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Home > Research Articles > Employers Use Psychological Testing As Part Of Hiring Process

The San Antonio Express-News

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

April 29, 2003

(The San Antonio Express-News) -- Four veteran pilots who underwent the government's first training course for permits to carry handguns on commercial airliners were rejected after they failed at least one of the required background checks, psychological exams and firearms tests.

The practice of quantifying a person's mental endurance, tendencies and underlying abilities debuted 80 years ago when the Army sought to pick the best soldiers.

The draft for World War I had sent thousands of young men to the trenches of Europe, only to have them freeze when it came time to shoot the enemy.

After that bloodbath, the Army hired psychologists to devise a better method for identifying the fighters from the fodder.

The federal government remains the biggest test user, driving an industry based roughly between $1 billion and $6 billion.

A large chunk of that is generated at the Psychological Corp., test designers and publishers that market the famed Wechsler Intelligence Scales and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.

Researchers say psychological testing alone can pick about 70 percent of good employees, but it is far from being the Holy Grail for a company's human resources problems. It is a fragmented industry that includes word games and role-playing as well as multiple choice paper-and-pencil test.

The often circuitous and redundant tests can't always identify the person who would do the best job.

Psychological testing -- which in its infancy in the late 19th century gave electric shocks to the subjects' ears to see how fast they responded -- now encompasses tests of skills, aptitudes, reasoning, and personality traits.

Personality tests study five key traits: conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness to new experiences and degree of extroversion - with conscientiousness and emotional stability being by far the bigger indicators of success.

"When you're highly conscientious and emotionally stable, you regularly come to work on time, stay with the organization longer, and are less likely to quit," says University of Iowa business professor Murray Barrick. "It also has positives for society in terms of better citizenship."

Recently psychologists and test developers have focused on trying to predict a person's penchant for illegal or dangerous activities.

Behavioral tests arose as a way to judge potential aberrant behavior and cut employee theft after the Supreme Court outlawed polygraph testing for most jobs in 1988.

Ultimately, a good test, employers say, makes up for incomplete information gained when checking references.

"Who's going to give the name of someone who will say he's a lazy worker who writes bad checks or steals?" said Mason Duchatschek, president of St. Louis-based consultancy AMO Employer Services. "Previous employers are afraid to give that kind of information because thy are afraid they will be sued."

Good tests also minimize the damage caused by inexperienced or rushed interviews or just the tendency for interviewers to hire people like themselves -- even when that may not be in the best interest of the company.

"To grow a company, you need a wide variety of people," said Mary Martin, president of John D. Hezel & Associates. "But in interviews, we tend to like people who are like us."

Today tests are even built for people who slant answers. Test designers expect a certain amount of distortion, or what they call "socially desirable" answers. So they tend to ask the same questions two or three different ways.

On its 28-point distortion scale, the average person will fall between 16 and 21, management psychologist John Hezel said.

Studies show that people also tend to lie less on pencil-and-paper forms than face-to-face.

Developing just one scientifically supportable test costs more than $100,000.

With the advent of computerized analyses, basic personality tests cost about $50, although management assessments cost about $400. Individual aptitude tests are available for less than $10 a person. Behavioral tests can cost less than $20.

With such inexpensive backend costs, AMO Employer Services successfully markets tests to employers hiring sales reps, distributors in hotel and restaurant industries and even religious institutions. One client, a Roman Catholic service organization in the Midwest, uses behavioral assessments to screen applicants because of duties involving cash and donations.

"The average sales call costs a company $250 to $300 when you count the salary of the sales rep, overhead and administrative support," Duchatschek said. "You could spend half that to find out if a job applicant will blow sales leads or blow client relationships that took years to build."

However, even the best tests aren't foolproof.

Just as employers can get snookered by not checking references and educational backgrounds, employers have been fooled by test questions that have not been shown to widely predict work performance, or by accepting an applicant's glowing test results without checking distortion scales.

Moreover, the predictive power of even some widely accepted practices are still up in the air.

For example, for the typical employers who hire 20 percent of the applicants for most jobs, "faking doesn't affect how well the test predicts performance," Barrick says. "So distortion questions just give peace of mind."

Occasionally, tests that once were acceptable fall from grace. For decades, police officers, nuclear power plant operators, air traffic controllers and security guards had to answer whether they indulged in "unusual sexual practices" or had sadistic fantasies on the original Minnesota Multiphasic Inventory.

A 1996 lawsuit against the parent company of Target ruled that sexual and religious questions were unrelated to the job performance and thus discriminatory. In 2000, Rent-A-Center, a Dallas-based appliance rental company, paid $2.1 million to 1,200 people to a settle a similar suit.

Federal laws are fairly mute on the use of tests other than to say that if a test is biased against groups protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is acceptable only if the test questions truly reflect the required job duties. They also guarantee that applicants be given a chance to re-take a test upon request.

Copyright 2003 The San Antonio Express-News. All rights reserved.