Discussion: February 23, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

In today’s newsletter, a reader asks for advice:

What’s with the psychological multiple-choice questions in job applications? What are they looking for and what do I do when I don’t “test well” with these kinds of questions? I’m a great employee, but these tests mess with my brain! Are there any resources on how to answer these questions? I’m finding I can’t even get an interview unless I first pass this part of the application process.

You can’t tell a company to stop using those goofy tests, and you’re right: It’s virtually impossible to figure out how to “pass” one. So the alternative is clear: Don’t apply using job applications. Go directly to a hiring manager.

HR uses such tests to weed out “undesirables.” (At least in the opinion of the HR manager.) But if a manager has already decided to interview you or hire you, the personnel jockey is not likely to stand in the way. The “weeding” tools usually go flying out the window. When you have a manager already interested, the smart thing to do is politely but firmly decline to do this kooky stuff. “Once we meet and decide there’s a mutual interest in taking our discussions further, I’d be glad to fill out your application forms.”

This ever-more-ridiculous, impersonal “hiring strategy” that companies are increasingly using accomplishes one thing. It alienates the best workers, who refuse to play the game. They will find their way in the door through personal contacts — or they’ll go to work for a competitor. Rather than waste their time with such administrative roadblocks, job hunters with high standards will invest their time meeting and cultivating people who can refer them to a hiring manager. They won’t bend over for personnel jockeys.

So the way to handle such tests (and preliminary application forms) is not to do them. Avoid them. Get in the door through a manager or another employee of the company.

This article might be helpful: Employment Tests: Get an edge.


  1. Great topic.

    Recruiters who specialize in trading women are notorious for offering up a line of offensive tests — a left over pink-ghetto practice in which all women should, in my view, refuse to participate.

    It is unbelievable that top-notch, experienced legal or executive assistants, or equivalent, are still subjected to typing, grammar and spelling tests.

    Such a battery of tests becomes even more absurd when an applicant with top scores lands up working for a micromanager in serious need of writing and grammar lessons!

    • Neva, you read my mind! I am in the middle of a “negotiation” with a potential employer over tests – they’re hot for me but keep trying to find a way to talk me into doing skills assessments. I’m loathe to argue with the woman, but she keeps coming back at me as though I’ll give her a different response or tell her some deep secret as to why I have refused. Essentially, she won’t hear the truth. I’ve been typing 65 WPM since 1982 (no desire to type faster, lol) and matching numbers with objects is not an accuracy test, but an IQ test. It’s a shame, I’d actually like to work for this company. Onward!

      • @Sara: I admire you for sticking to your guns. They don’t get to check your teeth, as if you were a horse up for sale! You might try something like this:

        “I’m actually very interested in discussing working at your company. I’ve been very successful at [whatever work it is you do] since 1982 and I’m happy to provide you with proof via excellent references. My schedule is very busy, but I’d be glad to meet with the hiring manager to discuss whether your job and I would be a fit. If it goes well, I’d be happy to discuss taking assessments at that time.”

        This is respectful, but also indicates you’re not a fool to waste your time! Then it’s up to them. Never say NO. Say YES, BUT…


        • Thanks for your replies, Nick, I always appreciate hearing your advice. I guess I have a bad attitude — I just won’t test. You know, the last time I turned down an interview for shenanigans was due to a company’s so-called hiring process, a three day Survivor-like series of games pitting candidate against candidate. Not joking.
          Thanks again.

          • Nothing wrong with your attitude, Sara. It’s important to demonstrate high standards of conduct and to expect the same from others. I find it eliminates incredible amounts of wasted time. I once — once — peed in a cup for an employer for a drug test. Long, long ago. By the time they got back to me, I was so disappointed in myself that I didn’t even take their call. Lesson learned.

            I love your Survivor story.

            • Hey Nick, thank you for that. I know how you felt about the pee test. Back in the 90’s the main companies that did it were brokerage/finance and that may be because brokers were known to be sucking down coke like there was no tomorrow. Today, my prescriptions or lack thereof remain nobody’s business but my own.

              I have a basic path laid out for the interview process and have frequently suggested the rather/than option to the manager. Sometimes it works. But even this small company I applied to (no HR dept.) appears stuck in their own ‘valuable’ process.

