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by Jayne J. Feld | March 31, 2009


You may expect to get questions like "What is your greatest weakness?" and "Tell me about yourself" at an interview. But would you be expected to answer whether or not you salt your food before tasting it?

That's just one of the weird examples of interview testing. And many interviewees wonder whether these tests measure anything except the quirks of the company.

One interviewee, Marianne Waters, was asked to rank virtues of importance to her.

"Taking the test wasn't the strange part," the puzzled candidate told "It was the way my soon-to-be supervisor would look over my shoulder and see what I was entering. Wouldn't you feel pressured to rate "Honesty" and "Integrity" at the top of your list? Well, I did."

Waters got the job - as a trainer for a San Francisco-area software company. But she's not the only member who has left a job interview questioning what, if anything, pre-employment tests have to do with predicting future job performance. ~

Weird tests

Some members have been grilled by surly psychologists; others had their handwriting analyzed. A woman recalls a test that involved eating lunch with employees at a Boston radio station where she wanted a sales job. She was judged on whether she salted her food before tasting it. "Flexibility measurement, I assume," she says.

And one member says she took a typing test in a smoke-filled room.

"Two of the principals smoked cigars and a previous secretary had walked out because she couldn't handle the smoke," she told Vault. "Neither could I, as it happened!"

But testing is on the rise

A study by the American Management Association showed that 44 percent of its responding members use tests to select employees. Moreover, forty percent of Fortune 100 companies include some form of psychological testing in their employment selection processes, according to the Society of Human Resources Managers.

While cognitive ability tests continue to be the most commonly used form of psychological testing in the workplace, according to SHRM, personality tests are being used more and more frequently.

Debby Tolocko, a member who has been on a frustrating hunt for a banking job for four months, claims companies place too much stock in these tests. Three times, she says, she has failed tests she believes were meant to measure her aptitude for banking. None of the companies seemed to take into account her 18 years of experience in the banking/mortgage profession and knack for teaching others the ropes.

What's so frustrating, according to Tolocko, is how she was told at all three interviews that there were no right or wrong answers. After bombing the tests, she says, she was told her scores prevented her from advancing to the next level of interviews.

In one test, at a bank in Jamesville, WI, Tolocko was directed to a computer in the bank's main lobby by the main doors - a spectacle for all passing-by patrons to see. She was given two to three hours to answer 50 questions, including 50 high school algebra equations. It took her 50 minutes to fail and to have her self esteem crushed.

"There are a lot of really great people out there that companies are losing out on having in their ranks," she concludes.~

Personality matters

Clearly there are good, bad, and very bad ways to measure whether a person has the aptitude, personality and stomach for a job, says Carol Rudder, CEO of DiscoverME, which bills itself as the first and only personality-based placement service on the Internet.

Assessment tests must be strongly tied to job performance, says Rudder. A company must be able to prove their assessments are well researched and test what they say they are testing, she says.

"Bigger companies generally do things a lot better," says Rudder, a former accountant who realized that accounting wasn't the right fit for her personality. "Smaller companies tend to do things their own way."

Once when she was working as a human resources consultant, she recalled, she came across a CEO who wouldn't hire anyone for a sales job who hadn't been captain of his or her basketball or football team.

"Could one defend (some of their processes) legally? Probably not. Did it work for them? It might have," Rudder says.

The use of personality tests is on the rise, Rudder says. The most common exams are respondent surveys. Candidates are given statements and asked to fill in boxes indicating the degree to which they agree or disagree with the statements.

Increasingly, Rudder says, companies are turning to personality tests not to screen the anti-socials but to predict if a person will be happy and productive in a job.

While cognitive exams are meant to measure a person's ability to do a specific job, so-called "soft skills" tests like personality assessments "measure a person's capacity for learning, flexibility on the job and whether the person has traits that predispose him or her for success in a given job," she says.

"Our skills set becomes obsolete so quickly that often the right person is the one able to learn and adapt to new environments more," Rudder says.

The Internet is playing a role in revolutionizing testing, she says. DiscoverME, for example, works two ways.

Job seekers who take the online test are given career advice and matched to jobs considered the best fits, based on personality traits revealed by DiscoverME. That way, she says, candidates don't waste time getting their hopes up for a job that does not suit them.

Companies, including Merrill Lynch and other Fortune 500 companies, use DiscoverME to see how closely candidates match desirable traits for a given job, Rudder says. The criteria were developed based on profiles of people who have been successful in a specific career.

A true picture?

Still, not all job seekers are convinced such tests give a company an accurate picture of the candidate.

Marianne Waters, the trainer, points out that a test is merely a snapshot of a person on a given day. Having a bad day could throw off someone's answers on a test, she says. And while they can be valuable, in her case the fact that the test administrator was snooping over her shoulder altered her answers.

Says one member who took a test for an insurance firm: "The test was meant to benchmark you against top business persons in terms of response. [It] tested the validity of your responses by asking questions over and over by wording them differently. OK, yes, I scored well on the test, but walked away thinking about what every person has endured to get in the door here.

What about real skills, like critical thinking and creativity and ethics?!"


Filed Under: Interviewing