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Always a good hire


Pre-employment screenings help employers make new hire,promotions with fewer regrets later

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

APPLICANT – Please complete the sentence as it most closely pertains to you:

Taking personality quizzes makes me

  1. Feel like bolting.
  2. Wonder who the heck thought up this quiz?
  3. Irrationally upset at being asked to answer random questions that have nothing to do with the job for which I’m applying.
  4. Apt to tell the quiz administrator to take a long hike off a short pier.
  5. Realize I don’t want this crummy old job after all.

Good help is hard to find. Sometimes it seems like none of the applications in your inbox are worth your time. Other times, they all appear to exceed your wildest expectations. But who has time to meet with all of them? And how do you know whether the most credentialed candidate will jibe well with your company’s culture?

In the latter case, a magic tool to not only sift out the lumps but reveal traits not listed on a resume would be handy.

Abracadabra! The amazing b.s. detector

Employers have been screening potential employees since at least 2200 B.C. in China, when governments verbally quizzed prospective civil servants, according to authors Dana and Ellen Borowka in “Cracking the Personality Code” and their blog by the same name.

Pre-employment assessment and screening tools as we know them have been around for nearly 100 years, since 1919 when the U.S. Army used the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet to eliminate recruits that might be prone to post-traumatic stress disorder, then called shell shock.

You’ve probably heard of the Rorschach Inkblot Test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test or the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). Employers use these tools in hiring decisions, granting promotions, weighing whether an applicant’s a good match for the company personality-wise as well as skill-wise, and understanding personalities for team building.

These tests, many of which have several versions for different industrial sectors, claim to be able to measure such things as a person’s work ethic, integrity, decision-making skills, cognitive ability, verbal skills and preferred work style, among other traits. With many, applicants answer questions or statements about themselves, with the guidance that there are no wrong answers but to answer with the first thing that pops into their minds.

Listened to gut, kicked self later

American Digital Cartography CEO Jim Reid listened to his gut twice in the last decade when hiring. Both times, he regretted it.

Other than those two flukes, Reid’s relied on the Florida-based behavioral-assessment company Omnia to help him at his Appleton firm.

“They can predict with a high degree of certainty of how this person will behave in a certain role,” Reid said. “It (the survey) will tell you ‘This person is good match,’ or ‘is not a good match,’ or ‘This one’s going to be a disaster.’”

Based in Tampa, Omnia claims to have processed millions of profiles in the last 29 years, with “93 percent accuracy.” Its electronic questionnaires purport to measure how comfortable the applicant feels with factors like overnight travel, quick decision-making, teamwork versus working independently, customer interactions, and dynamic situations versus routines, according to Reid.

One of Reid’s two exceptions was for a guy he knew.

“The profile said he’s not good with details, and I hired him anyway,” Reid said. He even overlooked the two spelling errors on his resume.

“Ninety days later I was, unfortunately, saying goodbye to him,” Reid said. “It’s not funny, but it’s a lesson to be learned – those things are really very accurate.”

Reid says he’s taken several versions of the Omnia assessment himself and all have been ‘spot on.’

“I haven’t met anyone yet who took one and said ‘This isn’t me, it’s way off base.’”

What if applicants answer how they think looks best to the employer? “If you think about it too long and try to outsmart it … there’s a whole bunch of questions that will trip you up,” Reid said. “There are questions that relate to this question, and the report will tell you ‘I think this person is trying to be deceptive.’”

‘Cheap investment’

Reid shares profile results with the new hires and uses them to smooth out potential rough spots.

“We say, ‘Here’s where it says it’s a great match and here are some areas where we might have some challenges – let’s keep this on our radar … (and) focus on these things that could be challenging for us,’” he said.

With Omnia, it’s free to take assessments, but employers pay around $125 to get the detailed analysis. That way, the employer isn’t paying for results of applicants not on the short list.

Before using Omnia, American Digital Cartography used psychologists and consultants. This cost significantly more, Reid said, thousands of dollars versus merely hundreds with Omnia.

“But when you think of hiring someone, if you’re thinking about making a bad hire, then $1,000 is a cheap investment to avoid a mistake,” Reid said.

