In the June 23, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, Nick responds to readers who want to know what he thinks of a Time magazine cover story about employers that use “XQ” to assess job applicants.

Your XQ: More HR B.S.?

Readers have been peppering me with questions, asking my reaction to a recent Time cover story: How High Is Your XQ? It’s about “strange questions you need to answer to get a job in the era of optimized hiring.”

Translation: It’s about employers’ new-found love for letting third-party personality-testing companies decide whether to reject you before the employer even meets you.

I give the author of the article, Eliza Gray, credit for dealing with “optimized hiring” candidly and critically. The article is worth reading. (If you don’t subscribe to Time, you can’t read the full story online. Everyone, however, can read an online companion piece, Find out if your personality fits your job.)

In this week’s newsletter, I’m going to tell you what I think, and suggest how you might deal with this latest effort by HR executives to abrogate their responsibilities for hiring.

But what really matters in all this is what you think, because that’s what will rattle these employers. Read on, then join me in the discussion below. We’ll talk.

A $2 Billion Industry

Time reports: “Convinced by the gurus of Big Data that a perfect workforce can be achieved by analyzing the psyche and running the results through computers, hundreds of employers now insist that job candidates submit to personality tests.”

stuffed-animalA $2 billion testing industry, funded by your friendly neighborhood HR department, “evaluates” job applicants even before an employer decides they’re worth interviewing. Yes, you too can get rejected before you’re even considered.

What does all this entail? “Tests that can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours,” says Time.

Why does HR do this? It’s simple. HR doesn’t want to recruit, judge job applicants, hire, or be held accountable. So HR execs farm their work out to third parties that are not regulated — but who control whether you get a job.

What it means: HR has left the building. There’s a stuffed animal in the HR VP’s chair signing contracts, outsourcing hiring to clowns wearing psychologists’ hats. These employers consider their employees fungible commodities. (See An insider’s biggest beefs with employment testing.)

My advice: Strike back, especially if you’re gainfully employed. “Sorry, my policy is not to take tests or fill out voluminous forms until the hiring manager and I decide there’s good reason to continue talking. When can I meet the manager?”

I realize that if you’re unemployed, you might hesitate to be so assertive. But consider that after you invest your time, odds are very high that you’ll be rejected by an algorithm — time you could spend interviewing with a human who really wants to hire you.

Bottom line: Any employer that won’t take the time to meet you before rejecting you operates without integrity and is not one to work for.

The No-See-Um Assessment

What are HR departments looking for?

algorithmTime reports: “It isn’t an IQ rating or even EQ, the emotional intelligence quotient that came into vogue in the 1990s. There’s no name yet for this indispensable attribute. The qualities are so murky that often not even the employers chasing it are able to define it; they simply know that an algorithm has discovered a correlation between a candidate’s answers (such as an expressed preference for classical music) and responses given by some of their most successful workers. So let’s call it the X quotient… your XQ test, an exam that no one has prepared you for.”

What it means: You apply for a job. HR has no time to interview you. (See 7 Mistakes Internal Recruiters Make.) It makes you take a test instead, saving its time and money, while you play outsourced psychological games, spending your time like it’s free. These tests reveal correlations, which reflect nothing about your skills or ability to do a job.

Your answers to useless questions like, “Do you understand why stars twinkle?” correlate with the answers of successful employees. But statistical correlations don’t prove anything. They merely suggest you’re similar to someone else. If you’re not, it doesn’t matter that you can do the job better than any other current employee. You lose.

My advice: Don’t play the No-See-Um Game, in which no one interviews you. Insist on being seen by a hiring manager in person. There are many companies that respect job applicants and assess them face to face. (See Kick the candidate out of your office.) Don’t feed the $2 billion racket. Find an honest employer instead.

Meet Andy Biga

If hiring decisions that are based on test correlations are really not a good thing, why do employers rely on them?

jet-blueTime tells about a JetBlue HR executive named Andy Biga who “optimizes hiring.” He processes 150,000 job applicants for the airline, and hires 3,000 of them after they “get past the battery of tests Biga’s team designed.”

Biga says, “I believe this is really the future for hiring.”

Oops: It seems Andy Biga is full of baloney. I know, because I spoke with Dr. Arnold Glass, a leading researcher in cognitive psychology at Rutgers University. Glass adds a measure of Real Science to Biga’s claims about Big Data in the service of HR:

“It has been known since Alfred Binet and Victor Henri constructed the original IQ test in 1905 that the best predictor of job (or academic) performance is a test composed of the tasks that will be performed on the job. Therefore, the idea that collecting tons of extraneous facts about a person (Big Data!) and including them in some monster regression equation will improve its predictive value is laughable.”

The Time reporter “called Biga and his protege, another 30-something data wiz named Ryan Dullaghan, after the conference to see if they’d talk me past the buzzwords and through what they’re really looking for in a new hire. No dice. After all, if the traits they wanted in an employee were printed in TIME, they said, job applicants might be able to game the test.”

What it means: JetBlue and companies like it don’t hire you for what you can do. They hire you because you correctly agree or disagree with statements like, “I feel stressed when others rush me.” What that means is a secret. That’s how they game you.

ftcMy advice: Buy a lottery ticket instead. Because, can you imagine how Andy sorts through 150,000 applicants? BZZZT! That’s a trick question! He doesn’t. Nobody at JetBlue does. If JetBlue had any idea how to recruit the right people, it wouldn’t throw 150,000 strands of spaghetti at the wall.

