If you are a new graduate entering the workforce — or an experienced professional who is considering a job change — you might be surprised when you’re asked to take a test as part of the application and/or interview process. Although you may have been out of school for years, feelings of “test anxiety” can unexpectedly resurface.
Pre-employment testing has been around for more than 50 years, and can take on many forms. Some tests — such as drug screenings and background checks — protect companies from hiring an applicant who may be a legal or security risk. Other tests help companies identify candidates who are the right fit for the job based on their skills, personality, values, and motivations.
Some tests are administered as part of the “screening” process — narrowing down the pool of applicants to those who meet the basic requirements. Others are used as part of the “hiring” process — once a pool of candidates has been identified (or perhaps even initially interviewed), pre-employment tests can be used to further narrow the number of candidates being considered.
Research estimates that nearly 65 percent of employers use some sort of pre-employment skills test that is designed to confirm that applicants have the skills they say they have. And, according to a survey by the American Management Association, “Almost 90 percent of firms that test job applicants say they will not hire jobseekers when pre-employment testing finds them to be deficient in basic skills.”
With the average length of job tenure at 2.8 years for employees age 25 to 34 — according to a 2016 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics — more and more hiring managers are turning to objective pre-employment tests to evaluate whether a candidate can do the job, or learn it quickly.
To the jobseeker’s benefit, tests are more objective than résumé reviews, pre-interview screening calls, and unstructured interviews. Effective assessments are closely tied to the performance of a particular job. Ideally, there would be a correlation: candidates who do well on the test would do well in performing the job, and conversely, those who score poorly on the test would likely perform poorly on the job.
Types of Pre-Employment Tests
The type of testing discussed here does not include drug and physical exams/ability tests and is distinct from the testing required to earn professional certifications and licenses (requirements established by law or by industry standards). The most commonly used assessments included in the pre-employment process fall into two broad categories.
Some tests are closely focused on job-related skills and abilities (hard skills). For example, a software proficiency test, language proficiency exam, or a test that assesses physical and motor abilities). Others assess more personal information, such as personality traits, emotional intelligence, and personal values (soft skills).
Job Knowledge Tests & Employment Aptitude Tests
Job knowledge tests measure a candidate’s technical or theoretical expertise in a field. These kinds of tests are most useful for jobs that require specialized knowledge or high levels of expertise. For example, an accountant may be asked about basic accounting principles. Some companies invest in custom assessments for major categories of employees (like cable technicians), based on scores of high-performing employees. The results are predictive of performance, especially for low scorers.
While job knowledge tests determine the applicant’s current level of knowledge or skill, cognitive or aptitude tests determine an applicant’s potential ability to perform the job functions once trained — in other words, an applicant’s capacity for learning the required skills to be successful if hired. These tests are usually written or oral and are used to measure a candidate’s reasoning (verbal, numerical, and inductive), memory, perceptual speed and accuracy, as well as skills in arithmetic and reading comprehension.
Cognitive ability tests measure a candidate’s general mental capacity — what most people mean by “intelligence,” although true intelligence has many other aspects as well. These kinds of tests are much more accurate predictors of job performance than interviews or experience.
All jobs require some degree of “people skills.” According to a Harvard Study, 15 percent of the reason a person is hired is based on hard skills, while 85 percent of the reason people excel on the job and are successful is based on their people skills. With this in mind, the most widely used assessments measure soft skills. There are three general categories of tests that assess soft skills: personality tests, integrity tests, and emotional intelligence tests.
When applicants apply for a job online these days, they are increasingly being asked to take personality tests — even before they exchange an email or have a phone interview with a hiring manager. Personality assessments can offer insight into a candidate’s cultural fit and whether their personality can translate into job success. The goal of these tests is to hire people who fit the profile of the ideal employee the organization is seeking.
Personality tests are on the rise. A 2011 report revealed that the use of personality assessments was then increasing by as much as 20 percent per year, and it has grown to a $400-million-a-year industry. There are several reasons driving this trend.
