first impressions

Feb 01, 2001 10:30 PM  By

Everyone has a favorite story to tell about the job candidate who was less than perfect, from the man who took his mother in with him to the interview to the one who brought in a six-pack (and proceeded to drink it). But in these highly relaxed times, how do you tell the pleasantly kooky from the seriously deranged? Does the clown suit hide a highly talented performer or a clueless klutz? The celebrated humorist Dave Barry writes in his latest book that one of the perks of his job is that he can go to work dressed in any costume he wants, including some truly tasteless outfits. But for the rest of us, life isn’t quite so cushy. We can’t cut ourselves or our employees much slack. With turnover cost topping 75% of wages for most jobs, it makes good sense to disqualify losers before they make it too far in the hiring process and to do everything possible to sign up the right person the first time.

When you do, you save money, time, and aggravation by reducing job turnover. Also, your training dollars and developmental efforts are spent more productively, on the people who are more likely to help your organization grow and prosper as they achieve greater success.

Process this Whether you are a small cataloger or a multi-channel retailer, performing important functions consistently is the best way to maximize the probability of achieving the desired result. The key to increasing hiring success is to conceive of hiring as a process. The better the process, the better the result is likely to be. Hiring is no different from other business processes, even though many companies treat it differently. Often companies fail to document their hiring procedures. Employers take shortcuts, forget steps, or eliminate them, even though lack of consistency in recruiting and hiring can lead to serious legal problems.

Think in terms of a complete hiring system that incorporates formal assessments. A rule of thumb is to make assessment information about one-third of the basis for a final decision to hire. The other two-thirds would encompass relevant experience, necessary skills, the ability to perform essential job functions, education, interview results, and background checks.

Standardized assessments add objective information to the highly subjective hiring process. They help generate reliable feedback. Assessments are not designed to make the decision for you, but they do give you more useful information – information that is often below the surface – about a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Basically, assessments help to identify candidates with the highest probability of success and eliminate those who are less likely to work at the level you require.

Take one A USA Today study of human resource executives shows that 63% of all hiring decisions are made in the first 4.3 minutes of an interview. The rest of the interview time is usually spent justifying this initial decision. Obviously, such a quick choice is based on the personal experiences and likes or dislikes of the interviewer rather than job fit. We tend to hire people we like whether they are the most competent applicants or not. Gut feel does count for something, but as an employer, be careful not to rely too heavily on your instinctive reactions.

An estimated 40% of companies use formal assessments for hiring and development today, compared to less than 16% only about fifteen years ago. Most assessments designed for business use are easy to use, affordable, and readily available to companies of all sizes. Assessments typically take anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes to complete and can be scored and processed immediately with a computer program or on the Internet.

Some assessment tools are general in nature, others specific to one sort of position (customer service or sales, for example), and some even have a feature that allows you to customize them by job classification to suit your company’s needs. Some measures are simple aptitude tests that evaluate basic math or verbal skills or proficiency on specific software programs. Many are personality tests.

Tool types Tests vary greatly from provider to provider. Some assessments are current and geared for today’s workforce; others have not been changed in over 20 years. Some tests have no validation, others are validated with only a small, controlled test group, and still others with a large, diverse group of working adults. Most assessments are geared toward hiring, but some provide excellent coaching, training, and developmental tools as well. Diagnostic self-assessments help individuals increase their self-awareness and acceptance of others and perhaps understand the need to change their own behavior. For current employees, 360-degree feedback instruments provide multi-rater feedback from a variety of sources such as self, boss, peers, and direct reports.

Personality tests are probably the oldest type of assessment, and they still offer the most variety. Most such tests rely on the honesty of the individual who completes the assessment, as they contain no check for distortion. A person could easily answer the questions as he thinks you would like them to be answered. Because of this, personality tests are usually not recommended for hiring. They can, however, serve as excellent coaching and training instruments.

Once you pick the correct assessment tool(s) for the position you are trying to fill, you should be sure to use it on a consistent basis as part of your hiring process. The best assessments for hiring contain some type of distortion score that measures the frankness and honesty of the candidate in answering the questions and gives the interviewer confidence in the results. They also provide appropriate follow-up questions based on the applicant’s answers to help the interviewer better determine if this individual is a good fit for the job and a match with the corporate culture.