Andy has a big problem: The FTC is looking into how these hiring algorithms promote bias and discrimination. Ashkan Soltani, the FTC’s chief technologist, says, “We have little insight as to how these algorithms operate, what incentives are behind them or what data is used and how it’s structured.” CIO magazine reports that the FTC has formed a new Office of Technology Research and Investigation to look at bias in hiring algorithms.

Soltani cautions: “A lot of times the tendency is to let software do its thing. But to the degree that software reinforces biases and discrimination, there are normative values at stake.”

Oops. There goes Andy Biga’s future.

Meet Charles Phillips

This racket is so corrupt that I couldn’t make up what Time disclosed.

Time reports: “One of the bigger outfits is Infor, a New York–based software company that claims to assess a million candidates a month–a number that translates to 11% of the U.S. workforce.”

b-s-buttonHertz, Boston Market and Tenet Healthcare outsource candidate testing to Infor. The company “concocts a job applicant’s ‘Behavioral DNA,’ a measure of ’39 behavioral, cognitive and cultural traits,’ and compares them to the personality traits of the company’s top performers.”

What it means: “Behavioral DNA” is a B.S. marketing term with no scientific meaning. Now for the good part. Says the Time reporter: “Infor CEO Charles Phillips admitted he’d never taken the test when we spoke, adding, ‘I’m scared of what I might find.’”

My advice: A CEO who admits he won’t eat his own company’s dog food — but wants to feed it to you — has no business rejecting you for a job at arm’s length. Kudos to Time for exposing Infor. Look up the list of Infor’s clients. Would you apply for a job at any of them, knowing how you’ll be “assessed?” Find employers who don’t serve Charlie Phillips’ dog food to people who apply for jobs.

Correlation Is King

What is Infor selling to gullible HR executives who couldn’t recruit a dog to bite a mailman? Correlations, reports Time.

Phillips and his testing chums sell “a mostly unchallenged belief that lots of data combined with lots of analytics can optimize pretty much anything–even people. Thus, ‘people analytics,’ the most buzzed-about buzzword in HR circles at the moment. Included in people analytics is everything from looking at the correlation between compensation and attrition to analyzing employees’ email and calendars to see if they are using their time effectively… Correlation is king, even when causation is far from clear. So it’s only natural that data worship would take hold in hiring.”

Remember what Rutgers’ Dr. Glass said: “The idea that collecting tons of extraneous facts about a person (Big Data!) and including them in some monster regression equation will improve its predictive value is laughable.”

Meet Ray Dalio, animal wrangler

According to Time, one employer that does its own “people analytics” is Bridgewater Associates, the world’s biggest hedge fund. The company’s founder, Ray Dalio, expresses a belief that HR execs are quickly adopting:

wild-animal“Without data, we are no better than cavemen he says. ‘Society is in its animal, emotional state that is the equivalent of the dark ages. We are in this transition period where all that is hidden in darkness will come out through statistical evidence,’ he says.”

What about all this testing, correlation and prediction to assess candidates for jobs? Peter Cappelli, a leading HR researcher at the Wharton School of Management, cuts to the chase: “Nothing in the science of prediction and selection beats observing actual performance in an equivalent role.”

But none of the executives cited by Time select candidates by observing them actually performing a job.

The Science Of Snake Oil

dissedIt’s no accident that Andy Biga, Charles Phillips, and Ray Dalio are not scientists. They’re snake oil salesmen using fake technical lingo (Behavioral DNA? Jump, Spot, jump!) to impress lightweight HR executives. “Big Data” impresses HR charlatans who hide behind other charlatans to whom they outsource their own jobs — recruiting and hiring.

The bunch of them love to pontificate about “evidence based” assessments. Yet real HR researchers, cognitive psychologists, Time magazine, and the FTC tell us there’s no evidence, no science, and possibly no integrity in any of this.

(There are ways to apply for a job by going around these obstacles. See Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3, Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition)).

We Have Met The Enemy

Job seekers at every level — including some of the smartest, most educated people in America — have met the enemy on the jobs battlefield. And the enemy is job seekers themselves. They’ve let themselves be suckered.

As long as job seekers consent to be treated like commodities, as long as they let their teeth be checked like horses at auction, as long as they subject themselves to imperious bureaucrats who hold up hoops to jump through, then they’ll be abused.

Job seekers are their own biggest enemy. Folks, you have to grow some integrity of your own and refuse to be abused.

So, how do I get a job?

Job seekers tell me all the time that they’re terrified to buck the system. So, how can they possibly land a job in this miasma of phony science, trumped-up hiring technology, and HR bullying?

It’s simple. Please pay attention.

Time reports that job seeker Kelly Ditson finally landed a job after subjecting herself to demeaning online applications and personality tests. She stayed up “as late as two in the morning to finish just four applications.”

In one case, “she made it to the 95th question on the Chili’s [restaurant chain] application only to have [the] wi-fi connection cut out. She had to start all over. Chili’s had no comment for Time. Ditson said she was exasperated… In the end, she got her job the old-fashioned way: calling the manager at the Olive Garden until she hired her. She started in March.”

Ditson went and talked to the manager she wanted to work for. One on one, not one in 150,000.