Prior to the Internet era, companies would place a help-wanted ad in a newspaper and be lucky if 30-40 candidates applied; now a single job posting can have hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants. This places an extra burden on recruiters and HR professionals to screen, select, and place candidates in roles that fit their personalities to keep them engaged. According to a 2013 Gallup study, low employee engagement results in 21 percent lower productivity and about 45 percent higher turnover.
Replacing employees is extremely costly; a point made by Susan Stabile, a professor of law at St. John’s University in her article, “The Use of Personality Tests as a Hiring Tool: Is the Benefit Worth the Cost?” Data collected has shown that that the typical cost of replacing a bad hire is about 1.5 times the worker’s salary and benefits.
Personality traits have been shown to correlate to job performance in different roles. For example, salespeople who score high on extraversion and assertiveness tend to perform better. Additionally, companies are looking for a recruitment tool that gives quantifiable measures and thus can stand up to legal challenges.
Many personality tests are now delivered online, where they can be processed immediately and evaluated against thousands of other candidates. The test format can vary from a brief written assessment to a long psychological examination. These tests typically measure one or more of five personality dimensions: extroversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.
Employee theft and fraud costs a company on average $9 per day per employee in the U.S. Lie detector testing is mostly prohibited by law; however, pre-employment testing may often include integrity or honesty tests. Questions are designed to examine an applicant’s attitude and approach towards risky work behavior, theft, and lying; misuse of company resources, email, and the Internet; use of drugs and alcohol; trust with confidential information; and personal responsibility, including safety and dependability.
Employee integrity tests take two forms: overt and covert. Overt integrity tests refer directly to dishonest and counterproductive behaviors (theft, cyber-loafing, absenteeism, etc.). Covert testing is personality-based. These tests assess integrity by proxy (e.g., conscientiousness).
Emotional Intelligence Testing
Closely related to integrity, emotional intelligence (EQ) is an individual’s ability to understand his or her own emotions and the emotions of others. Strong emotional intelligence is important for most jobs — and critical for some — since emotionally intelligent people can work well with colleagues, interact with the public, and handle disappointments and frustrations in a mature and professional way. In general, tests that measure EQ have some predictability of job performance.
Often applicant integrity and EQ are assessed simultaneously. For example, the online application for McDonald’s includes 35 questions for jobseekers, and they range from the very job-specific to more general questions. Here’s a sampling:
- While you are on break, a customer spills a large drink in a busy area of the restaurant. Cleaning the floors is the job of another team member, but he is taking a customer’s order. What would you do?
- I am sometimes unkind to others.
- I often lose my patience with others.
- I dislike having several things to do on the same day.
Legal and Ethical Considerations of Pre-Employment Testing
Pre-employment assessments are legal; however, companies are required to ensure that their testing does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or age. In other words, the test must comply with Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws. To accomplish this, tests must be properly administered (the same to all candidates), validated (measure what they are designed to measure), and related to the job to which you’re applying.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it unlawful for private employers with 15 or more employees — and local, state, and federal government employers — to discriminate against qualified applicants with disabilities. This means that employers to whom the ADA applies must take care that any pre-employment testing analyzes skills and does not screen out disabled candidates simply because they are disabled.
To best comply with the requirements of ADA, employers should, whenever possible, avoid giving a pre-employment test that may pose problems for persons with impaired sensory, speaking, or manual skills (and certain learning disabilities, such as dyslexia), unless it is designed to assess skills required to perform the job.
Under the doctrine of disparate impact, employers also may not use hiring practices that — even though neutral on the surface and applied to all applicants — disproportionately exclude members of a protected category. The first U.S. Supreme Court case addressing the issue involved a company’s high school diploma requirement for screening labor applicants. Although the employer was not acting intentionally, this requirement excluded a substantially higher number of African-American applicants than it did Caucasians.
The Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA) of 1988 prohibits most private employers from using lie detector tests — either for pre-employment screening or during the course of employment. Employers generally may not require or request any employee or job applicant to take a lie detector test — or discharge, discipline, or discriminate against an employee or job applicant for refusing to take a test — or for exercising other rights under the Act. There are certain exceptions that apply, such armored car personnel and personnel employed in public safety occupations.
