My good friend Tom is a software developer. He’s incredibly smart, and he has one dominant criterion for hiring people. They must have a high IQ. A very high IQ. He considers other attributes, but IQ is the first hurdle. Many employers put job candidates through various tests, and make the first cut of applicants that way. Some use skills tests; others go for aptitude; some even start with personality.

I’m not big on tests in the hiring process. I want to spend time with a candidate, and I want to talk to people who know them and to people who have worked with them. (The candidates won’t necessarily know who I’m talking to. I want my own picture. But that’s just me.) Often, I won’t even meet a candidate if I don’t already know all about them. Some managers won’t interview candidates until after they’ve seen test results. (Erica Klein’s excellent article, Employment Tests: Get an edge, is a good start to researching this topic.)

If I had to use a test, I know what it would be. I would give it only after checking after the individual’s reputation (which includes intelligence). It’s the test of optimism that Martin Seligman provides in his outstanding book, Learned Optimism.

This test tries to identify a person’s explanatory style. That is, how do they explain things that happen to them? The way people explain things to themselves — that is, what they attribute events to — reveals whether they are optimists or pessimists. (This is part of another area of study called attribution theory.) The idea is that pessimism makes people feel helpless; and, if they feel helpless, they are less likely to take action to succeed at whatever it is they want to accomplish.

Figure out whether a person is an optimist or a pessimist, and I think you can start to predict whether they will be able to deal with the obstacles they will encounter on the path to success.

Here are a couple of Seligman’s test items. The first seems obvious, but the second, well, don’t bother trying to figure it out. The point is to respond to each item quickly and honestly. For each situation, try to vividly imagine it happening to you. Then choose the cause that would apply to you.

  • You do exceptionally well in a job interview.
  1. I felt extremely confident during the interview.
  2. I interview well.
  • You save a person from choking to death. 
  1. I know a technique to stop someone from choking.
  2. I know what to do in crisis situations.

Why hire anyone but optimists? If you’re a manager, what are your key criteria for making a hire? What do you look for first? Do you use tests? What kind?

If you’re a job hunter, what tests have been administered to you in job interviews? Did you find them legit, or kooky? What’s the best way for an employer to assess your ability to succeed on the job?

  1. Hire based on intelligence and confidence and of the two, confidence is more important. Given some reasonable level of intelligence and you think you can, you probably can. Have always hired that way, with 100% success. People who got hired by others and whom I inherited rate 50/50.

  2. I’ve had quite a few tests over time, ranging from an IQ test to a “skills assessment” test. There is a reason for having them, though I think sometimes some of them aren’t really that great as a way to get know if I have a skill. For example, do I know all 3 principles of Object-Oriented Programming? Somewhat but not totally and if someone did ask me this I would likely give what I can off the top of my head and then say I’d refer to a book to check it.

    I’m reminded of what Joel Spolsky’s take was on interviewing people, they had to be smart and get things done were the two criteria he looked for in candidates.

  3. The most important criterion for hiring is how well the candidate fits with the job that needs to be done. Creative work (like research or design) is best done by optimists, people who are so confident in their skills they will barrel ahead. Salespeople also need lots of confidence.

    But what about QC? A confident optimist is likely to be bored and frustrated by meticulous troubleshooting. When you ask “What color is the building?” the person who answers “The two sides I can see are white,” probably has the attitude to be a very good auditor. Thinking in specific, limited, terms, makes great copyeditors, patent attorneys, auditors, regulatory affairs specialists, and so forth. Why hire anybody but optimists? Because somebody has to look for trouble, and it’s useful to have somebody on your team who is good at it.

  4. Laura,

    “Somebody has to look for trouble!”

    Bravo! The dogs nipping at our heels, keeping us moving. I think you’re absolutely right. Management guru Tom Peters offers another version of this: “Hire weirdos.” Why? Because they will take you in new directions.

  5. Back in the mid-1960’s my sister, then with a BS in math and working on her masters, interviewed for a job at IBM. As part of the process she had to take an IQ test. As it happens, she had administered and scored the exact same test as part of a summer job, so she knew all the answers. Which she told them. They insisted she take the test anyway! As you might expect she did very, very well.

    They were quite anxious to hire her for some reason, though she declined their offers.

  6. I’d say: “Where can I apply?” :D

    Got a very high IQ, and looking for a job that challenges me…