Shawn Smith

Article Summary:

Guidelines for conducting pre-employment tests.

The Pre-Employment Test

We all know how important it is to hire the right candidates. If an employee does not have the right skills to perform the job, or is not a good fit for the culture of the organization, this individual will have to be replaced. Turnover is both costly and time consuming. To avoid needless turnover costs, many employers turn to pre-employment selection tests to help them make better hiring decisions. According to the most recent American Management Association Survey on Workplace Testing, 41% of responding firms test for basic literacy and/or math skills, 68% perform job skills testing and 29% conduct psychological tests on job applicants. The market is flooded with testing services and self-administered tests that purport to measure everything under the sun. Will pre-employment assessments help you to make better hires? Not necessarily. Testing can be expensive, and for some organizations, the benefits will not sufficiently justify the costs.

Before you invest in a testing program, ask yourself what you wish to accomplish.
If you have a high turnover rate or a history of bad hires, or there is another compelling reason that you need to screen for certain aptitudes or qualities, pre-employment testing can be very useful. If you have been generally happy with your hires and your turnover rate is low, there may be no reason to implement a screening program. If you do decide to test, the more specific you are about the skills and characteristics for which you wish to screen, the more likely you will be to obtain good results.

Selecting the right assessment tool is critical.
The quality of tests can vary widely, and you want to be sure to choose one that will effectively measure what you want to measure. There are also legal risks involved, so it is important to understand the applicable laws.

Legal Guidelines
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has published Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures that set out standards on pre-employment testing. These standards include that:

  • The test must measure skills or work behavior that is important to performing the job for which the applicant is being tested.
  • The test must be administered to all candidates in a fair and uniform manner.
  • A test cannot have a discriminatory impact against any race, religion, sex or ethnic group. If a particular test produces a significantly different rate of hiring men than women, for example, the test might be considered discriminatory.
  • Tests should be validated. This means that there should be a demonstrated correlation between individual performance on the test and subsequent performance on the job. Employers are not required to conduct validation tests, but are encouraged to use tests that have been validated.
  • Scoring of the test, whether a target score or pass-fail standard is used, must be applied consistently.

It is much easier to comply with EEOC guidelines when implementing aptitude tests than psychological tests, because aptitude tests measure skills that are more directly relevant to the job. Psychological and personality tests present more of a gray area, and are therefore more open to challenge.

Psychological Tests
If you do decide to use psychological tests, closely examine the job description to determine the characteristics you are seeking to measure. Do not attempt a "one size fits all" approach. Since it is unlikely that one test will be relevant to applicants for all positions at an organization, you will have a difficult time justifying the test in a court of law.

Do not attempt to devise your own tests unless you have in-house expertise in the areas of test development and validation. Buy a test already out on the market, or hire a consultant to develop a targeted test. The Buros Institute at the University of Nebraska publishes a variety of comprehensive lists and reviews of available testing materials.

Before making a final selection, obtain references from other employers that have used the test you are considering. Ask the testing company about their validation procedures, whether the tests have been challenged in the courts and about the results of any legal challenges.

Shawn Smith is a consultant, speaker, attorney and the founder of Next Level Consulting, LLC, an organizational development and management consulting firm. She has worked with a broad range of public, private and non-profit organizations to develop practical programs and strategies to navigate change, increase individual and organizational effectiveness and exceed business objectives. Shawn is the co-author of The HR Answer Book: An Indispensable Guide for Managers and Human Resources Professionals (AMACOM 2004). Contact her for more information through her web site at

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