AFTER a long interview process during the summer, Dionne Glenn was told she had to do one more thing before learning whether she would be hired as a branch manager for Central Bank of Houston: take a simple multiple-choice test online. “They told me it was a management test,” Ms. Glenn, 34, said.
It didn’t take her long to realize that it was actually a personality test. “It threw me off,” she said. “I was expecting questions about how I would handle myself in a variety of situations.” Instead, she said, she was asked to choose from a list of personal attributes that best described herself. In dealing with others, for instance, was she “cooperative, agreeable,” or “sweet, pleasing” or “stubborn, unyielding”?
Although she knew there were no wrong answers, she said she worried that her responses would not accurately reflect her personality. Ultimately, Ms. Glenn, who has 13 years of experience in the banking industry, was hired. The company allowed her to view a report assessing her personality, work style and abilities, and Ms. Glenn said it was uncannily accurate. “It really works; my profile was exactly me,” she said.
The use of pre-employment tests has been increasing as businesses look for ways to winnow the rising pool of candidates in this tight job market. Companies of all sizes and across all industries – like Toyota , Bank of America , Sonesta International Hotels and Subway, to name a few – use them routinely. For employment testing companies, this has meant an increase in business of 10 percent to 15 percent a year, on average, for the last three years, said William G. Harris, executive director of the Association of Test Publishers.
These psychometric tests, as they are known in the industry, measure psychological attributes – “measuring the psyche,” explained Debra Condren, president of Business Psychology Solutions, an executive coaching firm with offices in New York and San Francisco. Under this umbrella fall personality tests, intelligence quotient tests, ability testing and aptitude tests. Some are geared for specific industries or jobs. “Business needs some tool for qualifying,” said William Byham, founder of Development Dimensions International, a company in Costa Mesa, Calif., that helps with selection, promotion and training of employees. “You can press a key and send your résumé out to 2,000 organizations.”
Another factor is cost. Employee turnover is often expensive: the Society for Human Resource Management estimates the cost of replacing supervisory, technical and management personnel at 50 percent to several times the departing employee’s annual salary. Testing experts say psychometric tests can greatly improve the chances of finding the right person for a particular job or corporate environment; the tests can be relatively inexpensive to administer, often less than $50 a candidate, although the cost can go as high as $10,000 for senior executive positions like chief executive.
EMPLOYERS generally use more than just one test to make a decision; in many cases, several tests are used in conjunction with interviews.
Many tests now on the market measure what people in the industry call “the big five”: conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness and extroversion. Steven Lorenzet, a professor of human resource management at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., said studies show that psychometric tests are accurate predictors of how someone will behave at work.
Dave Ratner, founder and president of Dave’s Soda and Pet City in Agawam, Mass., a small chain of stores selling pet food and a variety of sodas, said he learned that the hard way. When he experimented with testing three years ago, he said, he was warned that a candidate he wanted to hire would not be right for the job. “I went against the advice of the tester and hired the guy,” he said. “Two months later, after I invested all this time and money training him, he up and bolted.”
In the two years since he made the testing of job candidates routine, turnover has been lower and personnel problems have been rare, Mr. Ratner says, adding that he now pays close attention to the test results.
Stephen Henson, a vice president at Kelly Blue Book in Irvine, Calif., a resource for car buyers, said the company tests job candidates to find employees with “a specific set of skills” or traits for certain positions.
“We had a couple of really strong candidates for this data analyst spot,” he recalled, “but after they took the personality profile test we found their personality made them ‘inspirational and charming,’ someone you would like as a person.
“Although those are great attributes, this particular job doesn’t call for someone who is social,” he said. “We need someone who is a great critical thinker; accuracy is important to them.”
For job applicants, pre-employment tests often add anxiety to an already stressful process. “I knew there was a lot of competition for this position, and I wanted it,” said Ms. Glenn, the bank manager from Texas. On the day of her test, she said, three other candidates also were waiting to be tested.
Kelly Wright, recently hired as an account manager at Hetrick Communications, a marketing and public relations firm in Indianapolis, was given a personality test at the end of a five-week period that included several interviews and a take-home writing assignment. Ms. Wright, 37, has 17 years of experience in public relations. But Pamela Klein, chief operating officer of Hetrick, said that because it had only 24 employees, it could not afford any mistakes in hiring.
Ms. Wright, of Lebanon, Ind., said her reaction to having to take the test was “both surprise and terror.”
“I felt like I was already a good fit for the company and had gotten positive feedback from my interviews,” she said.
So what should job candidates do? Just answer the questions candidly, authorities on testing say, and treat the tests as another recruiting tool. Besides, they say, the tests could prove just as useful for the job seeker as for the potential employer. “Yes, you may lose the job, but then again, it may have not been the right place for you,” said Mel Kleiman, managing partner at the Hire Tough Group in Houston, which devises recruiting programs.
Employers who administer tests are generally looking for candidates who can fit into the corporate culture and handle the demands of the job. Some want to weed out candidates with traits that may be deemed undesirable, like aggressiveness.
“We’ve had a lot more interest in what we do in just the last three or four months,” said Michael D. McIntyre, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Business, who helped develop a multiple-choice test for hostility. He uses the test in his consulting work.
“We look at underlying personality traits to assess the risk of a person acting in a hostile way,” Mr. McIntyre said.
He says his test includes reasoning problems that ask test takers to draw conclusions. “Other tests ask someone if they have a bad temper, things like that,” he said. “No one is going to admit they are a powder keg waiting to explode.”
He says that 5 percent to 10 percent of the people tested will score high enough to be considered a risk for aggressive behavior.
SCREENING also can assess integrity and leadership qualities. Because of recent scandals across corporate America, some companies are scrambling for tests to screen out people who are unsuitable for top executive spots.
Steven Berglas, an executive coach and adjunct professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, says he has developed a test to identify narcissistic character traits and people who cannot adapt to change. “You want leadership to be responsive to change, like market shifts,” Dr. Berglas said.
His test, conducted orally, asks executive candidates questions like these: “When you made the biggest mistake in your professional life, what did you learn?” and “Who do you give most credit for your career success?” He said the ability to share success and acknowledge failure provide insight into how someone might function in a powerful role. Dr. Berglas says he is converting the interview into a written test.
Although some job applicants may dread a pre-employment test, it may help to motivate them after their hiring. “Testing gives the impression that a company wants the best people it can get, that it is very selective, that you are special,” said Aurelio Prifitera, president of the Psychological Corporation in San Antonio, which sells human resources-related tests.
Jerry Velasco, 50, the new director of training for managers and supervisors at El Taco Tote, a chain of Mexican restaurants, said that before he was hired in October, he had to take a 50-question Wonderlic Personnel Test, which measured I.Q. At first, Mr. Velasco said, he wondered if it was truly necessary: after all, he had considerable experience in the hospitality industry, having spent 18 years working for Marriott. But in hindsight, he said, he found the test to be a good evaluation tool.
“I definitely can see how it could be very useful,” he said. “I feel now like I know I’m a good fit for this job.”
Thuy Pham, 26, a newly hired data analyst at Kelly Blue Book, said she found it reassuring that the company cared enough about its employees to go to such lengths. “I have worked at other companies where they only wanted me to perform a function, and as long as I could do that, it was enough,” she said. “I want to stay in this job a long time, so I’m actually glad they care enough to determine if I am a good match.”