How to Prepare For a Pre-Employment Test
Job knowledge and aptitude tests are nothing to be afraid of. And, approached with the right attitude, an assessment is actually a great opportunity for jobseekers to stand out from the competition. Most personality tests are designed to be used by psychologists. However, there are some tests available which can be interpreted by non-psychologists. Pre-employment personality, integrity, and EQ tests have no “right” answers; applicants are simply evaluated on the answers they give.
The Sparks Group, a temporary staffing and full-time recruiting services provider, offers this advice:
- When contacted about an interview, ask the potential employer if you will be expected to complete an assessment. If the answer is “yes,” ask what type of assessment test and approximately how long the test will take. This will give you a rough idea of what to expect.
- Inquire as to how the results of your test will be factored into the hiring decision. Without giving the impression that you lack competency in an area, ask how well you must perform on the assessment test to be considered for the position.
- If you’re being tested on a specific hard skill/occupational area, be sure to review the basic concepts and seek out practice quizzes online. Many practice quizzes are readily available in math, grammar, spelling, and literacy.
- If you’ll be completing a soft skills assessment test, try taking a few practice personality assessment quizzes online (such as the Myers-Briggs personality test). By learning a bit more about your personal and professional behavioral traits, you’ll go into the assessment confident and knowledgeable about your abilities.
- On a soft skills assessment test, try to answer all questions as honestly and consistently as possible. These tests often ask similar questions several times to measure whether you’re being sincere. Consider the organization as you respond — and, when possible — try to align your answers with the company’s corporate style.
- Read all questions carefully. The most common mistake people make on any type of test is misreading questions or failing to properly follow instructions. Don’t let your nerves get the best of you. Take your time and ensure that you fully comprehend what’s being asked.
- After you’ve completed the assessment(s), make a few notes for yourself. This will allow you to speak knowledgably about the assessment process during the interview. Demonstrating that you took the test seriously will show the potential employer your commitment to the position. Don’t be afraid to ask the hiring manager how you did. Even if you receive criticism or negative feedback, knowing how you might improve in the future is invaluable information.
CEB Global has many practice tests available on its website, separated into categories such as verbal or numerical reasoning, personality, reading comprehension, mathematical calculations, and IT knowledge tests. Although they do not attempt to provide you with an exact like-for-like experience of the assessments you may be asked to complete, they do provide a similar testing experience, in terms of question types and formats.
Learn more here:
Popular Pre-Employment Assessments
Around for about 50 years and widely used by various companies across the U.S., the Caliper Profile evaluates how an individual’s traits will relate to his or her job performance. There are a few different types of questions. Candidates encounter a series of statements from which they must determine the statement that best matches their perspective. Other questions require them to choose the statement that least reflects their perspective.
There may also be true/false questions, as well as questions with a five degree of agreement scale. The Caliper Profile is unique in the sense that it examines both positive and negative qualities to provide a well-rounded picture of an individual.
This test was created a few decades ago, when research by Gallup suggested that personality assessments focused too much on weaknesses. Based on responses to 177 statements that speak to 34 positive traits that the test-taker might possess — from discipline to communication — the test identifies the top 5 strengths out of all 34 that most strongly represent the prospective employee.
Conducted as an online assessment, two statements are presented on each screen of the test. Respondents must pick the statement that best describes them. They can note that it “strongly describes” them, that their connection to both statements is “neutral,” or it falls somewhere in between.
Unlike the Caliper, Gallup looks at strengths that are real indicators of success, rather than simply flushing out people’s negatives and downside. For example, you may rank highly in positivity, implying that you’d be stellar in a position that has you dealing with rejection on a regular basis — such as at a call center, or in fundraising. Or perhaps, you score as an achiever, suggesting that you might naturally excel at Type-A gigs, like an executive or another high-level manager role.
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
One of the most well-known tools for mapping employee personalities is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). According to the test’s publisher, 89 of the Fortune 100companies use the MBTI. The MBTI measures whether an employee’s personality leans toward one of two tendencies in the following groupings: Extraversion vs. Introversion, Intuition vs. Sensing, Thinking vs. Feeling, and Judging vs. Perceiving. An employee can fall into one of 16 personality types.
