Pre-Employment Testing and Human Sacrifice

If you think the era of human sacrifice is over, think again. Humans are sacrificed every day on the altar of pre-employment testing. Hey, I’m not saying that all pre-employment tests are uniformly bad, I’m making the far more reasonable argument that most small organizations who rely on testing are worshiping a false god. (There, see? Wasn’t that less incendiary?)

To know me is to know that I am a recruiting process geek. We track dozens of metrics on every stage of our search process. We track the retention rate of our placements for three full years. And we focus intently on doing everything we can to improve the results we get for our clients (i.e. faster searches, with more qualified candidates who will drive business results, and stick around long enough to make a meaningful impact).

So naturally, people assume I’m a fan of pre-employment testing because it just sounds so scientific and process oriented. Except in my experience, most small organizations are actually harmed by their pre-employment assessments. Rather than improving hiring results, the testing actually gets in the way.

It’s not always the tests themselves that cause the problem (well, OK, sometimes they do). The issue is how managers behave around the tests:

  • Some managers covertly surrender to the test using the politically correct language. “Well, after the interview I preferred Candidate A, and admittedly the test is only one component of our assessment, but after seeing his score, I’ve now decided that Candidate B is my preference.” (Managers generally don’t want to stick their neck out and take full responsibility for the hire. So when they pick the candidate who scored well, at least they have political cover if the person later fails.)
  • Some managers abdicate completely and just let the test select who they even interview. These managers cut short their own interview process, figuring they should not waste time interviewing if they are only going to hire people who pass the test. I’ve heard of first interviews as short as 15 minutes and then going straight to testing. (See “The Claw” above).

If you want to undercut your managers, and make them doubt their own interviewing ability … introduce a pre-employment assessment. If you want to make managers feel less responsible for who they hire … introduce a pre-employment assessment. But if you want to discover factors about a candidate that will cause them to become top performers in your culture, tread carefully. Personality traits that are correlated with high performance do not necessarily cause it.

“Anyone can compare two sets of numbers and tell you whether they correlate, but, it takes careful study to know whether A actually leads to B. For example, skirts and stock markets tend to move up and down together, beach ice cream sales and shark attacks tend to move together, and watermelon sales and temperature move together. But, skirts do not cause the market to change, sharks do not buy ice cream, and selling watermelon does not cause it to be hot.”  Dr. Wendell Williams on ERE


Note to people (and trolls) who want to comment:

This is not my first rodeo in social media.

  • I know some testing vendors will want to hawk their products here. Let me stipulate for the record that of course you are the exception. I’m talking about everyone else, of course … and please don’t call me, this post was not an RFP.
  • I know some big organizations are saying that you’ve validated your test and trained your managers. Congratulations, I’m not talking about what GE can afford to do, I’m talking about small organizations.
  • But hey, if you work in a small organization and have a different experience, then please comment and teach me something. As long as I get to learn something, I really don’t mind being proven wrong.
  • Oh, and if you agree, please comment, I’m always happy to take a big slice of that.

3 Responses to Pre-Employment Testing and Human Sacrifice

  1. Alice Waagen says:

    Your posts always get a laugh out of me. I thoroughly agree with your premise. Years ago in Blink, Malcolm Gladwell demonstrated that our gut response to people and situations has a lot of validity. As far as I know, tests lack guts.

  2. Ilana S. Lehmann says:

    As a professor who teaches about psychological and eduational testing I can attest to the significant flaws in pre-employment testing. To be short, they are not the least bit scientific! Yet they are treated as though they have some kind of science behind them. They are the worst forms of bias; the biases that allow people to discriminate and hide behind them as ‘proof’ why certain people should not be hired.

  3. Bob Corlett says:

    Dr. Lehmann,
    Thank you for your comment.You’ve done interesting work on this very issue:

    Dr. Waagen,
    I’ve never had a blog post where two PhDs weighed in…it’s a bucket list moment for me.


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