              I did reply to the Mgr. and since she asked, lol, gave her an overview and a detailed list as to why candidates _overall_ balk at testing. I came across this blog post and thought I’d share:

              Nothing terribly new for folks here, I suspect, but a solid article on the topic. I particularly appreciated this:

              “A process designed to mitigate risk sees nothing wrong with sucking down candidates valuable time, requiring them to jump through hoops, personality tests, three to six interviews or more, capping it off with the familiar promise to reach out, but never contact the candidate. At best, they’ll call weeks past their own deadline after the company has hired someone that was picked because they represented the lowest “risk.” …Great candidates struggle to get hired in these cases because they want an authentic respectful relationship, and the company doesn’t.”

              I advised her, nice lady, that in the end and despite testing she would likely default to classical decision-making in the process:
              Is he authentic? Can he do the job? How well can he do the job? Do we want to do the job with him?


  2. The problem is that hiring managers are using these tests.

    I had an interview with a company that I thought was going well. At one point, one of the employees whom this position would support (it was like an internal consulting position) presented me with an issue she’d be having. I discussed how she could set up a system to help her tease information out of mounds of data.

    She became real excited and even said, “Oh, you’ve got to come back and talk to my boss. He’d really be interested in this idea.”

    A-ha! I thought. I’ve got an ally, if you will, who can influence the hiring manager in a very good way, and I’ve shown how I can do the job. You can’t get any more ATH-ish than that!

    All this was blown because of a “concern” raised on one of these psychological tests…..a single 20 minute on-line test. The hiring manager specifically brought it up. I tried to address it, but he wasn’t buying it. It was some stupid attribute or tendency that didn’t line up with their concept of the perfect employee.

    Keep in mind, everything was going well until the test results came back. I had already been through a couple phone interviews and one previous on-site interview.

    Now if I’m asked to take these tests, I ask real hard questions, such as “Have you taken these tests?” and “Do you have any information about the predictive power of these tests or the population used to create/test the validity of these tests?” Most of them won’t be able to answer these questions; this can then provide an opportunity to challenge them.

    My favorite response to a “no” when asked if they’ve taken these tests: “Hmmm….that’s interesting. As an engineer, I collect data to model a system. Obviously, what I create cannot then be used to model a different system, at least not with any comfortable degree of accuracy or reliability. I’m curious as to how the testing service was able to predict what employees would do well in your organization when it hasn’t tested current employees.”

    If you really want to drop a bomb on them, ask if the tests are in any way derived from Scientology. There are still tests being used out there that are based on the rather, um, “interesting” theories put forth by the Church of Scientology’s founder. It’s called the OCA, and they license it to various firms so that it appears under various names.

    (I don’t mean to offend any Scientologists out there, but it claims to be a church. If companies started using personality tests that were licensed by the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptists, a Muslim denomination, or something similar, there would be a big controversy about it, and it would probably violate non-discrimination laws.)

  3. Nick, there is a solution for this nonsense. Present the hiring manager or HR with your own test. “Potential Employers of Nick Corcodilos Test.”

    1. Why do you use ridiculous tests to weed out potential employees?

    2. How many of your current employees have taken and passed these tests?

    3. Has your company made or lost money in the last 3 years?

    4. What is your employee turnover rate?

    5. Why should I work for a company that can’t use critical thinking skills to hire people?

    6. Is there a real job here or are you collecting data for EEO purposes?

    7. If you want a real test, hire me to write one. ;-)

  4. I agree that these psycho-tests are ridiculous and there is no evidence that they predict who will be a good employee. That is an ART as well as a science! I especially resent it when a 2-hr test is mandated before serious mutual interest is established! Sometimes, these companies automatically assume that they are the sole decision makers and applicant interest is taken for granted. I will not work at ANY price and benefits package! I expect an employer to make it worth my while if I am going to sacrifice 5 days out of 7 for them! Hello!

  5. Any test used should be valid for the job in question. But for lots of tests out there, the validity is questionable. An interesting book on the subject is: “The Cult of Personality”, by Annie Murphy Paul. It should be required reading for any employer using tests to screen out applicants.

  6. I resolved never to take one of those silly tests after a ridiculous experience a few years ago interviewing with a local company. They gave me a test that consisted of drawings of circles connected by lines, without any hint about what a line might represent or how it might function. Each had a question like: If the first circle has a 5 in it, what number will the last circle have?

    It was incredibly pointless and stupid. I did ask them what they thought it measured and they claimed that they only hired people who did well on it and they always turned out well. (Proving they don’t know much about correlation or experimental design.)

    Sadly the company is always looking for people since their turnover is high, not because it’s a bad company but because it requires 100% travel. I’d be an ideal employee but they’ve driven me away.

