accomplish a task,” said Luttrell. “What’s important is not the way the applicant did the task, it’s the end result.” This also creates flexibility for applicants with disabilities, said Konopasky. These candidates might need to prove they can do the job in a different way than other applicants, and employers would have to make reasonable accommodations for them, he said. Dunleavy said employers should avoid getting overly specific and shouldn’t try to test for all skills used on a job. “Organizations should think about how to identify the most important skills and abilities and focus on those in the hiring process,” he said.
  • 2. Do a Job Analysis.
“The most important thing for employers to do is ensure that the test is job-related and consistent with business necessity” and to conduct an analysis to determine which skills are essential for successfully performing a job, said Konopasky. While job analyses are often not legally required, they enable employers to understand the job and to potentially cater the hiring process to those things the analysis tells them are important, Dunleavy said, and help ensure that their tests don’t ignore any important skills or focus on those that are not important.
  • 3. Look Behind the Advertising.
When an employer is buying off-the-shelf assessments, it’s important to find out exactly what the test is trying to capture, said Carol Miaskoff, acting associate legal counsel for EEOC. “Because companies are trying to sell to a wide audience, the descriptions of what a product tests for can be very abstract,” Miaskoff said. “Employers looking to purchase these tests shouldn’t just accept the assertion from the company, but should ask questions and look closely at the tests themselves.”
  • 4. Put a Short Test Up Front.
“This signifies to applicants that you are a serious employer, and lets them know exactly what skills you want them to have,” said Friedman. This also allows qualified applicants to “cut the line” and move forward to a second stage of the application more quickly, because unqualified candidates are eliminated early on, he said. This is a great way to make the process faster and friendlier for the potential employee, Friedman noted.
  • 5. Distribute Test Internally First.
“Giving the assessment to employees who you know have the knowledge and skills you’re looking for is the most dependable way to determine whether the questions are relevant and appropriate for the position,” Friedman said, and this tactic will also allow employers to establish a baseline.
  • 6. Add a Personality Measure.
“Human performance is complicated, so having a variety of different assessments in your hiring process could be very valuable,” Dunleavy said. “As an example, in addition to a skills assessment, an employer could consider adding some type of personality assessment to the hiring process, because these often predict outcomes such as teamwork, engagement and commitment, and typically do not produce the subgroup differences that other assessments do.” While most industries use some sort of assessment, entry-level jobs tend to use more skills-based tests, while more selective positions skip that step and focus on more behavioral and cognitive assessments, Luttrell said. “Testing for behaviors as opposed to skills helps employers determine whether an applicant is a good fit for the company culture,” he said.
  • 7. Use Other Data Sources.
“Testing is just one piece of the puzzle, not the puzzle itself,” said Luttrell. “Employers should use two or three sources of data when making hiring decisions.” Sources often include interviews, references and background experience in addition to a skills based test, Luttrell said. “Using these other sources means employers are reviewing an entire package as opposed to just a test result,” he added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Allsup in Washington at mallsup@bna.com

To contact the editor on this story: Tony Harris in Washington at tharris@bna.com

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