Honesty and integrity tests are very popular with many employers today, although they can be used only as a pre-employment tool. These low-cost, easy-to-use assessments are most commonly used for entry-level positions through first-line supervisory jobs. They are given early in the hiring process, often when the applicant comes in for the first interview. Usually administered in paper-and-pencil format and scored on a computer, these tests typically are written to an eighth-grade reading level, take about 20 minutes to complete, and contain from 75 to 125 multiple-choice questions. Although a few companies might still worry about the legalities of testing during the hiring process, in reality, using a job-related and validated assessment tool in a consistent manner can actually help protect against some negligent hiring situations. According to a recent U.S. Department of Labor publication, employment tests can be used to gather accurate information about job-relevant characteristics and to predict applicant and employee job performance. This information helps assess the fit or match between people and jobs. The appropriate use of professionally developed assessment tools usually enables organizations to make more effective employment-related decisions.

Many companies have achieved dramatic improvements through the use of standardized assessments. For example, one Detroit-based company with about 150 employees in three different locations tracked the results of an improved hiring process that included the use of two assessment tools. This company uses a documented hiring procedure with assigned responsibilities for each step. The responsible party must initial each step as it is completed, and the completed form becomes part of an employee’s personnel file. The company measured results for two years before using assessments in its hiring process and for two years after changing its hiring system to include two assessment tools. The before-and-after survey found that turnover dropped 75% (from 43% to 11%) and productivity went up 24%.

Show and tell A good example of an assessment program is the software package called Assessment Center, produced by Waco, TX-based Profiles International, Inc. Assessment Center includes six assessment tools, each with a specific focus, from entry to management levels. The measures are called Step One Survey, The Profile, Customer Service Survey, Performance Indicator, Call Center Survey, and Team Analysis. Some of these tools are used for hiring at different levels, some geared to coaching and training, and others linked to improved productivity, communication, and teamwork. All the assessments in this program can be administered in booklet form (paper and pencil), on a computer, or via the Internet.

The client scores assessments and processes reports on-site, either online or with an easy-to-use Windows-based software program. Reports require no special interpretation; most assessments include a graph and a detailed explanation of all the factors being measured and how well the candidate matches certain criteria specific to successful job performance.

The Step One Survey costs about $20 per survey (the price varies according to the number of surveys purchased). The survey reports on an applicant’s attitude and work history in four key areas: integrity, reliability, work ethic, and attitude toward substance abuse. Generally speaking, if problems surface in these areas, the person is considered to have little chance for success and longevity on the job.

One popular assessment in the Assessment Center program for both hiring and coaching employees is The Profile. Usually administered near the end of the hiring process, after the field has been narrowed to a few candidates, The Profile measures the “total person” in three areas: thinking style, occupational interests, and key behavioral or personality traits (most assessments focus on only one area). The program uses a 1-10 rating system based on the bell curve of the adult working population.

A customized benchmarking feature makes The Profile suitable for many positions, and this tool also offers six report options (a placement report, a job profile summary, coaching and individual reports, a multi-job match, and a job summary graph).

The Thinking Style area of The Profile looks at verbal skill, verbal reasoning, numerical skill, and numerical reasoning. The composite of these four categories is shown as a learning index, which is an index of expected learning, reasoning, and problem-solving potential.

Another section of The Profile, Occupational Interests, offers insights into a person’s indicated interest in six specific occupational areas: people service, technical, mechanical, creative, enterprising, and financial/administrative.

The Behavioral Traits section of The Profile can prove especially insightful – a good match here often translates to the difference between a top and an average performer. This section measures energy level, assertiveness, sociability, manageability, attitude, decisiveness, accommodation, independence and judgement.

Since The Profile emphasizes “job match,” you can build customized benchmarks into the software for many positions. For some jobs you may need the applicant to score on one end of the scale and for other positions a score at the opposite end is desirable. Sometimes you may want applicants to score in the middle and have a good balance, being able to more easily adapt to different situations.

The Profile’s “placement report” feature can provide an overall percentage match of the candidate to the job pattern (benchmark) and show in what areas a candidate matches and where he or she does not fit into the desired range. The report also provides suggested interview questions wherever the candidate does not match to help you explore how much of a problem this mismatch might be.

After you make a hiring decision, you can run an assessment tool such as the coaching report that The Profile offers and give it to the new employee’s supervisor. It will help the supervisor understand the new hire better and provide coaching and training tips.

From hiring through development and retention, easy-to-use, effective assessment tools can help increase productivity, lower turnover rates, and improve communication among workers you’ve already hired. Armed with these tools, you can maximize your chances for making a wise decision when faced with a man in a clown suit who claims he’s dying to work for you.

Dan Kiurski is the president and owner of Partners for Success, Inc., a company that specializes in helping businesses screen, hire, and retain top performers. Kiurski can be reached at by phone at (248) 828-1490 or by e-mail at dank@partnersforsuccess.net.