When Testing Goes Wrong

Some readers react negatively to testing. They think of testing as a hard-hearted, diabolical attempt to remove humanity from the hiring process. Some even put it in the same class as not washing you hands after going to the bathroom, scratching ones armpits in public, or forgetting to floss. But nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s get a few things straight. Even rational people:

  • Argue interviews are not “really” tests ó yet they only hire applicants who give impressive answers to questions.
  • Say they never hire “dud” employees ó yet they somehow allow duds to end up on the payroll.
  • Know workshops rarely turn performance duds into performance stars ó yet they continue trying to repair “broken” employees by sending them to workshops.
  • Recognize that star performers continue to be stars regardless of working conditions.
  • Know bad managers can do more to squelch good performance than develop bad performance.

Virtually everyone hired by an organization undergoes pre-employment testing. In some cases, it includes filling out an application form. In others, it involves having drinks with the boss. In still others, it involves being picked out of a line up. Testing is everywhere! Anyone who argues that selection is not the single most important function in an organization is not seeing the big picture. Think about it: How long would a production manager be employed if he or she knew as little about measuring raw material specifications as many people in the recruiting profession know about measuring human performance? Let’s examine a few major job families where interviews and unvalidated tests frequently fail to assess critical failure areas. C-Level Executives C-level executives have worked long and hard to achieve senior positions; they demonstrated sufficient skills and job accomplishments to move up the ladder. But now that they have achieved a position of power and influence at the top of the pyramid, where do their failures occur?

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  • C-Level executives must be visionaries. They have to separate the trees from the forest. They must make decisions based on little or no data. And they have to rely on an incredible depth of “expert” knowledge to make decisions that would elude most other people. This level of decision-making requires considerable abstract information processing.
  • C-Level people are also very tempted by power. Look around at the number of executives in the public eye who feel perfectly justified lying, cheating, manipulating, and stealing. As they sit at the top of the pyramid, subordinate employees quickly learn that square pegs do, indeed, fit round holes. Uncovering these kinds of dark-side motivations requires special instrumentation and interpretation.

What kind of questions do C-level applicants get asked? Generally they’re about past accomplishments and future visions. But why do C-level executives most often fail? Because of dark-side motivations and a lack of abstract decision-making ability. Technical/Knowledge Workers These folks are generally drawn to occupations that emphasize mental ability more than interpersonal skills. These include occupations such as information technology, engineering, science, medicine, accounting, mathematics, and so forth. It should come as no surprise that people drawn to mental occupations are not very good at interpersonal relationships. So where do they tend to fail? Yes, you guessed it: They can be downright abrasive and insensitive. It is not because they want to be socially awkward, it is just in their natures. They tend to be more comfortable with the tangibility of things than they are with the intangibility of people. Evaluating this job family often includes interpersonal simulations that involve people effectiveness. For example, I once worked with a public utility where the safety inspectors had the interpersonal skills of bridge trolls. Even their HR representative was psychotic. Imagine the kind of communication problems they had ó and it involved radioactive materials! What kind questions do technical applicants get asked? Generally they are about the level of technical ability they possess. But why do they most often fail? Because of dysfunctional interpersonal skills. Salespeople Salespeople are often all clustered in the same pot, but sales is actually among the most diverse occupations. For example, selling computer systems takes entirely different skills than selling furniture. In most cases, though, salespeople tend to emphasize personal persuasion. Salespeople like to talk and be social, and they often put a substantial amount of energy into getting people to like them. But all this social schmoozing has a down side: salespeople often underestimate the value of learning their product thoroughly. Salespeople tend to forget that people buy solutions, not sales pitches. Hiring within the sales family requires an analysis of very diverse sets of skills. It can involve evaluating everything from mental prowess and organization abilities to motivations and interpersonal skills. What kind of questions do sales applicants get asked? Generally they take the form of “show me your W-2” and “sell me this pencil.” But why do they most often fail? Because of a lack of planning and follow-through, and an unwillingness to learn the product line and ask prospects the right questions. Customer Service Customer service people must have done something very bad in a past life. They work long hours, take abundant verbal abuse, have their days scheduled by automated machines, and are often poorly paid. Like the others, this job family can also be subdivided into several types: outbound sales, inbound sales, customer service problems, marketing surveys, collections, technical support, web-based support, etc. Like the sales job, each customer service job takes a different set of skills . The nature of the customer service job makes it either a lifetime position (for sainthood candidates) or a transitional one. For example, I worked with a company that provided technical customer service for computers and the like. Management’s objective was to keep customer service people on the job for two years. Any more and employee raises would escalate their costs. Any less and the cost of training would be excessive. Customer service people tend to turnover when they discover the job they do is not as glamorous as the job they expected it to be, or when the required amount of problem-solving does not match the employee’s ability or motivation. What kind of questions do customer service people get asked? Usually it’s nothing more than, “Can you fog this mirror and promise you do not have a contagious disease that resists modern antibiotics?” Where do they most often fail? When they learn what the customer service job is really like. In addition to the above, here are some other important things we need to keep in mind about assessment:

  1. Training never could and never will change a sow’s ear into a silk purse. Good management never could and never will change a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
  2. Bad management can effectively squelch the best performer.
  3. Human resource systems are frequently irrational and disconnected: People are hired based on one set of standards, managed on another, reviewed under a third, trained on a fourth, and rewarded on a fifth. Organizational confusion is the norm, not the exception.

The single most important function in an organization is staffing. An organization can NEVER be better than the talent it employs, yet staffing is usually the most misunderstood and poorly implemented function in an organization. But the greater the problem, the greater the opportunity.