What’s Good and Bad About Employee Profiling

Jul 9, 2007

Recently, many of my clients have inquired about the viability of an assessment methodology known as employee profiling. As with many of the available assessment methods, there are legitimate concerns about the value of this method for helping organizations make legally sound and effective hiring decisions.

It is hard to provide a universal answer to this question, as most approaches out there are not technically incorrect or illegally, but rather, their degree of relevance and effectiveness depends entirely upon the situation in which a specific approach is to be used.

In order to provide some information and insight about the use of profiling, the remainder of this article highlights its pros and cons to help provide an understanding of why it may or may not be right for your organization.

What’s Profiling?

The profiling (or one-size-fits-all) assessment methodology is far from new, and there’s a wealth of evidence that demonstrates its effectiveness. Here’s a brief, generalized synopsis of how this type of assessment works:

  • A set of high-performing employees is identified and they are given the opportunity to take an assessment designed to measure a variety of key characteristics that are related to job performance. In most cases, the assessment content used is the same no matter what the actual job is. It is the score patterns of respondents that provides the information that serves as a benchmark for hiring.
  • The scores of high performers taking the assessment are used to create a benchmark score profile that defines a high-performing employee.
  • The score patterns of applicants for the position for which the benchmark has been created are then compared to the benchmark profile during the hiring process. Those who most closely match the ideal profile are viewed as having the best chance of success and are recommended for hire in an effort to “clone” high performers.

This simple process has a variety of twists to it but at the end of the day, the underlying idea is the same. The idea is that the response pattern of high performers serves as a benchmark against which all applicants are filtered. The logic being that applicants that score the same as high performers have something in common which indicated that they too have what it takes to be a high performer.

With this methodology, in most cases, the same assessment content is used for a wide range of jobs. The differentiation defining the hiring profile is provided by the scoring template as opposed to differences in assessment content corresponding to differences in key elements of job performance.

Benefits and Drawbacks of This Methodology

As with any assessment method, profiling has both positive and negative aspects associated with it. Deciding whether it is the right methodology for your organization depends on a variety of factors.

Potential benefits of this method include:

  • Intuitive. While many assessment methods can be a bit confusing, the idea behind profiling makes sense. Look at your best performers and develop a profile that can be used to make sure you hire persons who look just like they do.
  • Fast. While many assessment methods can take a long time to implement, profiling can usually be implemented relatively quickly. One reason this method is so fast is that the same test content is usually used, so no content modifications are required. This is often the step that ends up slowing down assessment implementations.
  • Cheaper. Profiling doesn’t require a job analysis or custom content development. Both of these things raise the cost of assessment implementations.
  • Legally sound. While potentially not as legally sound as assessment methods using a job analysis, I am not aware of any legal problems that have arisen via the use of a profiling methodology. Remember that the litmus test for legal defensibility hinges on the job-relatedness of the assessment. Since profiling assessments often trade speed and ease of implementation for job relevance, there may be a slightly greater risk than with more traditional methods.
  • Provides options to consumers. There are quite a few companies offering this type of method, so consumers are not limited to only one or two choices. Even better news is that many companies offer slightly different takes on how to implement the profiling method as well as different types of assessment content.

Potential drawbacks of this method include:

  • Deficiency. Because there is only one assessment used for all situations, you may find that the content of this assessment does not fully capture all of the things required for performing the job in question. This can be an issue because if the test does not measure a key construct required for job performance, that piece of data will not be available as part of the candidate evaluation.
  • Robustness of profile. In many cases, the profile created as the hiring standard is created by only a few individuals. The fewer the data points used to construct the profile, the less confidence one can have that it is actually a full and accurate picture of performance. When using the profiling method, have as many incumbents as possible complete the benchmark assessment.
  • Failure to account for change. The profiling methodology does not account for the fact that the top performers surveyed may have had a different profile at the time of hire. In many cases, job performance and on-the-job training may allow an individual to learn and develop in many positive ways. Thus, the profile they provide may be an unrealistic one for persons who have not performed the job in question.
  • Performance may be due to things not measured on test. One potential issue of the profiling methodology is that there is no way to actually prove that high performance on the test is actually due to things measured by assessment. This is especially relevant when one considers that most of these assessments use the same content for all jobs. This is one reason a job analysis is an important part of creating a selection system, as it allows one to ensure the key elements of job performance are accounted for in the selection process.
  • Assumes inverse relationship. In many cases, bad performance is not simply the opposite of good performance. By hiring individuals based only on what high performers do, you may end up failing to account for some of the things that lead to low performance.
  • Over-reliance on “the profile.” In many cases, there can be more than one profile that can define success. Holding too closely to one set of ideals may create unrealistic standards that can lead to over-reliance on some attributes and under-reliance on others. Hiring decisions should be the result of balanced information of many types, and the best hiring systems are designed to provide key decision-makers with a variety of information.

Many of the above criticisms can apply to other assessment methods. But they’re legitimate things to consider when evaluating the relevance of profiling methods for one?s own needs.

Here is a list of situations in which profiling is a good option for organizations to consider:

  • An off-the-shelf assessment is needed quickly. Profiling is one of the fastest and easiest assessment methods to implement.
  • The job in question is a relatively common one that does not have complex or unique demands. The fact that most profiling uses one set of content for all jobs means that the more mainstream the job, the more likely the profiling assessment content will be relevant.
  • The organization feels strongly that there is one profile that is essential for performing a job. In many cases, a strong profile may have proven itself time and again. In this situation, profiling is more likely to be a good option.
  • The organization is just getting started using assessment and is getting push back on more complex assessment methods. In many cases, the idea of conducting a job analysis and creating customized content is too advanced. The simpler and more intuitive profiling method may be an easier sell internally.
  • The organization is too small or there are too few incumbents to do a proper validation study. Validation research requires relatively large numbers of incumbents. While it is important to try and maximize the number of individuals used to create the profile, it is usually easier to use this method when the number of persons available is low.

The ultimate decision regarding the relevance of profiling methodology for a company?s needs boils down to the tradeoff between speed vs. accuracy. In general, the more time one spends understanding the key elements that comprise job performance and on creating specific assessment content to measure these things in a systematic way, the more accurate the assessment process will be.

However, organizations often feel it’s impractical to invest the time and money it requires to follow this methodology. In such situations, speed and expense are often key decision criteria and a reduction in accuracy is accepted as a result. In these cases, profiling is a legitimate option and one that will still provide more accuracy than using no assessment or simply using an unstructured interview.

I hope this short summary has helped readers to better understand the type of tradeoffs that must be considered when choosing the right assessment tool. It is as much an art as it is a science, and doing it right requires full consideration of a large number of variables.

I hope that organizations considering using a profiling methodology carefully consider the pros and cons relative to their own business goals when making a decision regarding this type of assessment.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!