  7. I was subjected to the Caliper Profile, which takes a couple of hours, before accepting a job offer back in 1990 — not my ideal situation, but I was out of work, having been laid off during a recession. I understand the Caliper costs its clients a fortune, and this company valued it highly. The company, a tiny U.S. division of a French industrial firm, surprisingly had the most entrenched bureaucracy I’ve ever seen. My sense is that they would never have waived the test for any potential employee.

    I lasted about a year and a half before moving on. Not too long after I left, the parent company reorganized this division out of existence.

  8. While I can agree that such tests tend to be beyond the ridiculous, another point is that most of these tests are supposed to carry the cavaet of, “There is no right or wrong answer, just be honest in answering these questions,” which may cause a chuckle or eyebrow to raise.

    This reminds me of trick questions that can come up in an interview, which can be kind of fun if you have the mindset for it. For example, “Could 2+2=5 be true?” to which there are a couple obvious answers. The first is that “Of course not! 2+2=4, that is what I was taught and I’m not about to change now!” while a different answer is, “Certainly that could be true. For example, if we took all the value modulo 1, then this becomes 0+0=0 which is true.” There are probably other answers but I’d hope one could see the difference in tone and position of each answer.

    Interviews can be a minefield, but at times I wonder how much slack can one get if they say, “Oh, I’m sorry I don’t test well so my results may be poor,” and see what response there is. One may have to explain in a bit more detail what the issue is, but it could be a fun way to take an interview way off course and see what happens.

  9. Hi Nick, thanks for the shout-out (link to my article about employment testing)! It provides tips for doing your best on employment tests.

    To answer one of the comments above, sometimes tests are not given to current employees because the test has been validated in another setting and those results are generalizable to the current use. This is scientifically valid, and a legally defensible approach.

    I’m in transition myself right now, and one thing that’s been frustrating is having to take the same lengthy personality test online every time I apply for a different job with the same employer. I suppose they can’t store my results due to privacy concerns?
    Erica Klein (twittering on job search topics as EricaKleinPhD)

  10. I’ve taken these tests 4 times in 46+ years. The only intelligent one was at IBM in 1963. The rest were garbage.
    Always wanted to fill one out so the HR analyst would interpret it as meaning I was a homicidal maniac – who hated HR LOL

  11. Not long after high school, I applied for a job as a typist. The office manager gave me an IQ test from Reader’s Digest, and I aced it. I got the job, and then they found out I couldn’t type!

  12. @Chris: The Scientology connection is a new one on me! But your approach is smart: Question the test. There are two major criteria for evaluating such tests: validity and reliability. If you’re going to push back when asked to take a test, I suggest you read up on those two criteria. Briefly, validity is a measure of whether a test actually measures what it’s intended to measure. Might seem obvious, but the items in a test might have low value in this regard. Reliability means, does the test return the same results the first time it’s administered, and the second and so on – today and next week? In other words, is the test a reliable measure of what you’re measuring?

    Few managers or HR folks know what this means. But it’s worth discussing with them, and asking for information about a test’s reliability and validity. Then explain that you’d consider taking the test only if they promise to show you the results (either way) along with the written interpretation of the person scoring the test. “Uh, you don’t HAVE an expert scoring the test? Just software? Sorry, but I won’t subject myself to an automated test, not with all I’ve read about false negatives.” They don’t know what false negatives are? Bad sign ;)

    Any manager who rejects an otherwise good candidate because of a single test item is ignorant. No test expert would support that kind of conclusion, simply because no single test item can be relied on.

    Always be friendly when questioning employment tests. And always offer an alternative: I’d be glad to come in to talk with you further, but with all due respect, I won’t be judged by a test. I hope you understand – Do you think the manager in this case would consent to take a psychological test administered by me prior to my considering a job offer? So that I could assess whether he’s worth working for? Of course not, and I’d never suggest it. I’m sure you see my point.

    Yah, and my point, too.

    • Nick, great response. Would you please speak directly to so-called skills assessments?

      I’m in a shootout with an employer right now who cannot (will not) understand what I have already told her– I do not take tests in order to “qualify” for employment. My experience speaks for itself.

      This was the Ops Mgr.’s latest response to my polite refusal to test: “Thanks for the email. Skills testing is part of the interview process. Is there a reason why you are against the skills testing? If there are other accommodations you need let me know.”

      :bangs head on desk:

      Please have mercy, Nick.
      Thank you,

      • @Sara: Please see my suggestion on your other comment. The reason for you declining to take a test is simple: You’re very busy. Interview first, if it goes well, test afterwards.

  13. @Lisa: I’m LMAO! That’s the best indictment of over-reliance on “objective measures.” The results don’t matter if you’re not measuring what you need to know!

