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Personality testing on the rise

Published Aug. 31, 2005

Not so long ago, getting a job was a three-step process. You filled out an application, handed in a resume and sat down for a face-to-face interview.

Increasingly, a fourth step has been added: a pre-employment test _ although it usually is not called a test _ designed to predict how you will behave on the job.

These predictive-behavior personality tests _ also known as personality assessments, profiles, surveys, inventories, etc. _ are used by most Fortune 1,000 companies and increasingly by medium-size and small companies as the test cost drops and their availability increases.

Some experts say the tests do a better job than face-to-face interviews in predicting job performance. Chockalingam Viswesvaran, a Florida International University psychology professor and researcher, does not agree. There aren't any empirical studies on the ability of interviews to predict specific negative behaviors, Viswesvaran said, but "for overall job performance, an interview is a better predictor than a personality test."

However, he said the type of predictive-behavior tests he has studied, known as "integrity" or "honesty" tests, have been highly accurate in predicting specific counterproductive behaviors, such as theft and absenteeism.

Viswesvaran said the use of personality tests increased after a 1993 task force report by the American Psychology Association said these tests are okay. "It gave a big push to the industry," he said, "and around 1995 the testing industry took off."

There now are hundreds of tests on the market, leading Viswesvaran and other experts to warn that employers must be careful in choosing which test to use, and once the choice is made, not to put too much stock in it.

"My feeling is they're overused and overinterpreted," said Eduardo Salas, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Central Florida. "They have limited validity when used by themselves."

Companies that make and market predictive-behavior tests acknowledge their limitations. "You should never base a hiring decision solely on an assessment result," said Markku Kauppinen, president of Extended Disc North America. Extended Disc's questionnaire creates a "behavioral profile" used for hiring decisions as well as for employee development.

Employers "have an easy time identifying skill requirements," Kauppinen said. "They have a harder time identifying behavioral requirements. When the fit is right, both employer and employee will be more satisfied."

But with many of the tests, the promise to employers goes beyond satisfaction to tangible pocketbook issues. A Minneapolis testing company, ePredix, cites studies indicating that companies using its tests experience a decrease in absenteeism and turnover.

A regional bottling company cut the number of sick days in half; an airline reduced tardiness by one-third; a national retailer reduced employee turnover by 40 percent, according to company literature.

"You're asking a number of questions about how they (prospective employees) will behave in a situation, or facts about themselves. These factors statistically relate" to future job performance, says Katrina Dewar, ePredix's founder and chief executive.

For example, an ePredix assessment tailored for a customer-service position includes this question:

"Which one of these would you like best? (Pick one): a. A job where I can work solving problems; b. A job where I can operate an office machine; c. A job where I can be dealing with people; d. A job that doesn't take too much thinking; e. A job where I can be working with numbers."

Darden Restaurants, an Orlando Fortune 500 company, uses a "work-style inventory" as part of its hiring process. The inventory is used for all positions at the company, although the higher the position, the more involved and lengthy the test.

"We don't call it a test. That has a connotation of pass-fail," said Kevin Cottingim, Darden's vice president of leadership development. The inventory "adds insights. We want to make sure we don't set up a person for failure. That's bad for our company and bad for the person."

Cottingim said Darden's inventory is a slightly better predictor of on-the-job behavior than a traditional face-to-face interview, but it's just one of several components of the hiring process. "If they don't get a job here, it was not because of the test."

Another Fortune 500 company, Household International in Illinois, has used predictive-behavior tests for four years. Mari-Esther Norman, human resources manager in the financial service company's Jacksonville call center, said the assessment is done on the computer, takes about 30 minutes and gives instant results.

The company has seen a decrease in absenteeism and improved retention, Norman said, although it is too soon to say those changes are due to the test. But, she said, "I appreciate having a tool that gives us insight as to whether an applicant is right for the position."

Norman said the test can provide information that an interview can't. "In front of a computer, a person might be more frank and honest, compared to being under pressure in a face-to-face interview."

Some employers that use predictive tests do not use them for all employees. Disney and SunTrust, for example, use them only for executive and leadership positions.

Viswesvaran of Florida International University said the changing workplace, with an increasing emphasis on teamwork, makes tests that predict behavior and delve into personality more attractive to employers.

It is not enough for workers to be skilled at what they do, Viswesvaran said. "People need to be adaptable and flexible, so personality will play a major role."