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The insider's edge on job search & hiring™

An insider’s biggest beefs with employment testing

cover-shadowLast fall I was tickled to publish the first guest author in the Ask The Headhunter Bookstore: Dr. Erica Klein, who wrote Employment Tests: Get The Edge. The book stemmed from enormous interest in a short article Erica wrote for the Guest Voices section of the Ask The Headhunter website. I asked Erica to turn it into a book, and boy, did she!

Employment Tests: Get The Edge is the only book of its kind — we dare you to find anything like it on Amazon! It’s been a runaway bestseller, providing insights and advice about employment testing from someone who has been developing and administering employment tests since 1998. (Erica has also taken more of them than she can count!)

Following a recent spirited discussion I had with Erica, she came back to me with a list of her concerns about employment testing — concerns that I think every job hunter who has ever faced such a test has, too. She’s turned her worries into a great article that serves as a companion piece to the book — and she asked me to publish it as a way to help job seekers deal with three more daunting obstacles they’ll encounter when employers want to test them. You may read her full article here:

An Insider’s Biggest Beefs With Employment Testing

It’s housed in the Guest Voices section of the website, but I wanted to share with you here the gist of her three biggest beefs — because I’d love to have a discussion about your comments and experiences with employment testing.

Erica writes in her new article:

My #1 complaint about pre-employment testing is the disrespectful treatment of test takers. This can start when you are asked to take a test without warning or explanation. It continues through tests that seem to make no sense in the context of the job, and it can culminate when employers provide no feedback to test takers about test results.

My #2 complaint about pre-employment testing is lack of “face validity.” Face validity is a subjective judgment the test taker makes about at test, not a quality of the test. A test is face valid if it appears to be measuring what it is actually measuring. Since pre-employment tests are always measuring and predicting attitudes, behaviors and knowledge related to work, the test is face valid when it asks questions related to the work.

For example, in my opinion, face-valid pre-employment tests should not be asking about how you act at parties, your personal life, whether you take the stairs two at a time (I’m serious: this is a famous, real test question!) or anything that does not appear to be related to the work.

My #3 complaint about pre-employment testing is that some employers use tests that are no better than horoscopes. [An article about bad tests] by Dr. Wendell Williams: “Is Your Hiring Test A Joke?”… says it very well: “When something looks good on the surface, but [is] completely without merit, it is called a joke. You might not have thought of this before, but many hiring tests fit that bill. I’m talking about tests that deliver numbers and data that look good on the surface, but do nothing to predict candidate job success.”

Employers have an obligation to use tests that are good at predicting success, and you have a right to expect that any test you take will indicate your chances of doing well at a job. As a job applicant, you might find it difficult to tell bad tests from good tests — especially given that not all good tests will look like what you think they should (see complaint #2).

Dr. Klein goes on, in the article, to suggest what you can and should do to protect yourself in these three key testing situations — because it could have a significant effect on the outcome of your testing — and job application — experience.

Please read her tips — and come back here to share your thoughts!

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21 Comments
  1. Here’s my #4 complaint, and this should be a problem for both employers and test takers – cheating! HUGE problems with camera phones for in-person tests, and with unproctored online testing.

  2. @Erica Klein I think you summed up the entire situation right here, “What should you do if you have done your research and are confident that you are facing a bad test — a test no better than snake oil, a test based on junk science? I think you should walk away.”

  3. I’ve had two experiences with pre-employment testing. McKinsey sprang one on me during what was supposed to be an “information” interview. I was too surprised (stunned, actually) to say no, took the test cold, scored in the 93rd percentile, and subsequently was told that I missed the cutoff by two points. The experience was humiliating and completely unnecessary.

    My other experience was with a marketing firm that had indicated they were on the cusp of hiring me for an editorial position (I’m a corporate communications writer) pending “one last thing.” They directed me to an online test that seemed to focus more on personality than skills. I subsequently was rejected for the position because I scored too HIGH. The firm’s complaint was that my scores indicated “executive” when all they were looking for was “editorial.”

    I will never take another pre-employment test. The fact that a company would even demand one is a deal-breaker, as it indicates that the company lacks either the skill or the interest (or both) in choosing the right people.

  4. Thanks for sharing your experiences Ron. It’s a shame that employers are not upfront about testing requirements. Tests should never be ‘sprung’ on applicants.

  5. Erica, the main question I have is this:

    If you take a pre-employment test and fail– particularly if it’s one that measures your cultural fit– does that permanently strike you from consideration for employment at that company? If it’s not permanent, how long do you recommend the “failer” wait before trying again?

  6. @FJH, the answer to your question is going to depend on the employer/test vendor, the test, and the job. The only way to know the ‘life’ of a test score is to ask the employer (usually HR will have the answer). Some test scores will follow you for (example)three years for the specific employer and that specific job. Other times, if the job is re-posted and you apply again you have a fresh slate test-wise. Sometimes the test will affect you for only that job at the employer, and other times for any job at the employer.

    I wish I could give you a specific answer about how long a failed test can stay with you but the only answer is, it varies.

  7. What is the strangest question you’ve been asked on a test?

  8. Here are a few odd questions from personality tests, as reported by the Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10000872396390444812704577609413668058818

  9. I dislike the technical phone screen on programming languages. They ask the most obscure questions that if you needed to know you could look up on google.