No one can make a fool out of you if you don’t let them. (See Employment In America: WTF is going on?) When will HR wise up and realize it’s losing the respect of job seekers every day? When will HR realize it’s being played for the fool by software companies masquerading as scientists? When will HR realize that “the people game” is played with real, live people — not phony “evidence” derived from “Big Data” by tech wonks working for stuffed animals in the HR suite?

HR will realize it when job seekers stop rolling over.

My Advice

HR execs say there’s a talent shortage. That puts you in the driver’s seat, folks — it’s a seller’s market!

keep-calm-and-have-integrityThroughout Ask The Headhunter — the website, blog, newsletter, books — I talk (write) myself blue in the face about how to demonstrate that you’re the profitable hire. (For example, Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6, The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire.) The best employers hire those that can do the job — they don’t diddle databases to find people who hate opera singing, know why stars twinkle, or would like to be the color red.

If you don’t say no to employers who treat you like a dog begging for a bone, you’re going to wind up in the dog house. There are good employers and managers who respect talented workers. They will meet you and judge you in person. They will introduce you to their teams and assess whether you can do the work, get along with others, and contribute to the bottom line.

HR executives and the employers they work for should be ashamed of themselves — outsourcing hiring, the most proprietary edge a company has. Ray Dalio is wrong. You are not an animal in an emotional state. Tell any employer or testing company that treats you that way to shove it. And go work for one of their better competitors.

That’s the only way to end the optimized rejection of millions of job applicants.

Is there an end to this? Have you been abused by employers and subjected to “evidence-based hiring” that relies on phony “science” and made-up “tests?” Are you ready to say NO and move on to employers that respect people enough to talk to them rather than “analyze” them blindly? Let’s hear about employers that are worth applying to!

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  1. Nick,

    I hate tests, forms, and bs.

    I’m coming towards the end of a contract I may or may not see about renewing and in nearly all of my efforts to procure a new job or contract assignment, I’ve so far successfully avoided HR forms and tests in each case.

    In one situation, it was just a hiring manager with whom I had a “shop talk” discussion months ago reaching out to me because a position came up. Even when HR tried to but in, he and I both agreed that we’d rather meet in his office in a week or so and just talk generally.

    In another case, it was prompted by me doing an old friend a program courtesy of referring a few hires to him for a bid I knew his company would be up for. He asked me how I was, and if I had time if I could meet with him and colleagues about other miscellaneous business.

    No forms. No tests. No nonsense.

    Just keeping tabs on other peoples’ business needs and occasionally that naturally leads to them scratching your back.

    Keep up the good work on this blog.

  2. **”professional courtesy” not “program courtesy “…

  3. I work in data. The crap you describe so well doesn’t really have anything to do with Big Data besides using the buzzword as a selling point. It reminds me of the ’60s, where people were gullible enough to believe that if it came from a computer it must be true.
    Here’s how it should work. You take a subset of successful people, analyze their characteristics, and try to build a model of them. This is called training. Then you run the model on a larger set of people, some of whom are known to be successful, and see if your model finds the successful people most of the time. First, I bet dollars to doughnuts that no one ever did this. Second, you need more datapoints than you are likely to find in one company. Third, different jobs require different characteristics, so it would only apply to one type of job. Find a model that will select good artistic directors and apply it to CPAs and you get creative accountants.
    So, scientifically, this stuff should be grouped with astrology. Calling these guys snake oil salesmen is treating them better than they deserve.

  4. You’ve gotta see the new season of Orange is the new Black — a corporation takes over Litchfield Prison and administers psych tests to the inmates to determine who is eligible for new prison jobs — I won’t spoil it for you but it is revealed how the actual selection process works!

  5. Mike Stone – priceless!!! OITNB perfectly portrays testing for jobs.

  6. If Jet Blue hires employees that way, possibly including pilots, then I will certainly think it twice before booking a flight with the airline.

    Also, if you play the No-See-Um game, and I did it once with terrible results, chances are your “profile” will be kept in records indefinitely and shared with other employers. Not good at all.

  7. @Carl: Funny how easily that works, eh? :-)

    @Scott: I know it’s got nothing to do with Big Data. But HR loves to talk about Big Data any time it has information about something. Personality test results are “Big Data” – it’s “Big” because to HR it’s incomprehensible. I think the problem in all this has long been mirrored in the job board industry, where, as in “optimized hiring thru testing,” a bunch of database guys build a cool system that seems to sort job applicants – and then wonks like Andy Biga, who have absolutely no expertise in testing, proclaim “this is the future BECAUSE WE INVENTED IT.” Never mind that – as you point out – scientifically it’s filed under astrology. The fools in HR want to believe it’s real, because they paid an awful lot of money for it.

    @Mike Stone: I’m way behind on OITNB – can’t wait to check out the new season and the lessons in prisoner sorting…!

    @Jorge: Thanks for noting something that I have not brought up in a long time. The third parties that process applicants’ “Big Data” re-sell it to other employers, who are their other clients. Kinda makes you wonder if they don’t all share interview notes as well. “No need to interview this one. Andy Biga didn’t like her. Next.”

  8. Nick, I hope it’s OK if I not use my real name for this comment. I’m pretty sure you’ll recognize my email address and know that I’m a long-time reader — and implementor — of what you teach, both as a successful job hunter and now as the hiring manager for a small team. For an employer that is an Infor customer.