  14. @Erica Klein (author of Employment Tests: Get an edge, referenced in this blog post): Thanks for chiming in on ths. Unfortunately, the results of some employment tests ARE stored and used again and again, because employers sometimes outsource candidate evaluations. The 3rd party gets your completed test and potentially “sells” the results to other employers — with or without your consent. Note: Does an employer ask you to sign a waiver before you take a test? Does the employer give you written assurance that your test results are confidential?

    Real question: Do you want other employers to have access to test results you’ve never seen yourself? In some cases, testing is a racket “running in the background” of “HR consulting.” Be careful out there!

  15. Thanks, Nick, and all for the wise counsel (and funny stories).

    A few years ago, a company I worked for as an independent marketing consultant was giving all their employees one of those tests, and they wanted me to take it too.

    I absolutely refused. Couldn’t see what right they had to a psychological evaluation of me under the circumstances. It wasn’t like I was looking for or doing a high-level job with the CIA or anything!

  16. @Mass: Good for you. Many years ago a company I worked for was acquired by a much bigger company that had a very “active” HR department. So the new HR VP sends around to all of us “acquired” folks a non-compete agreement to sign. Everyone signed it. Except me. Why would anyone sign such a deal, except as a condition of new employment? The VP blustered and insisted, but knew she could not require me to sign it. I never argued with her. Instead, I just ignored her requests. She finally stopped, realizing that she had only one recourse: Fire me. And it would have been fun to watch her explain to a judge that the NCA was a condition of my “continued” employment. Lotsa luck. (Note: I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.)

    People need to realize they have rights. And even when they don’t, sometimes the right answer to a ridiculous, invasive and unnecessary demand is to walk out the door.

  17. Erica,

    I disagree with the concept of test results being generalizable.

    These tests are often put forth as determining if the prospective employee is a “match” for the company.

    Every company is different. Every division, group, team, and so on is different. We can all take tests that classify us as problem solvers or team builders or lone wolves. But the problem solving or team building behaviors that work for one company do not necessarily translate into workable behaviors for another company.

    Imagine a dating service where only half the people took tests because prior testing was “generalizable” to the other half. I don’t think many people would trust it.

    If it’s truly scientifically valid, then companies would be shouting their R^2 values from the hills. I’ve yet to see this happen. I can’t imagine accuracy and repeatability to be a trade secret (as some claim) unless there is something to hide. If I had a tool that could predict success in matching candidates to company with a high accuracy, I’d slap that on every piece of marketing. And if I was a company that used such a test, I’d let every candidate know about it.

    Again, I’ve yet to see such behavior.

  18. @Lisa Your funny story reminds me of my first office job when I was just out of high school. I applied to be a temporary file clerk, back in the pre-computer days when files were all on paper. The temp agency rep gave us a spelling test and was very impressed with my score. No one had ever gotten 100% on the test before and the other applicants in my group had much lower scores.

    But they hired all of us!

  19. About 15 years ago I was subjected to a skills and personality test by a small company to determine if an interview would be granted. The skills test consisted of elementary school math and other rudimentary knowledge. For a software development position that typically requests a technical college degree. The personality test seemed oriented towards deviance and ethics. It was all perfectly ridiculous, but being unemployed, figured it might be educational. It certainly confirmed my belief about how silly these tests are.

    Interestingly, the company said it would share the test results, but I never bothered following up since I didn’t care. I wasn’t invited back either. Guess I flunked.

  20. Actually, it could be worse. During the 1980’s I occasionally encountered small boxes on application forms requesting a handwriting sample. For years I puzzled over this, until learning it was for handwriting analysis (Graphology), which is supposedly still prevalent in Europe.

  21. Just recently when I applied to a couple of Energy Companies, I was required to take a personality test and some other test with word problems about a flag pole and a fence, a boat and the rate of current if the boat went up stream and made it to its destination, shapes and its rotation cycle, and other absurdities because the company thought highly of my resume and my potential as an employee. Of course, I didn’t pass the word tests which they say had no right or wrong answers but I didn’t make it to the interview level. All I was applying for was a receptionist or a Administrative Assistant position!!! If I knew how to answer those questions then I would have applied for the engineering positions! Ya think? Now I’m terrified of applying for an Admin. position at any energy company!

  22. @scared_to_death: Jumpin’ Jehosophat! Don’t worry. The HR consultants that sell those idiotic tests to employers don’t make it into many companies. Just the ones where HR is rich and lazy.

  23. great piece of information very providing.