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Screening by Means of Pre-Employment Testing



An organization that makes good hiring decisions tends to have higher productivity and lower turnover, which positively affects the bottom line. Hiring the wrong people can have a negative impact on employee morale and management time and can waste valuable training and development dollars. Pre-employment testing and new screening tools and technology can help HR professionals minimize hiring time and select the most qualified individual who best fits the organization.

Pre-employment tests need to be selected and monitored with care; employers run the risk of litigation if a selection decision is challenged and determined to be discriminatory or in violation of state or federal regulations. Tests used in the selection process must be legal, reliable, valid and equitable, and HR professionals need to stay aware of any developing trends.

Basics of Pre-Employment Testing

Definition of an employment test

Employment tests usually are standardized devices designed to measure skills, intellect, personality or other characteristics, and they yield a score, rating, description or category. However, according to the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures of 1978 issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), any employment requirement set by an employer is considered to be a "test."

Types of selection tools and test methods

Cognitive ability tests measure intelligence. The most common types, IQ tests, measure general mental ability. Other tests gauge verbal ability, math skills, spatial perception, or inductive and deductive reasoning.

Physical ability tests measure strength, endurance and muscular movement.

Aptitude tests measure an applicant's ability to learn a new skill.

Personality tests measure characteristics such as attitudes, emotional adjustment, interests, interpersonal relations and motivation. Employers frequently use these tools, but critics say they are an invasion of privacy and unrelated to job performance. See Assessing Personalities.

Honesty and integrity tests measure an applicant's propensity toward undesirable behaviors such as lying, stealing, taking drugs or abusing alcohol. Two types of tests assess honesty and integrity.

  • Overt integrity tests ask explicit questions about honesty, including attitudes and behavior regarding theft.
  • Personality-oriented (covert) integrity tests use psychological concepts such as dependability and respect for authority. Critics have said these tools may invade privacy and generate self-incrimination. They also claim that candidates can interpret the questions' intent and provide politically correct answers. Some states have regulations regarding these types of tests, so employers should consult with legal counsel before implementing.

Polygraph tests provide a diagnostic opinion about a candidate's honesty, but their validity has been called into question, which has led to restrictions on their use. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 prohibits employers from requiring or requesting pre-employment polygraphs under most circumstances.

Medical examinations determine whether a candidate can perform the essential duties of a specific position (e.g., bending, lifting, walking and sitting). The ADA prohibits pre-offer medical examinations. See What are the compliance issues involved in conducting pre-employment physical examinations?

Pre-employment alcohol testing is not recommended because it is considered medical testing under the ADA, and so must be job-related and consistent with business necessity. Testing for illegal substances is not considered a medical examination.

Determining what testing is needed

To implement a pre-employment testing process, the employer must 1) determine which tests are necessary; 2) select or develop a test that appropriately evaluates the knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics (KSAOs) needed; and 3) monitor use of the test. Implementing a valid testing process can be time-consuming, but the wealth of information gleaned may be worth the effort.

The first step is to identify the KSAOs required to perform the job:

  • Knowledge is information the employee must possess (e.g., knowledge of accounting principles).
  • Skills are learned behaviors needed to successfully perform a job (e.g., typing).
  • Abilities are observable behaviors, including those needed to perform the physical requirements of the job (e.g., climbing stairs, lifting).
  • Other characteristics include any other job requirements (e.g., attitude, reliability).

The process of deciding which tests to use begins by isolating the KSAOs the new employee must possess on Day 1. In other words, what must the person know and be able to do without additional on-the-job training? Once the list of KSAOs is created, the employer can consider testing options.

Knowledge is evaluated via written and oral questions. Although commercial tests are available for a host of specific job fields, they should be evaluated for reliability and validity before use.

An employer may also develop and validate customized questions for a written exam or an interview, ensuring interviewers ask the same questions of each applicant for the position.

Skills are best assessed by having the applicant perform them. Obviously, some skills are more easily assessed than others, but testing key job skills may be valuable. Again, employers should develop a standardized, job-related, validated assessment process for use with each applicant. Skills can be tested by asking for work samples or by developing job-related assessment centers. See Using Skills Assessments Over Education, Experience Requirements.

Abilities are also best assessed by demonstration. When strenuous physical activity is involved, however, safety concerns may trump the need for evaluation. Many employers prefer the mental ability test, which measures general intelligence, but it is uncertain whether such tests predict job performance, and they often have a discriminatory impact. For jobs that require frequent learning or mental acumen, a job-related assessment center is a better option.

Other characteristics can be assessed in various ways, depending on the specific attribute. Some of these tests will be classified as medical evaluations and cannot be administered until the employer makes the job offer.

Selection of appropriate tests

Developing an employment test that meets legal and regulatory criteria and professional standards is an arduous task. It is expensive and time-consuming and requires sophisticated test development skills. The Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures of 1978 details the standards to which the EEOC will hold employers accountable when using employment tests.

Commercially available tests used in making employment decisions should be researched using a reliable guide. Unfortunately, many commercially available employee selection tests fail to meet the necessary criteria for use in employment testing.

