Smart Selections

By Martha J. Frase Dec 1, 2007
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HR Magazine, December 2007 Intelligence tests are gaining favor in the recruiting world as reliable predictors of future executive performance.

In the complex process of selecting talent for executive posts, it's common to have candidates take tests designed to measure various characteristics-- behavior, for example, or personality, attitudes, integrity or "emotional intelligence."

Lately, a less common type of test-- one that measures pure cognitive ability-- has been gaining ground among recruiting professionals, particularly those in executive hiring.

"There is a movement to convince companies to do mental ability tests," says Frank L. Schmidt, Ph.D., the Ralph L. Sheets Professor in the Department of Management and Organizations at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "Academic research is driving this, as evidence is ccumulating that mental ability is the best way to measure predicted job performance." Schmidt has been doing much of that research. His decade-long work suggests that general cognitive ability influences job performance largely through its role in the acquisition and use of information about how to do one's job. People with higher levels of cognitive ability acquire information faster and more easily, and are able to use that information more effectively.

Concerns at the Start

Certainly, some HR professionals question the usefulness and even the fairness of administering intelligence tests in connection with candidate selection. A major concern is that intelligence tests discriminate against certain groups.

Linda Bond has had serious doubts. About 15 years ago, when she was director of human resources at GTE's Management Development Center in Norwalk, Conn., she was concerned that minorities were at a disadvantage because of culturally biased questions and differences in academic exposure. And there was little evidence at the time to prove otherwise.

But in the years since, the science of assessing general cognitive ability-- known to psychologists as "g"--has evolved, alongside strong evidence that rigorously designed and executed intelligence tests are not culturally biased.

So Bond has altered her position. "Executive intelligence testing now tends to be more situational, and it has a place and a value," she says. "There appear to be tools to measure and assess critical-thinking and leadership skills." Bond, who left GTE and earned a law degree, represents employers in employment and labor cases for Rumberger, Kirk and Caldwell PA, in Tallahassee, Fla. Now, she says, as she looks at the use of intelligence testing in candidate selection "from a legal perspective, I say, go for it, as long as you can prove it does not have a discriminatory impact and that there is a legitimate business reason for the testing." She adds that in her more than 10 years of legal practice, she has never seen a discrimination case based on intelligence testing.

Qualified Support

Intelligence testing for executive candidates is, for some, a useful tool but not an exclusive one. "In the hiring process, it's important to gather as much information about candidates as possible that relate to the job criteria," says Lori A. LePla, Ph.D., a consultant in organizational development and personnel assessment for Plante & Moran, a global certified public accounting and business advisory firm based in Southfield, Mich.

"G" can be used as a baseline screening at lower levels, she says, but in filling executive-tier posts, "it's another piece of data we have to predict future performance."

In her consulting practice, LePla uses a variety of standardized tests, including intelligence tests. "In general, we find that it's one component of a best-practice selection system that would have several components. As organizations become more progressive, they incorporate more of these best practices."

Not everyone accepts "g" as a necessary selection criterion, however. "It's not wide enough as an indicator to be leaned on really heavily," says Lester Levine, senior director of human capital management for Day & Zimmermann, a Philadelphia-based global provider of engineering, security and other business services with 23,000 employees. "But if you are looking to have the complete picture--say, trying to select between two really qualified people--it's another arrow in the quiver."

Levine says that while "g" may be "a very good test of potential and has been used that way, people who are selecting senior-level employees are looking for those who have applied that potential." In other words, why test executive candidates for intelligence when you already know that they are smart? After all, Levine says, "you are picking from people who have been very successful or they wouldn't be on your radar screen. That's fairly good documentation that you have to be pretty smart to get there in the first place."

Justin Menkes, managing director of New York-based Executive Intelligence Group, who provides executive talent assessment to clients, agrees that past performance is the acid test of an executive's potential for success. "But measuring this can be really rough," he says. "It's hard to collect numeric data when you are relying on a candidate's descriptions, truthfulness and information that is sometimes hard to pull out.

An intelligence test makes somebody figure out the right answer in front of you, in the moment, showing their facility for problem-solving."

In fact, intelligence testing can work as a marketing tool for the hiring company, Menkes says. "Executives can't stand the dog-and-pony [show]--the popularity contest of the interviewing process. Anyone at their level can tell a good story, and doing that can be tiresome." But a chance to show their off the- cuff problem-solving skills in an intelligence test can get them fired up about the job and the company, he says.

Indeed, although it might seem as though senior executives would bristle at a requirement to take tests of their brain power, most candidates actually like such tests, according to industrial and organizational (I/O) psychologists who use cognitive testing. Schmidt says candidates often view the tests as an opportunity to show their mettle. "The job then means more to the successful candidate, because not just anyone could have gotten it."

Targeted Applications

Different hiring circumstances lend to the usefulness of intelligence tests, LePla says. "If a candidate has a prior history of on-the-job learning, has had great mentors, has tried-and-tested solutions in his or her toolkit, and is applying for a position that is very similar to previously held positions in which they've had proven success, then intelligence tests will not give us much unique information. "But if you know the candidate will need to face a steep learning curve or will be making decisions outside of [his or her] area of expertise, the intelligence test can be helpful in predicting how quickly and effectively the candidate will perform."

Schmidt offers another possible reason for intelligence tests for proven executives: the politics of internal hiring. "Sometimes, you are in the position of selecting among internal candidates who are already part of the top management team," he says. "No matter who is chosen, they will have to work together, and it can be a touchy position to have to promote one over another. "Intelligence testing can provide a more objective, quantifiable way to predict which candidate will be best for this particular job."