    The fact that my employer is an Infor customer came as a surprise, but it certainly explains some of the issues I’ve encountered when filling vacant positions on my team. I’ve had people directly contact me (relationships built as you’ve taught; I’ve tried to keep the door open as a hiring manager, just as I wanted them open when I was looking) about my vacant positions — people I wanted to consider — but it was like pulling hen’s teeth to get HR to pass the resumes to me! I guess the applicants didn’t pass the silly test (a test that I didn’t have to take since I came on when my company bought the contract I was on. Thankfully. Otherwise I’d probably be working elsewhere myself!).

    Don’t get me wrong; they’re a good company once you get hired. I’ve seen a substantial raise since I came on board that is a direct result of “delivering the goods”. I hope one of the company higher-ups read this and reconsiders this silliness.

    The last guy I hired came with a reputation for being a troublemaker and causing problems but is very good at doing the job I hired him to do. I took him out for a cup of coffee the first morning and directly addressed the issues that had caused problems in the past. Guess what? After clearly setting expectations before his first lunch break, I haven’t had a bit of trouble from the guy. Amazing what happens when managers actually show a bit of leadership instead of relying on HR to only pass through candidates that play well with others (but can’t do the job), eh?

    I never would have seen him had I simply relied on the “wimpy” resumes that made it through the HR process. Quite frankly, I prefer somebody that can do the job but needs a bit of polishing than somebody that never colors outside the lines but can’t analyze their way out of a wet paper bag.

    IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A JOB: Keep on doing what Nick says. Seek out the hiring manager. I want to talk to you and I’m certain I’m not alone. PLEASE don’t give up.

    IF YOU’RE A HIRING MANGER: Ditto. Talk to people. Keep the chute loaded. And don’t be afraid to “nag” HR to get the people you want (and don’t be afraid to talk to your people if their behavior is disruptive).

    A Long-Time Reader

    P.S. — “Correlation is king, even when causation is far from clear.” — I cringed when I read that. As a senior analyst that is constantly beating up his team about the fact that “Correlation does NOT equate to Causation”. HR (and everybody else) needs to stop trying to “play” analyst. They don’t know what they’re doing and they are making inaccurate decisions because of it.

  9. Here is another “scientific” solution. We could have each candidate appear on the show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” (With the prize being the job they want.) No one would hire anybody!
    God Bless Nick. You are the voice of truth and reason in the land of charlatans.

  10. When I was an undergrad I took a psychology class and we had to sign up for 10 experiments so the grad students could learn how to do studies. I took one experiment (at the time I didn’t know what it was about) but it was a short version of the Meyers Briggs test. The Prof called because the grad student was confused by my score. He asked if I’d take the full test. I did (because flattering undergrads is a really good idea). I got the score. I was really, really dominant in 2 out of the 4 boxes and was just sub-dominant in 3 box. Therefore the Prof told me and the students that I was the exception that proved the rule that you could predict humanity but you’d never be precise.
    Anyway, after that I didn’t want to ever take a short MB test ever again. How was an HR person supposed to make head or tails out of my score?

    Lately I found out that Meyers Briggs test isn’t very scientific. See

    So the Prof wasn’t all that savvy either.

    My advice: Don’t take any tests which do not show you actually doing the job.

  11. Fantastic article as usual. Thanks for openly identifying some of the companies involved as well. Maybe the word will get back to the “right” people to put an end to the insanity.

  12. The tests clearly do not show aptitude as I know way too many people who are really good at what they do and they get screened out. Why in the world would you want to hire someone effective and efficient – right? These companies are penny wise and pound foolish. Moreover, I know many managers who have hired terrible employees simply as a big middle finger to their own company. Usually these individuals found out their job was getting cut from one of their many inside contacts and decide to screw over the company. The applicant screening process is dangerously broken.

  13. Infor proudly lists Radio Shack as a customer? Is there anything left to pick from those bones?

  14. Another great post, Nick. I died laughing at some of your statements. Keep ’em coming!

  15. The problem with the personality and behavior tests is that there is no choice for “it depends.” However, if interviewing for sales, always check that you would rather go to a party than read a book. I know it depends, but you must give correct answers to be considered. Also, be consistent, or you are lying. The hiring process sucks.

  16. From the wonderful and prescient movie, Broadcast News:

    Paul Moore: It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.

    Jane Craig: No. It’s awful.

    Nick, I hope it’s not awful for you.

    I read this blog because people who see the world with clarity, and have the courage to speak up about what they see, are rare and inspiring. Thanks.

  17. @Nick: Fantastic piece.

    @EEDR: Precisely. Some years ago I had networked my way to a hiring manager; he was enthusiastic about my background, but before he could talk with me officially I had to take a personality test. Virtually EVERY question was situation-dependent on what my answer was… with, of course, no room for that. Needless to say I didn’t get in.

    Ultimately what this boils down to is FEAR. FEAR of a DA DUH DAAAA bad hire, and thus the quest to slough off responsibility for the decision onto someone, something, ANYTHING else than the hiring manager doing their job and making a decision.

    In my essay:

    I quoted an HR type from his essay:

    In which he said:

    Another problem with using personality tests is disempowerment. 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 [rather than the person] “decides who will stay and who will go.” (My addition in [].)

    This way, if there is a BAD HIRE, they can point to the test, not any decision the hiring manager made.

