Ask the Headhunter: An insider’s tips for approaching employment tests

BY Nick Corcodilos  August 26, 2014 at 12:26 PM EST
Pre-employment tests disrespect employees, says guest columnist Dr. Erica Klein. Photo by Flickr user albertogp123.

Pre-employment tests disrespect employees, says guest columnist Dr. Erica Klein. Photo by Flickr user albertogp123.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


This week’s column features a guest writer, Dr. Erica Klein. In her book, “Employment Tests: Get The Edge,” Dr. Klein explains that “The goal of this guide is to give you an edge on pre-employment tests by arming you with an insider’s understanding of tests, by reducing your anxiety and frustration, by minimizing common errors in test taking, and by increasing your accuracy as a test taker.”

But I like to get at the real problems and challenges people face when job hunting. So I asked Dr. Klein to let Ask The Headhunter readers in on what bothers her about employment testing. You might be surprised that her concerns mirror your own — and you might find her tips very helpful the next time an employer suggests you take a test. I’ll let Dr. Klein say it in her own words.

Dr. Erica Klein: Even though I am what you’d call an insider in the pre-employment testing business, certain aspects of testing bug me — and it might surprise you that my concerns may be similar to your own. And even though testing is a science, the design of some tests and the practice of administering tests demand scrutiny. I hope my perspective on these issues can help you in your job search when you encounter testing.

My #1 complaint about pre-employment testing is the disrespectful treatment of test takers. This can start when you are asked to take a test without warning or explanation. It continues through tests that seem to make no sense in the context of the job, and it can culminate when employers provide no feedback to test takers about test results.

Employers have choices about each of these points of disrespect, and some employers do make respectful choices. For example:

  • Job postings can — and should — describe tests that applicants will be required to take.
  • When test invitations are issued, they should provide useful information about the type of test to be administered and the reason for using the test.
  • Feedback about your test results should be provided, although sometimes only upon request. (Sometimes employers shy away from feedback to avoid inadvertently “coaching” some applicants over others and to avoid awkward conversations.)

What should you do if you encounter disrespectful treatment related to pre-employment testing? My advice is to continue with the testing process if you still want the job. After you are through the selection process, you can let the employer (the hiring manager and HR) know how the testing process felt disrespectful to you. It is certainly not your job to bring this to HR’s attention, but if you choose to do so, it might help bring about needed changes.

“Even though delivering negative feedback is a big part of HR’s job, I believe the majority of HR employees would like to treat you as respectfully as possible.”

Let me step aside for a moment and argue a point that is controversial in this neighborhood: I firmly believe that most HR employees are caring people who want to do a good job and want to treat people as well as possible. The recruiting function, unfortunately, is also in the business of rejection. HR must eventually reject all but one applicant for each open position. Many of those rejected might have been able to perform the job adequately or even well, but only one person can be selected. Even though delivering negative feedback is a big part of HR’s job, I believe the majority of HR employees would like to treat you as respectfully as possible.

My #2 complaint about pre-employment testing is lack of “face validity.” Face validity is a subjective judgment the test taker makes about a test, not a quality of the test. A test is face valid if it appears to be measuring what it is actually measuring. Since pre-employment tests are always measuring and predicting attitudes, behaviors and knowledge related to work, the test is face valid when it asks questions related to the work.

For example, in my opinion, face-valid pre-employment tests should not be asking about how you act at parties, your personal life, whether you take the stairs two at a time (I’m serious: this is a famous, real test question!) or anything that does not appear to be related to the work.

Nonetheless, tests can lack face validity but still be good tests for predicting job performance. In the scientific underbelly of testing, we can often predict your job behaviors and performance from weird things — including how you act at parties, the criminal behaviors of people you know socially, how energetically you climb stairs, and what color shoes you wear (yes, this is another famous study!) — but, in my opinion, these types of questions have no place in pre-employment tests. They are frustrating and confusing for test takers and result in mistrust between test takers and employers.

What can you do if you encounter a test that is not face valid? First, momentarily put aside your distaste (and mine). Remember that even though a test is not face valid, it might still be a good test in other ways. It might be good at predicting your fit with, and likelihood of success in, the job. In other words, in spite of our belief that a test is not face valid, it might actually help you win a job or avoid a job that would not be a good fit for you.

“In the scientific underbelly of testing, we can often predict your job behaviors and performance from weird things…”

So you might be surprised at my advice: Take the test and compete for the job. Nonetheless, if you encounter test questions that make you too uncomfortable, then feel free to abandon the test and the job opportunity.

My #3 complaint about pre-employment testing is that some employers use tests that are no better than horoscopes. Take a look at this article about bad tests by Dr. Wendell Williams: “Is Your Hiring Test A Joke?” Dr. Williams says it very well:

When something looks good on the surface, but [is] completely without merit, it is called a joke. You might not have thought of this before, but many hiring tests fit that bill. I’m talking about tests that deliver numbers and data that look good on the surface, but do nothing to predict candidate job success.

Employers have an obligation to use tests that are good at predicting success, and you have a right to expect that any test you take will indicate your chances of doing well at a job. As a job applicant, you might find it difficult to tell bad tests from good tests — especially given that not all good tests will look like what you think they should (see complaint #2).

There is absolutely a right way to develop tests, and there are a lot of good tests out there. It’s not an easy read, and it was outside the scope of “Employment Tests: Get The Edge,” but if you want to understand what it takes to develop a great test, consult the American Psychological Association’s “Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing.”

What should you do if you have done your research and are confident that you are facing a bad test — a test no better than snake oil, a test based on junk science? I think you should walk away. Employers who use bad tests are demonstrating (or tolerating) a general lack of good judgment and critical thinking. Those might be failings that reveal employers you should avoid.

Many thanks to Dr. Klein for this guest column!

Dear Readers: What are your concerns and experiences with employment testing? Dr. Erica Klein will respond to as many of your questions and comments as she can.


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

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