Menkes notes that some companies give a classic IQ test to every candidate because "they want to be a culture of academic excellence. They want booksmart people; they don't care if the IQ cutoffs are a turnoff " to candidates.

Beyond the No. 2 Pencil

Intelligence testing was developed by French psychologist Alfred Binet in 1905, initially to identify schoolchildren who needed special instruction. "It was never intended to be a holistic measure of intelligence," says Menkes. "The classical Stanford-Binet IQ test is a powerful predictor of how well someone will do in school, but it becomes less predictive in other applications."

So unless you are promoting a Mensa-type culture, Menkes says, look for an instrument that measures what he calls "executive intelligence." Such instruments can evaluate skills such as the ability to identify flawed assumptions, recognize unintended consequences, evaluate the quality of data or identify the core issues in a conflict--"all in a format that more accurately emulates the real business environment," he says.

There are hundreds of established intelligence tests on the market, so if you are committed to establishing an assessment program, you might want to try a few to find one that fits your business.

Marni Dorman, SPHR, corporate director of human resources at the Scott McRae Group, an automotive sales company based in Jacksonville, Fla., uses both the Hogan Personality Profile and the Watson Glaser Aptitude Assessment. "We use these in the selection process for all levels of management in our auto dealerships and in our Auto Credit Finance Division as well," Dorman says. Test results do not eliminate candidates, she says, "but these assessments seem to be right on target for predicting success in our industry."

The two tests are used together, Dorman explains, to determine both a candidate's leadership style and his or her ability to acquire new skills. Some auto dealership managers have been dictatorial in the past, she says. "We're striving to get away from this, and also to get insights into candidates' capacity to learn." It was the company's in-house I/O psychiatrist, she continues, who decided that "this particular one-two punch is the best for us."

Menkes prefers to sidestep "fill in the bubble" standard instruments; he conducts intelligence tests as structured 30-minute interviews in which candidates consider practical situations that are germane to the position. Usually, the interview is carried out by an HR professional or an I/O psychologist. All interviewees are asked the same questions, and their responses are scored. "You are looking for them to get to one or two ‘right' answers," he says, so that results can be measured and compared with those of other candidates.

Deciding on a Test

Most publishers offer off-the-shelf tests and have experts who can tailor a version to your business needs. The advantage of an off-the-shelf test, Menkes says, is that it comes with a large pool of results that you can use to compare your candidates' performances with others who have taken the same test.

Typically, tests are sold as individual units for use by one candidate, starting at $10 for each off-the-shelf test. If you decide to construct your own test or to tailor an off-the-shelf exam to your needs, it's essential that you work with an I/O psychologist to ensure that the test can be validated, say assessment experts such as John W. Jones, Ph.D. While it may seem like a time-consuming step, it's necessary "to avoid test misuse," he explains.

"You need to verify your instrument with qualified people. The end product must be properly constructed and validated so there is no impact against protected groups."

Jones, president and senior I/O psychologist for IPAT Inc., a developer of assessment tools and strategies for employee selection and coaching in Savoy Ill., says it is always more complicated to do it yourself than to use an off-the-shelf product, but "a lot of companies have in-house industrial psychologists who can develop ascorable interview that presents intellectual scenarios and hypothetical simulations that skew toward intelligence and mental ability."

If you don't have an in-house expert, Jones suggests, check with the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology "to see if there are I/O psychologists in the neighborhood or at the local university, so you can ask them questions about what's appropriate for your selection needs." He also notes that the American Psychological Association "has rigid professional standards that guide testing and use."

In addition, Jones recommends contacting the Association of Test Publishers (ATP), which represents providers of tests and assessment tools and services related to assessment, selection, screening, certification, licensing, and educational or clinical uses. "Their members are committed to only turning out scientific, legally sound instruments," he says.

Jones advises contacting several ATP members, telling them about your business needs and seeing how they respond. Your I/O expert can then evaluate the responses to help you pick the top three publishers so you can ask them to present a formal proposal. "You want to make sure they send you all relevant research on the instruments they use," he says.

Use your I/O expert to help you make a final choice of publisher and test. "It's better when you have a psychologist as a second opinion, but make sure to pick someone without a bias or business relationship with any publishers," Jones says.

Assessing the Results

Once candidate testing is completed, Jones suggests, bring back your I/O expert for a day to do a comprehensive assessment and to compile a short list of about three candidates for review.

"Hiring managers often do see actual scores," says Schmidt, and they can get a lot of information this way. But some companies prefer to mask numeric scores "by using a simple code that puts candidates into a range, like green, yellow, red."

But there is nothing wrong with letting candidates see their own results, Menkes says. "This is a great tool for feedback." He concludes that intelligence testing, "if you do it right, will bring a positive reaction from executive candidates. They get to demonstrate their problem-solving [skills] in a jobrelevant way. They respect that, and it leaves an impression of a business culture that cares about excellence. That's not a bad message when you are recruiting."

Martha J. Frase is a freelance writer in Martinsburg, W.V.

Web Extras

SHRM article:
You're Hired! Business Plus Brains Equals On-the-Job Success (Reprinted from The Spectator

SHRM research:
Selection Tests (Briefly Stated) 

Web site:
Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology 

Web site:
The Association of Test Publishers 

Web site:
The American Psychological Association's Testing Information Clearinghouse

Before selecting an off-the-shelf intelligence test for the workplace, get samples of several to find one that best suits your hiring culture and business needs. Among the most popular instruments for such testing are:

  • Advanced Numerical Reasoning Appraisal.

  • Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices.

  • Watson Glaser Aptitude Assessment.

  • Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale.

  • Wonderlic Personnel Test.
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