Colonoscopies and Pre-Employment Tests Have a Lot in Common

Feb 21, 2012

What I learned recently is that colonoscopies and pre-employment testing have a lot in common. First of all, managers and employees dislike, maybe even detest, the seemingly invasive nature of both evaluations. Second, you can’t fake out the results — what physicians see and personality tests reveal is simply “what it is.” Both assessments, when properly administered, are objective and neutral. Finally, both the colonoscopy and personality tests are critical for detecting or preventing “cancers” from spreading in your body and organization respectively.

How did I come up with this crazy comparison? I’m not sure. Let’s just say the analogy just appeared — one of those “aha” moments — during a conversation with a client. She had just completed an evaluation of several employee assessments for her company.

Here’s a little background that prompted her search.

Several managers, responsible for transportation logistics and safety for a major metropolitan area, are tasked with finding an assessment solution to identify the best job fit for a control operator — the “brains” of their network. A solution must be implemented immediately since human resources is recruiting, operators are retiring, and the pipeline of qualified candidates is nearly dry.

Compounding the problem was an expectation by long-term employees that promotion was near-automatic. In other words, these employees were entitled to the promotion based on tenure. The client astutely recognized that the quality of the talent in the pipeline could not meet the requirements of the job today and the future. As one manager said, “if this was 10 years ago, we’d fill the positions with mediocre candidates who could meet the minimum requirements. Today, the average employee in line to be promoted isn’t prepared or capable of meeting even our lowest expectations.”

According to the client, the performance of recent promotions has been lackluster at best, especially in terms of safety and customer service. The organization needed a better employee screening process and a fair process to justify hiring qualified candidates from outside the organization.

A committee of 10 managers agreed to a core list of essential job skills: critical thinking, crisis management, customer service, and safety focus. Their task? How to assess these skills. I recommended two assessments to start: a 5-factor personality assessment, and general mental abilities test. Two of the managers agreed to be the “guinea pigs” to experience the process through a candidate’s eyes.

Comments during the debrief of these assessments revealed some of the lamest, although common, excuses I’ve heard about why “these assessments won’t work.” This is where the colonoscopy and pre-employment testing comparison comes in.

Most of the attention was focused on the general mental ability test. One manager said, “it was really hard — too hard for our managers.” Similarly the second manager commented, “I felt really dumb after taking it.”

Both comments are ironically interesting: the reading and math component is validated at a ninth to tenth grade level. Were they telling me that a ninth and tentth grade logic and comprehension level was too high a requirement for workers responsible for the safety of thousands of people? Or were they admitting that their talent pool and maybe even the incumbent workforce were not smart enough to do the job? The mental ability test was the right choice but it was going to make their task of finding qualified people even more difficult. But any employer who believes that finding qualified workers for skilled jobs is going to be easy going forward is living in la-la land.

Just for the record: general mental ability tests, often called cognitive or general reasoning tests, aren’t skill tests for math and reading. These tests assess how quickly and accurately people can apply very basic skills when timed. Considering that the task was to assess candidates for the ability to respond safely, accurately, and quickly during a crisis, testing for general mental ability tests was the right choice. Whether the participants find the assessment hard or not and/or make the participant feel “dumb” is irrelevant.

(The same faulty reasoning is offered for avoidance of the colonoscopy. It is really a relatively simple, although highly effective, procedure that saves lives but people avoid it for countless reasons. Denial, however, does not reduce its effectiveness at detecting and preventing cancer.)

Now back to pre-employment assessments … if the results accurately paint a portrait of how the candidate will respond on the job, it’s the right assessment to use and the right thing to do, especially when other people’s lives are at stake.

The concern for safety elicited the second lamest excuse: “our legal department forbids us to use personality testing.” I’m not questioning the attorneys’ concerns with personality testing as a hiring criterion. There is ample reason for them to be cautious. Unfortunately many employers use personality testing inappropriately and for the wrong reasons, giving all types of employee screening a bad rap. But blanket statements about pre-employment personality tests just reveal naiveté or arrogance. Because the risk of using properly selected tools to screen out unsafe or poor fit employees is far smaller than the risk of hiring an unsafe employee who puts the lives of other people in jeopardy.

As the popular saying goes, denial is not a river in Egypt. Denial does not negate the accuracy and reliability of pre-employment assessments (or colonoscopies). Denial does not prevent mistakes and accidents. Mental discomfort, inconvenience, or unexpected results should not preclude hiring managers from using pre-employment testing if the employee assessments reveal the information they need to make the right hiring decisions.

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