Voodoo in the personnel department

Sept. 2, 2004
If you apply for a job today, you might be asked to take a psychological test as part of the interview process.
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Khol editorials

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Even though such tests are sometimes viewed as an invasion of privacy, they are almost a "given" for anyone being considered for a responsible position. I've had some experience with psychological tests, and at first you'll think I am using the topic as an excuse to brag. But bear with me, and you'll find a surprise ending.

First, let me point out that psychological tests for employment purposes aren't just sanity checks. They are also supposed to reveal how well you fit the demands of a position. The tests delve into such traits as intelligence, whether or not you can handle details, your creativity, how you work under pressure, and whether or not you can handle deadlines.

I once was a proponent of these tests because, frankly, I aced them. The first time I took one, I was applying for a job as a technical writer on a small industrial magazine. I did well on the test and was hired. In fact, my results were so good that the personnel manager at first wouldn't show them to me. He felt I might try to use them in future jobhopping. Then a few years later, I applied for a position at MACHINE DESIGN and had to take another psychological test. The results were even better than those of my first test and, again, my boss wouldn't show them to me until years later. They were so flattering that even my mother couldn't have done a better job bragging about her son.

Buoyed by how well I did in these tests, I concluded that psychologists were really good at evaluating people, and when I became a manager, I continued the corporate practice of using psychological tests in the hiring process. However, a curious pattern began to emerge. Some people we hired had only average results on their tests, yet they turned out to be stellar performers. And some who tested well turned out to be flakes, with the tests giving no hint that these people would become problem employees. Some couldn't meet deadlines, some weren't self-starters, and some had trouble just showing up at the office. In the worst case, I unwittingly hired a paranoid schizophrenic whose condition was not revealed by the test.

So I did a flip-flop, deciding that the tests were not a good way to evaluate job applicants. I wrote about this in one of my columns, admitting that the most I hoped for in the hiring process was to find people who would show up for work and weren't crazy.

The column caught the eye of a woman who sold testing services, and she tried to convince me that her tests were better than others and could accurately reveal what people were really like. At first I resisted, but she was aggressive and even offered to evaluate me at no charge to prove how reliable her tests were. I eventually caved in and took the test.

Now the story takes a strange twist. Evidently, she failed to tell the evaluator that the test was for someone she was trying to win as a customer, and the evaluator sent the results to me directly without the salesperson seeing them. No sales representative in their right mind would send such a damning personal assessment to a prospective client.

At the risk of sounding boastful, I will say that I've had a pretty good track record at Penton Media. (Details upon request.) But you would never guess it from the psychological profile the test turned up. A few things were in my favor. For example, I am good as an abstract thinker, and I can come up with effective solutions to complex problems. But the good traits were few and far between. I was revealed to be spineless and wishy-washy, devoid of self-confidence, and eager to back down from any challenge. Moreover, I can't set priorities. And if all that isn't enough, I am a reclusive manager who doesn't reach out to employees. There is a lot more, but space limitations in this column prevent mentioning all my bad attributes.

Bottom line: On the basis of this test, I wouldn't even hire myself for the position I've held for the past 20 years. We could laugh at all this until we stop to think about the legions of good people who may have had their careers derailed by psychological witch doctors giving cockeyed advice on whether or not a person should be offered a job.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
Send feedback to MDeditor @ penton.com

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