    I feel another column coming on… :)

  18. Companies better hope that they don’t get what they desperately want from these tests. Here’s why.

    Let’s set aside reality and assume that these tests actually work to screen applicants. The problem is that using these would homogenize a company’s workforce. The tests would essentially make a company culture very similar to the “ideal” candidates.

    While that may sound good, consider that this means a company would create a “successful culture” for how things are today. Business history is replete with companies that became successful because of what they did at a particular junction of history/technology/economic development but then fell apart because they kept trying to repeat or replicate what they did in the past while the rest of the world changed.

    These tests would create the exact same problem. Companies should think of their employees as an ecosystem. A diverse ecosystem* can adapt and respond to changes. One based on just a few creatures is at risk of a systemic shock that can easily and quickly wipe it out.

    Unfortunately, if the tests did work and this happened, you know what most companies would do. They’d double down. “More data! More testing! Let’s refine that model and be even more selective! And let’s hurry because we’re losing market share because we can’t find any candidates!” (Lather, rinse, repeat.)

    (* If anything, companies should be like groups of ecosystems. Every team/department/group has its own culture and forcing a team manager to hire someone based on some overall cultural model developed with “big data” is a mistake. You don’t put a tiger in a penguin exhibit and expect it, nor the penguins, to survive long.)

  19. Nick, you are no better than the big data companies as you throw all tests into one big pool. I have been through the gauntlet and the vast majority of companies that use testing do it only after at least one round of real interviewing so the idea that it is a first screening (and spending money on everyone who can fill in an application) is just fiction.

    Most companies testing is never used and is a waste as you say but I have seen several companies that use it as one tool to help them understand how people will get along in the workforce. One company I consulted with uses it for all hires manager and above. Over the past five years, including their hourly plant workers, they have less than a .5% annual turnover which is a number most companies would die for so there is SOME basis to the testing. I need to point out they also have a doctor meet with final candidates to discuss their backgrounds and validate some of what the testing proves.

  20. I once worked for a publishing company that used the Predictive Index system. The idea was to develop an indexed pattern for a particular job and its functions, then give the test to see if the applicant’s pattern matched therefore being well suited for the job. Every manager and HR person was required to go through the training and use the system when looking for new hires.

    A few years later I was interviewing for a job that required I travel several hours for the interview. I was told I had to take a Predictive Index test. I told the employer that I was very well versed in how to construct and manipulate the test. I had to take it anyway. I didn’t get to see the pattern they were looking for before I had to take the test. Had I been able to see the pattern I’m sure that I could have given the needed answers to match the pattern. Needless to say I didn’t get the job.

    Waste of my time and money with that potential company.

  21. Nick,

    Another great piece, and more insightful comments from your astute readers. Chris makes a great point about the danger of a homogeneous workforce.

    The theory behind this nonsense is that you hire people who emulate your best employees. What if your employees aren’t that great? I’m sure we’ve all worked somewhere that our fellow employees were just average. Or at least there weren’t any geniuses at the firm. How about hiring someone who’s above average and letting them inspire?

    The next logical step in this development is, of course, counter-measures. Companies will spring up that help you beat the XQ test. They will probably be formed by people who worked in Big Data and know how to game the tests. While this is just a further level of insanity, it could help to make the tests less common in the long run.

    Inevitably, something new and shiny will be created by another snake oil salesman looking for that fast buck. XQ will become yesterday’s news, and everyone looking to duck the hard work will move on to the new flavor of the month. While this is good, the new, shiny object will probably be even worse than XQ.

    Perhaps there will come a point where all hiring just comes to a grinding halt due to the weight of the BS it is supporting. Then someone somewhere will be forced to address the underlying issues. If you’re an optimist, maybe someone will come up with a radical new approach to hiring that is a great way to select candidates and spreads like wildfire.

    In the meantime, ATH readers will continue to cultivate their networks, getting the best jobs that are never advertised.

    Thanks again for all the great work you do, Nick. I’m sure it’s frustrating at times, but you are one of the few sane voices in an increasingly insane world. Keep ’em coming!

  22. How, as an interviewee, do we reject these tests? Simple tell the company ‘thanks but no thanks’ and move onto the next potential interview?

  23. About two years ago, we used a modified IQ test as an experiment to help us hire a production manager. It was interesting how applicants reacted. A couple of them flat out refused, but most of them gamely jumped in. We ended up hiring the one with the highest score after interviewing the top 5. She was perfect, a perfect nightmare! Paranoid, controlling, disruptive – she was fired after 5 months of hell. The test gave us permission to abrogate our judgment. Dumb.

  24. The FTC is investigating??? Finally something to be happy about! I’m gonna reach out to them cause I’ve got loads of stories to “assist” them.

    A few years ago I applied for a job with Bullhorn (take a guess what they make), immediately after submitting my online application I received an email ordering me to take their personality test. I sent them a written letter telling them politely but firmly what I thought of them (I even quoted from this site). Take a look at the interview comments on their Glassdoor profile, clearly they’re PROUD of their testing process, smh.

    @Martin P: “the idea that it is a first is just fiction” — People like you baffle me. Where does this “I haven’t seen it so it can’t be real” mentality come from? (Btw, your belief in something isn’t necessary in order for it to be true.)

  25. @sighmaster. I guess facts would baffle you. I am basing it on thousands of applications personally and with those who I have worked with over the past five years. The number that use it as a first cut for professional jobs would be less than 1/100th of a percent.

