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How to Choose Hiring Assessments That Work for You

Mental ability tests are the 'single best predictor of job performance,' expert says

A woman in glasses is standing in front of a group of people in an office.

​Remember the four V's the next time you're being pitched by a selection assessment vendor, Whitney Martin told attendees at the recent Society for Human Resource Management 2018 Talent Conference & Exposition.

Martin, the president of ProActive Consulting, an assessment strategy consulting firm in Louisville, Ky., said she's inundated with calls asking which prehire assessment is the best.

The data support the growing appeal of assessments. According to the Talent Board's 2016 North American Candidate Experience research report, 82 percent of companies are using some form of pre-employment assessment test.

Martin responds to the question of which test is the best with, "Why are you thinking about using an assessment? What are you really trying to accomplish? "

Just wanting to make better hires is not a clear enough goal, she said. "Whether you're trying to impact staff retention, sales volume, early hire failure rate, employee engagement, productivity, theft, absenteeism or drug use in the workplace, there are different assessment instruments designed specifically to measure constructs that can directly impact these, and countless other organizational issues or goals."

Applying the four V's will help you understand how best to integrate data from assessment tools that directly correlate with the objectives most important to the business.

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Vision. Organizations do not give enough critical thought to why they want to assess candidates, Martin said. "Think more critically about why you're using a particular tool. Is it because it's cheap and easy, or because everyone's using it, or are we really being clear about what we're trying to move the needle on in the organization, and are we using screening methods that are aligned with that?"

The objective must be granular, because the various kinds of tools lend themselves to fixing different problems. "Once your objective is clear, you can determine what you can measure that will help to predict the specific outcome you seek," she said.

Validity. Extensive research has been conducted on the predictive validity—the overall ability to predict job performance—of different hiring assessments, and some are better predictors than others, Martin said. Employers rely heavily on the least predictive measures, including interviews, reference checks, four-quadrant personality assessments and emotional intelligence tests, she added.

Assessments with higher validity include mental ability tests, integrity tests and multimeasure tests, which incorporate a variety of measurements, according to the research. "Mental ability is the single best predictor of job performance, period," Martin said. "A lot of people struggle with that. You can also run into adverse-impact risk with this type of test. So you've got to be clear about why you're measuring mental ability and directly correlate it to outcomes you wish to improve."

She recommended coupling these tests with additional measures to get a more robust picture of the individual, and using the tests later in the hiring process to minimize adverse-impact risk.

Four-quadrant personality assessments—in which the results classify people as some combination of four different options—are the most widely used type of personality test by employers. They can be used effectively for team building and coaching but should not be used for hiring, Martin said. There are serious limitations to using them pre-employment, from both a compliance and a reliability standpoint, she said. These assessments, in which the test takers select adjectives that most or least accurately describe themselves, rarely have any sort of lie detection or distortion measure included, which makes it hard on HR to base a decision from the results, she explained.

"Because hiring is such a high-stakes moment, [if I'm a job seeker] I'm probably going to want to put myself in the best light and answer with what I think you want to hear. Even if the test taker is being honest, these self-assessments are designed to grow with you over time and be reflective of that moment in time. If someone's test results will be different in six months, how can it be used to predict performance?"

Verification. Once you know what you're trying to accomplish and the types of assessments with a high degree of validity to get you there, you still need to shop from among the thousands of vendors in the marketplace. "If you've sat through a sales pitch you've probably felt the pain," Martin said. "Vendors bash their competitors and say their test is the greatest."

Test publishers should be able to provide mounds of data showing how rigorous they were in developing their tools. "Any prehire tests must be reliable, meaning they have internal consistency, and retest reliability—the likelihood of the results being the same as the first time the test is taken," she said.

"For tests to be truly predictive of individual performance and business outcomes, assessment providers need to have done their research," said David Solot, analytics product manager at assessment provider Caliper in Princeton, N.J. "It's not as simple as creating a short, mobile-friendly quiz where you've only done three or four validation studies with a few hundred people. Personality testing in particular is something that needs to be normed over time, where you collect a large enough amount of data to be able to say with confidence that certain personality traits predict certain performance."

Value. The last step is demonstrating through validation studies that the use of a particular test is statistically correlated with what you're trying to predict. "In other words, as test scores go up, turnover goes down, or as test scores go up, productivity increases," Martin said.

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