Reinforcement for law enforcement

A lot can go wrong if law enforcement makes a poor hire. Negative publicity and public distrust are probably among the least of concerns. Many agencies use consultant psychiatrists to weed out bad seeds.

Neenah Police Chief Kevin Wilkinson said he tells the psychiatrists the kind of candidate he’s looking for, based on descriptors of officers that have been successful.

“The doctor really has their own parameters regarding things like social adjustment, response to authority, dealing with conflict, and, of course, mental health issues like paranoia,” Wilkinson said. “We do sometimes ask the doctor to look into a specific concern if something has popped up during our interviews.”

He gave the example of alcohol use. “A candidate may have an incident or two involving alcohol, and we are concerned it may point to a bigger problem, rather than being excused as a poor decision of youth,” Wilkinson said. “We would ask the doctor to explore that further for us. They’re always very willing to do that.”

Green Bay psychiatrist Dr. Ursula Bertrand is semi-retired now but at one point consulted for 15 public-safety agencies. She’s been asked by banks, law enforcement and city personnel to weigh-in on candidates up for promotion or applying for a new position.

“Often it’s the case that they have three they want to promote, and I would evaluate the three and give them my opinion as to whether they’re qualified or not qualified,” Bertrand said.

She bases her determinations on any of a number of assessment instruments, including the clinical interview. “For law-enforcement hires, there’s no shortage of research out there on what it takes to be a good law enforcement agent: be approachable and friendly, be reliable, have good problem-solving skills and good communication skills, be able to take charge of a situation,” she said.

She uses the law-enforcement version of the MMPI patterned on police populations, which tests for mental health and emotional stability, or the California Personality Inventory Police and Public Safety Selection Report, which tests for suitability, as well as what she calls collateral information about the candidate.

“When I evaluate police and public safety and law enforcement, I generally look at suitability: Are they suitable and are they emotionally stable for the job, and to carry a firearm?” Bertrand said.

She uses Myers-Briggs when employers want a better understanding of individuals for the purposes of team building.

She said her findings are taken into consideration in the hiring decision.

“I find out about their strengths and weaknesses, but the person who hired me is the one who makes the decision,” she said.

Picking a winner

Employers looking to implement an assessment tool face dozens claiming they’re the best. To choose from the myriad, employers should first assess themselves – on what duties the job requires, what character traits they require in someone filling a particular job opening – and match not only the applicant but the test with those factors, according to Sarah DeArmond, associate professor of human resource management in the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh College of Business Administration.

HR majors at UW-Oshkosh learn about common assessments such as the Myers-Briggs and MMPI in conjunction with other more basic measurement tools, including those gauging job knowledge, performance, situational judgment, integrity or work samples. They also cover staffing and planning, employee relations and compensation.

DeArmond says some assessment instruments shouldn’t be the sole consideration in selecting candidates.“Assessments like Myers-Briggs shouldn’t be used in job selection – that is an inappropriate test to use for selection purposes, and it’s not good for predicting job performance,” she said.

The Myers-Briggs, which says people fall into any of 16 personality types based on four preferences, has its uses. “It’s fine to use for development purposes but should not be used for selection,” DeArmond said.

Pre-employment assessments seem to gain more acceptance every year they’re around, she said, but she warns that if employers purchase an assessment that’s ready to use “off the shelf,” they should make sure it makes sense for the job in question. Ideally, the assessment should be tailored to fit the company and position at hand.

“Anytime an employer is going through the selection process, they need to give consideration to the job and what it entails, what knowledge, skills and abilities are needed for those in that particular position,” DeArmond said.

A trend in recent years has been structured interviews versus non-structured interviews.

“If you do sort of an off-the-cuff interview, it’s a very poor predictor of future job performance,” DeArmond said. “If you add structure, it will do a better job of evaluating a job candidate.”

Giving structure means questions are planned in advance, job-related, asked of all applicants for a given position, and evaluated in a way that’s determined ahead of time.

When selecting applicants to place on a short list, subjective statements such as “John seems nice” should be qualified with what the applicant says or does that led to that opinion. Do those small things and you’ll get a lot more out of the interviews, DeArmond said.

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.