  26. @Chris: Exactly. (OK, call me prescient, but I wrote about that in 2013…)

    @Scott: A fantastic idea in theory. Unless you’ve got “heft” and “pull” they’ll shrug their shoulders and move on to the next person who is eager-beaver to show just how good a drone, er, employee they’ll be.

    At the risk of being cynical, even if a company suffers from a lack of candidates because of this, and even if the reason for that lack penetrates to HR, do you think they’ll admit their pet program to “improve the breed” is causing the issue?

  27. @david Right, and as someone that is in fairly high demand, I’d feel OK telling them I won’t play that game with them. I guess we can also use thes bogus pre-hiring personality and IQ tests as an identifier for places that good employees don’t want to work – after all if they have to rely on pseudo-science ‘testing’, they may as well pullout a Ouija Board at the interview :)

  28. Anyone who’s seen the great silent film “Metropolis” can understand the picture of thousands in lock step this creepy testing conveyed to me.

  29. Nailed it once again – NICK FOR PRESIDENT!!!!

  30. @A Long-Time Reader: Thanks for sharing your story. It’s important for people to see this through a hiring manager’s lens. Kudos to you for doing your job, even if it means going around the system. Companies talk about “empowering” their people, but sometimes you need to TAKE the power.

    @Bob: According to the Time article I cited, the Meyers-Briggs was created by “a suburban housewife with no formal training in psychology.” The conclusion in the article you cited is “Perhaps the best use for the MBTI is for self-reflection.” Ditto for Ouija boards.

    @Michael Gavaghen: Aw, just throw money :-). Thanks!

    @Chris: “The problem is that using these would homogenize a company’s workforce. The tests would essentially make a company culture very similar to the “ideal” candidates.”

    Hope you didn’t miss my mention of the investigation being launched by the FTC about this problem precisely. I think what employers are missing is the fatal flaw you describe: They’re hiring more of the same. They want someone who has done “the job” for 5 years already, at a lower salary. What dope would take a job s/he’s been doing for 5 years? One that isn’t growing or learning. Uh… small problem there…

    @Martin P: “they have less than a .5% annual turnover” Are you saying there’s evidence proving that testing produces that kind of low turnover, or is there just a correlation?

    There are indeed companies that test after the interview, and that’s better. But so what? If a test reveals something worrisome, how do we know it’s really worrisome? I think such tests can stimulate useful discussions with candidates. (See comment above from A Long-Time Reader.) But when they are used to make decisions, I think employers blow it.

    @Larry B: I’m sure we will see what you predict – countermeasures. What I wish some entrepreneur would give us is a test that job applicants could demand that hiring managers take – before they apply. I mean, let’s pick our managers using evidence!

    “Perhaps there will come a point where all hiring just comes to a grinding halt due to the weight of the BS it is supporting.” I think we’re there. They call it a talent shortage when there’s no shortage of talent.

    @Scott: “How, as an interviewee, do we reject these tests? Simple tell the company ‘thanks but no thanks’ and move onto the next potential interview?”

    Yes, it’s as easy as that. But I’d offer to interview anyway, if they’ll skip the test. Let them decide. I’ll always choose the better employer when I invest my time. Life’s short.

    @Peter: Thanks for that story from the trenches. ” The test gave us permission to abrogate our judgment. Dumb.” Like I said, HR is looking for permission to avoid accountability. And it’s got $2 billion worth.

    @marilyn: I will not seek, or accept, the nomination for president. :-) Thanks for offering, though.

  31. Nick…great question of me.

    I am saying that testing as part of a proper hiring process works. No individual part of a hiring process works in a vacuum and testing is no different. I agree many companies waste time and money using it and then mis-use it or ignore the results all together. This is similar to many job seekers who use the book Strengthfinders to determine what they do well. It is an input to ones self evaluation, not the be all end all of life, the universe and everything

    This company uses it to understand how people interact and behave as part of a team. I also should add for them it is neat the end of the process before they bring the final 2 or 3 candidates back for final meetings.

  32. @Martin P: I think tools used properly can be a good thing. But “tools” get quickly adopted by naive employers who want hiring “faster, easier, cheaper – and don’t blame me!”

    Of course there are employers who use testing intelligently. But what escapes most people – not just employers – is that such tests don’t do what is claimed, and test vendors claim a lot. If your company is using tools in a limited way, good for you. But in general, I think HR misuses such tools extremely. Just look at what the victims have to say.

    Consider the JetBlue example in the Time article. 3,000 hired out of 150,000 processed. That hit rate is about the same as the success rate of junk mail. We’re talking 2%. That’s random, Man! I could stand on a corner in NYC and hand out fliers and make more hires than that!

    What’s laughable is that Biga thinks he’s hit on something great! 2%!! I’m willing to bet he’s got more false negatives than hires. That is, among the 147,000 he rejected, there are more than 3,000 more good hires in there. Translation: He’s wasting time, money, and people.

  33. @nic Thanks for the followup – that’s exactly my plan. Though, any place that does these shenanigans probably isn’t a place I want to work.