SHRM's Talent Assessment Center offers hundreds of assessments from the industry's top 50+ test publishers. From selection to development, there is a useful assessment for nearly every role, competency and goal.

The Mental Measurements Yearbook (MMY), which is published by the Buros Center for Testing housed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is one means of making informed decisions about commercially available tests. The MMY series is a source of objective, professional-quality reviews of commercially available tests and is widely respected and cited in all fields of psychological assessment.

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology provides many resources on employment tests and how to select them in the Employment Testing section of their website.

Selected tests should be convenient, competitively priced, reputable and accurate. The vendor must be able to demonstrate that its procedures comply with applicable laws. A vendor's references and accuracy guarantees should be checked prior to making a final decision.


SHRM's HR Vendor Directory

How to Evaluate Hiring Assessments  

Pros and Cons of Tests and Take-Home Assignments in Recruiting

Choosing Effective Talent Assessments to Strengthen Your Organization

Legal Issues

Employers must ensure that any selection tests are reliable and valid, yielding consistent results that predict success on the job; if not, discrimination claims are likely to ensue. The Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures detail how the EEOC might evaluate a testing method called into question; the agency offers additional guidance in its Employment Tests and Selection Procedures fact sheet. States may have individual requirements and guidelines for those working in that state. Consulting with an attorney before implementing any selection method is advised.

See Your Hiring Assessments Could Get You in Trouble and Clearing Up Misconceptions About the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures.

Establishing reliability

A reliable selection instrument will have a high degree of consistency. Otherwise, test results may vary between applicants, groups or evaluators.

Many employers think properly used and administered formal tests can be beneficial to the employment selection process. However, perfect reliability is difficult to achieve because a variety of factors can challenge a test's integrity—such as inappropriate or irrelevant questions or rater bias in evaluating job candidates. To improve reliability among raters, organizations should provide adequate training on the ground rules for each selection test. See What compliance issues are involved in creating a pre-employment test? 

Establishing validity

Validity measures the degree to which the conclusions drawn from a test are accurate. In other words, does the test accurately measure job-related factors that predict job performance? For a pre-employment assessment instrument, validity is the extent to which the test or tool actually measures what it purports to measure. Test publishers conduct validation studies in accordance with guidelines issued by the EEOC, and certain industry and professional standards. One of the most widely used and respected examples of these standards can be located through the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

The EEOC has approved three primary forms of validity:

  • Content validity is appropriate when a job analysis defines a job in terms of the important behaviors, tasks or knowledge required for successful performance, and the assessment or test is a representative sample of those behaviors, tasks or knowledge (e.g., a typing or mathematics test, or an exam for certified public accountants). The Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures state that to demonstrate the content validity of a selection procedure, a user should show that the behaviors measured in the selection procedure are a representative sample of the behaviors of the job in question, or that the selection procedure provides a representative sample of the work product of the job in question. This is the least sophisticated type of validity to assess, provided the HR practitioner or consultant is a competent job analyst.
  • Criterion-related validity relates to a test's ability to predict how well a person will perform on the job. The desired KSAOs for job performance are the "criterion variables." Tests, or predictors, are then devised and used to measure different job dimensions of the criterion variables. "Tests" may include having a college degree, scoring a required number of words per minute on a typing test or having five years of medical transcription experience. These predictors are then validated against the criteria used to measure job performance, such as supervisor appraisals, attendance and quality of work performed. There are two different approaches to measuring criterion-related validity. In an assessment of concurrent validity, an employer tests current employees and compares scores with job performance ratings, so that the test scores and performance measures are available at the same time. In an assessment of predictive validity, the employer compares applicants' test results with their subsequent job performance.
  • Construct validity refers to the extent to which a selection device measures a particular "construct" that, according to a job analysis, underlies the successful performance of the job in question. Typical constructs include intelligence, honesty, dependability and mechanical comprehension. Because a theoretical construct is used as a predictor in establishing this type of validity, the legality and usefulness of assessment tools like personality tests are more likely to be questioned.

Monitoring use of pre-employment tests

It is critical for an organization to continuously monitor the use of any pre-employment test to support legal compliance. Implementing a tracking process for procedures and results, including recording the candidates' profile, tests given, and scores achieved, can help ensure testing procedures are valid over time. Staying abreast of legal developments in employment testing is also necessary to validate their continued use. If any adverse impact against a protected group is found when auditing a selection test, legal counsel should be sought out immediately.

Global Issues

Employers in the United States with employees in other countries must decide whether and how to tailor their testing programs to comply with applicable international laws, regulations and business practices. Employers should identify those laws and customs, and with the advice of legal counsel, recommend a strategy that addresses the legal parameters and practical constraints of administering a testing program. General considerations should include the stringent individual privacy laws prevalent in many countries, the cultural differences in societal tolerance (or intolerance) of employment testing, and the practical difficulties of administering any program.

Additional Resources

Checklist: Pre-Employment Testing

Physical/Medical Examination Policy

Are diversity initiatives impeded by pre-employment testing?