The Myers-Brigg Type Indicator allows employers to determine if a candidate would be a good cultural fit for the company and thus be able to transition into a team with ease. The MBTI has 93 questions that are presented at a 7th-grade reading level. The questions are formatted in an A/B format, meaning a question will ask if you prefer A over B.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is not a normalized exam, nor are the questions scaled. It has not been proven valid for recruitment use, but is more appropriate for understanding how a candidate may perform in a group.
The SHL Occupational Personality Questionnaire
One of the most established workplace personality assessments, the SHL Occupational Personality Questionnaire has been around for more than 30 years. Now owned by CEB, the questionnaire helps employers identify behaviors that directly impact job performance — and candidates who are most likely to be dependable workers based on these behaviors.
The test is comprised of 104 questions that measure 32 specific personality characteristics. These are clustered within three domains — relationships with people, thinking style, and feelings and emotions — which align with various occupations.
The Predictive Index (PI) is a behavioral assessment tool that determines the unique motivators for workplace behavior of employees and helps employers make informed and sound hiring decisions to benefit a company as well as the employees. PI tests are a modern way for employers to pick out the strongest potential employees.
Since online applications can be easy to falsify — and there is no personal attachment or indication of personality (as in handwriting) — employers need to see what skills you truly possess. The developers of the test claim it is based on reliable scientific research and therefore eliminates the element of human bias, making it highly reliable in the eyes of hiring managers.
Used in a variety of industries — including finance, manufacturing, hospitality, and transportation — the Predictive Index assessment takes approximately 10 minutes to complete, and the results are interpreted immediately. This test utilizes different statements to measure your personality; the best way to answer is to be as honest as possible. Avoiding strong answers and sticking with neutral options results in a lower score.
Criteria Cognitive Aptitude Test (CCAT)
The CCAT is a general pre-employment aptitude test that measures problem-solving abilities, learning skills, and critical thinking. The CCAT practice test consists of 50 questions in logic, math, verbal ability, and spatial reasoning, and has a 15-minute time limit.
CCAT scores are determined by a raw score, which is simply the number of questions answered correctly. This score can be translated into a percentile to indicate the job applicant’s result compared to others. Each position has a suggested range of raw scores, and once your score is within that suggested range, it means that you are competent for the position.
Kenexa Prove It! Skills Testing
Used frequently by staffing agencies and companies doing large scale hiring — such as staffing a call center — the aim of this test is to “prove” that you have the skills and abilities to use specific programs, such as Word and Excel.
The length of each assessment varies — from 15-30 minutes for nontechnical assessments, to 45-60 minutes for more technical ones. The assessments are not timed, but this is the average amount of time needed to take them. You can’t skip any questions or return to previous screens to change your answers. But you can take the assessment again — as many times as you wish. Employers will not have access to your results, though a staffing agency might ask you to take one of these tests to determine what you’re best at — to assess which skills on your résumé are provable, and where you might match best.
Primarily used for pre-hire screening, employee selection, onboarding, managing, coaching, and strategic workforce planning, the Profile XT is described as a “Total Person” assessment. Administered online, it measures the job-related qualities that make a person productive — thinking and reasoning style, behavioral traits, and occupational interests — and predicts job success. Using “Job Match Patterns,” the assessment can be customized by company, department, manager, position, geography, or any combination of these factors.
The EQ-i 2.0
Created by Multi-Health Systems, Inc., the EQ-i 2.0 may be the best way to assess a candidate’s emotional intelligence. The assessment breaks down a person’s overall EQ score into five composite scores and 15 “subscales,” which include things like “emotional expression” and “problem solving.” This allows for the assessment to produce truly granular pictures of potential hires.
These are just a few of the many assessment tools being used by HR, recruiters, and hiring managers as part of the screening and hiring process. If you are “invited” to take a test that is not included in this list, don’t panic. Simply doing a Google search of the assessment by name will most likely reveal all kinds of information about the test — and possibly even let you try it out.
Although pre-employment testing may appear to be only beneficial to the employer, in reality, the jobseeker also wins. It is far better to be screened out of a position and/or company that does not fit one’s skills, values, and personality than to be hired for the position, and eventually dread going to work every day.
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