    The place I’m stuck at now (for various reasons, not relevant here). Started doing these ‘personality tests’ pre-interview, about a year ago. We’ve had several high-level non-management positions open for the entire time, and they can’t get anyone to even interview let alone get to the offer stage. Hmmm, I wonder why? Meanwhile, they’re working on 70% turnover in the last year (no mention of the huge amount of unfilled positions that have been open for months and months), which they tout as being a good thing to ‘bring new ideas and smarts’ to the organization, but meanwhile they run these personality tests that just ensures everyone is the same. How boring.

  34. Critics of selection testing should distinguish between valid “predictive” instruments with high degrees of accuracy and reliability and those that are “descriptive” personality tests. Ask any vendor of such tools for a Technical Manual that provides details of their validation process. They also should offer proof the instrument has no adverse impact on any group.

    As no regulatory body oversees the development of these instruments, there are no doubt many abuses. I recently saw a manager in a Starbucks interviewing a candidate for his insurance company and referring to her DISC assessment. Not legal.

    One benefit to an applicant taking an assessment early in the process is they avoid the “black hole” of submitting resumes to job ads and never hearing back. Or worse, taking a job they are not suited for. As Scott says, if you don’t like to be assessed – it’s easy to walk away.

    The article seems a bit too unbalanced in its point of view either by neglect or with full intent to stir the pot of scandal in HR. Either ignores the good that can be derived from valid pre employment screening.

  35. @john hoskins. All good points – thanks for raising the matter of reliability. The other issue is validity. Many “tests” are hardly valid.

    My bigger concern is how HR uses tets. You suggest it’s best to use them early in the process. Too many employers use them at the front end, before making any commitment of time to the applicant. I’m totally opposed to that. We might as well have a national pre-employment test registry: Take it once, any employer can see it with your permission. As it is, employers use pre-testing to avoid making any commitment of their own to the process. That’s bogus, but it’s the trend.

    HR no longer HR’s. It’s outsourced it all. And that’s stupid.

  36. I am probably not getting hired anywhere ever again.

    Early on, I would get myself into the role of test taker by taking on a role, which I would then forget for the next test.

    Test 1: How would a imprisoned axe murderer answer this test?

    Test 2: How would a Casper A. Milquetoast suck up answer this test?

    Test 3: How would a guy who has been self employed since he was 16 answer this test?

    Test 4: How would a girl who peaked in JV Cheerleading answer this test.

    You get the idea …

  37. @Lucille: Thx for the NYT reference/link.

  38. When I lost my 30 year job circa 2010, and read the prevailing literature on how to secure a position in the new employment landscape, I totally believed that I would never work again because no one would ever hire me.

    It took less than three weeks to fall into clinical depression.

    It took six months of meds and psychotherapy to convince me that my thinking was wrong. I did find work via the old-fashioned way: I answered an ad in the Sunday paper.

    Five years later, it appears that my delusional thinking wasn’t quite a delusion.

    I’m too nice a guy to forward this newsletter to my old shrink with an “I toldya so!” attached.

    About 40 years ago, Harlan Ellison penned a short story about a group of people trapped inside a sadistic computer. (For those of you unacquainted with Mr. Ellison, think Stephen King without filters.)

    The story did not have a happy ending, hence it’s title, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”.

    Reports from the Dilbert Universe of Scott Adams twenty years ago regularly made note that “In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream”.

    I do not recommend clinical depression to anyone. It is a really nasty disease with often fatal consequences. I’ve been very fortunate to be in a five-year recovery.

    Just in time to deal effectively with this crap, which isn’t as bad as my delusions of five years ago, but bad enough.

    As far as the “X” factor goes, my fifty years in the contemporary thoughtscape pretty much confirms what Laurie Anderson reported in her Big Science album: “Let X Equal X”.

    Be seeing you.

  39. @Citizen X: I have Big Science on cassette. Your reference is apt!

  40. @lucille: you beat me to it with the link to the NY Times article. I read it and thought–what is wrong with them? How are all those algorithms working for you? You’re still not hiring because you’re not finding the perfect candidate, e.g., a 20 year old kid with 15 years of professional experience doing the same job, a master’s degree, and he’s willing to come work for you for $6.00 per hour and no benefits.

    @Nick: thanks for posting your thoughts on last week’s Time Magazine article. I read it and was horrified, but not shocked. It seems to me that employers are willing to do anything and pay anything in order to avoid actually meeting with and talking to job applicants. I am just waiting to hear that an app has been developed for hiring the perfect employee, and all employers have to do is download the app to their smartphones.

    All these tests do not amount to anything–just like the GRE, SAT, and other college and graduate school entrance exams, I am sure that it is only a matter of time before a new industry springs up to help job applicants beat these tests, while charging exorbitant fees. In my previous job, one of my tasks was admissions. Some of the applicants had to take the GRE, and all of them worried about it. Not everyone is a good standardized test-taker. But when I reviewed applicants’ files, their GRE scores were never the make-or-break factor in my determination of admission. Lousy GRE scores but strong GPAs and/or excellent letters of recommendation (and perhaps well-written personal statements) often tipped the decisions in favor of admission. But a poor GPA (below the minimum required for admission by the Grad. School), poorly written personal statement, “he’s a good kid” kind of recommendations AND lousy GRE scores spoke volumes created a different picture of an applicant, and even then I would tell him “you will never be admitted the way things stand now, but here’s what you can do to show me that you can handle graduate level courses–you can take up to 4 of our courses as a non-degree student, and IF you earn a 3.00 GPA or above, then we’ll look at your application for admission differently, and those courses will transfer towards your degree”. Looking back, that was my version of Nick’s “tell me about a problem that you have, and I’ll show you how I can do the job profitably”.