    I went on an interview one of the many tests I had to take that day, was a 10-question test. Two of the questions were trivia. Clearly trivia. I got an 80%; I didn’t know the trivia answers. Then the tester told me he didn’t know the answers to the two trivia questions until he wrote the test and put them in. But because I got an 80% I failed.

    • I have the same problem on technical interviews with irrelevant trick questions, or arcane material that is easy to reference. I often wonder if folks in other professions are subjected to this type of nonsense. And don’t get me started on coding tests! There is no such test that realistically reflects what you actually do every day on the job.

  10. My take on these idiotic tests now is that I did it once, and once only, years ago when it was sprung on me out of the blue. I got the job however vowed right then and there that it would never happen again.

    I just wonder how many in their right mind fail such things and would be told they failed any one of these ridiculous idiotic tests and would willingly go back for more humiliation?

  11. Late to the party apparently… funny how I missed this. Anyway.

    Some years ago I had networked my way into a new department of a large company in my target industry. They were setting up a whole new office to do medical device design work. Drool!

    I had made contact with the hiring manager, sent him my resume, we talked again, and he was excited to meet me. But before he could even meet me face to face, I had to take their Personality Assessment.

    I ended up in a half-hour conversation with an HR person who, with all sincerity, asked me questions like “Do you prefer to work alone or in groups?” Since the answer to that and almost every other question was “It depends on the situation and the thing needing doing.”, I had to choose one or the other without any recognition of the subtleties of the situation.

    After I failed the test, I couldn’t even get the guy to answer my email. Apparently, if you don’t meet their idealized profile, you don’t exist.

    @Nic: You take these tests because some highly-paid consultant has sold some executive on their value, and the only way into the company is through that portal. It’s all part of the game, and the fantasy that there exists ANY set of tools that can make a hire “risk free”.

  12. I think employers should be required UP FRONT (before you spend time filling out an online application and submitting your resume), to let you know you will need to take this assessment, and the time it will take. It irritates me to give a company my information, only to find out at the end, that I will have to take an assessment also. I refuse to take these assessments, and if I had known from the start that this was required, I would not have bothered applying. I have abandoned many online applications once I found out there was an assessment test, but by then, the company has my resume, along with any other information I have provided to them during the application process. I find this underhanded, to say the least.

  13. My biggest fear is that these “personality tests” will show how depressed I am, and that the prospective employer is discriminating against people with brain diseases (such as depression) because I don’t fit their ideal employee profile.

    No, I’m not outgoing, or cheery, or energetic.
    I in no way resemble a cheerleader.
    But if I’ve applied for a job, I’m better than 95% sure that I already have the skills to do it, and because I’m intelligent I learn quickly, so there will be a relatively short training period.

    Oh, and I’m drastically overqualified for just about anything.
    I’m in my 40s, have 3 degrees, an IQ in at least the 99th percentile, and am looking for a job that will allow me to get off welfare, support myself, and ideally would challenge me while doing something to benefit society.

    But because I’m old, and have been unemployed / underemployed for a while, and have a brain disease, nearly every company either won’t give me an interview or if they do they don’t call me back.

    I even had one guy decide, after less than 2 minutes in a phone interview and asking NO job-related questions, that I was not the person for the job. Wouldn’t explain why.

  14. This all comes down – yet again – to RISK AVERSION.

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/quest-purple-squirrel-david-hunt-pe

    And that aversion rises up the food chain.

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/wrong-pictures-difficult-conversations-david-hunt-pe

    So what companies do is to rely on “The Claw” (taken from this article http://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/how-to/marketing/2015/03/how-useful-is-pre-employment-personality-testing.html?page=all), to wit, quote:

    When there’s a test to fall back on, managers inevitably step back from responsibility and surrender to the test, instead of asking the tougher questions. Like “the claw” in Toy Story, the test “decides who will stay and who will go.”

    End quote

    UNTIL there are consequences to hiring managers and HR for leaving positions open – literally starving in a sea of abundance of people – things will not change.

    • I love the take of that biz journal article. Comparing personality testing to phrenology (my personal favorite would be graphology). Very apt.

      The most important sentence in that article is: ‘When you rely on a test to determine future job performance, you confuse the difference between readily observable traits, and the traits that actually make a difference.’ This is exactly what big data does also, because it relies on spurious correlations. And why it too will fail to live up to the hype being generated for it.

  15. This is an area where it appears legislative action will be required to prevent abuses. I see this as equivalent to the application of big data which is also unproven, and which will result in more conformity and less diversity. And we all know what that means in evolutionary terms. The potential for mindless discrimination is incredible.

  16. This is one of those hypothetical conversations I really wish I could have…

    So, Mr. Employer:

    You have an ATS program that is documented to block at least 75% of qualified people. You then have personality testing to weed through all the people who pass the ATS to meet some idealized profile of a person. Then you likely google and search on social media for anything that you might find objectionable. Then you have multiple rounds of interviews, and then a background check and reference checks.

    Each time, the number of people passing the filter gets smaller, likely dwindling to zero.

    But never, never, never do you consider that it is your own policies and procedures that are preventing you from hiring. No no no, it’s the candidates’ fault.

    This is like people drilling holes in their own boat, then complaining that the ship is sinking.

    • You forgot the video interview somewhere in there…

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