    If I had been restricted in how I did admissions, some of the best students in my program would not have been admitted (they did exceedingly well and they all graduated!), much to our loss. Letting an algorithm or relying on personality tests to make your hiring decisions for you, or relying on ATSes to screen out applicants means that you are eliminating those who might turn out to be some of your best employees, and you’re losing them for the stupidest of reasons.

    The perfect candidate is a myth. How about hiring the one who meets 70%-80% of your absolutely necessary skills and education requirements and train him in what he’s lacking?

  41. Great article once again!

    My wife and I went to dinner last night and we were listening to the radio. During an interview, someone said that it takes almost 2x as long as it did in 2010:

    The article mentions one of the reasons is all the extra interviewing/tests/background checks/etc. because companies are too scared to make a hire. Well guess what, in life there are no sure bets. If you can’t handle making a mistake, maybe you shouldn’t be in business?

    (The interviewer also made mention of the fact that we have more job openings than we have had in quite awhile).

    No wonder the “recovery” from the “Great Recession” has been so anemic.

  42. @ Dave:

    Government doublespeak notwithstanding, I have a better chance of seeing a cremated corpse rise from the dead on national TV than seeing this economy recover.

  43. I took a closer look at that Infor customer list. Looks like they have a lot more products than just rejection analytics… oops, I mean people analytics:– their human capital management products page

    It looks like the bad one is called Talent Science. You can tell how proud of the deep psychological insight Infor believes TS brings them. But I don’t think some of their other products are as bad. (For instance, Enwisen, used by the Utah and California state governments, appears to be more of a Q & A tool.

  44. Once again, solid post, Nick. The sad truth is that the companies that repeatedly employ these tests don’t really care about hiring quality employees anyway (otherwise, they would had already kicked these apps to the curb a long time ago), so it doesn’t matter whether applicants reject them or not, in my opinion. Nothing will change for them unless other, more intelligent, competitors do it instead.

    On that note, I still agree that seeking out the hiring manager is the only real way to go as an applicant. It’s been the case for me 99% of the time. But rest assured, unless you are prepared to compete against the very businesses who employ the HR quacks (or perhaps even take them over from the inside) those HR quacks will remain.

    And as for the FTC, does anyone really think its investigations will change anything? Notice how the CIO article references “discrimination”, but not about actual fraud or deceptive advertising toward applicants? If anything, companies should be MORE discriminating (against unproductive applicants) and less criminal, but I’m not about to suggest that the FTC nationalize all businesses…because would be the end of civilization as we know it.

  45. Love this article. In broad strokes, you have to wonder what the effect is of trying to hire employees who “just get along” with everyone else. As a consultant for many top companies, I have come across a small group of employees at most companies that are admittedly a royal PITA to deal with. More specifically I am talking about the useful PITA employees – the ones who find errors, question things, and in general make sure everything is buttoned up. These employees produce quality work and more importantly get other employees to step up their work product. In a world without such employees – things get missed and mistakes are not corrected until they are caught by outside stakeholders. This outcome is clearly not an optimal scenario if you want for your business to be taken seriously.

  46. I’ve been “offered” (required to take) psych tests for four job applications. (Pharmacy clerk, restaurant, business college instructor, and something more or less secretarial.)
    Didn’t hear back from any of them, after disclosing such personal information, which is irrelevant to the job and probably discriminatory against people with certain brain diseases.

    Now, I’d just tell them to shove it.
    If I were in a good mood, I might explain that they’re not predictive of job success, not correlated with anything related to jobs, not normed for job-seekers in any field (the MMPI, which is one I was required to take, was normed on a bunch of farmers in the 50’s; WTH does that have to do with dishing up food?), some are illegal, and they’re being investigated by the FTC.

    Or I might go through the stupid questions but answer by rote: a, b, c, d, a, b, c, d …
    Don’t pay any attention to what they’re asking.

  47. Costco made me sit through a test put out by UNICRU. I was told I would be able to get the results of the test, but when I wrote to UNICRU I got a condescending email saying it was up to the company that administered the test.

    COMPLETE B.S. AND AKSING QUESTION LIKE “WOULD YOU STEAL?” Who would ever answer yes to this. Now, when I see I have to fill out a form, I just bail out. And thanks for the list of clients of these places. I will refuse to buy one dime’s worth of products form any of them.

  48. Hello XX,

    Thank you for the kind words and the invitation. I am quite surprised by the standardized test that XXX has assigned to me through a third party company. I have over 22 years of payment experience at some of the most competitive, cutting edge companies on the planet. I am unclear what such a test, generated by a third party company who knows nothing of payments has to do with my candidacy. I would be very happy to provide character references, have you speak to my former leaders, team members, and demonstrate my capabilities through a payments design session. In my experience nothing predicts future potential like past performance. It is my policy not to pursue positions which rely on standardized tests as a methodology to eliminate potential candidates, based upon comparison to some arbitrary ideal employee profile. If the test is indeed mandatory as described, then I must respectfully decline proceeding further. I have very much enjoyed talking with XXX and XXX, both of whom inspired me in engaging and thought proving discussion. I do hope to cross paths with them someday, perhaps at a payments conference.

    Kind Regards,