Employee tests don't always make the grade 

Source: The Ottawa Citizen, 25 January 1997

Author: Shaunn Herron

Buyer beware. With employers, both public and private anxious to get the biggest bang for their hiring buck, there's a temptation to look for a tool that guarantees success. More and more bosses are embracing psychological testing as the magic wand that will deliver good workers. But many of those employers have stumbled into a minefield of charlatans, bad tests and legal liability. "When you get into the area of psychological testing, there are serious problems and real issues," said Stephen McArthur, a Hamilton lawyer who deals in business and workplace law. "There's always the risk of a (legal) claim or violation of the human rights code."

Psychological testing is a catchphrase for tests ranging from IQ to personality and actual psychological assessments. They can be used to estimate the intelligence of potential employees, check their aptitude, and screen them for traits judged essential to the job. Agencies use them to weed out applicants with personality flaws or social problems that make them a bad risk. Experts in the field agree the popularity of testing appears to be growing. Private corporations use it, as do police forces and the Ontario government. In an economy where employers can't afford to make mistakes, testing offers a reliable way of vetting potential workers and of researching managers.

"Studies have shown that with (conventional interviewing), the validity has been the equivalent of flipping a coin," said Richard Allon, a Toronto clinical psychologist with 27 years in the field. "this is a more refined hiring process and a fairer hiring process." Rick Hackett, chair of McMaster University's human resources and labor relations department, said psychological testing is growing because it offers reliable screening. But he offered a caution: "it's good predictor of later performance on the job - provided the questions are systematically developed," he said. "The key is that the test is appropriate."

And therein lies the problem. A test is a sophisticated instrument that must be tailored for each job. Relatively few people are unqualified to do tht - far fewer than the number of "consultants" flogging tests on the market. "A lot of marketers have seen fertile territory to make a buck," said Hackett, who designs tests for private clients. "They sell commercial instruments and make a lot of money, but if they're taken to court they're in a lot of trouble." Psychological testing is legal in Ontario. But it has to steer carefully through the shoals of union agreements, legal liability and human rights obligations. "If an employer is testing for a trait related to the essential completion of a job, it's OK under the code," said Maureen Brown, spokeswoman for the Ontario Human Rights Commission. "But if it has an adverse impact on a specific group, it can be considered discriminatory."

McArthur, the lawyer, said the first rule of testing is to get a reputable consultant. If the quiz isn't properly designed and backed up with a technical manual and research, the employer is in jeopardy. "If you're challenged, part of your defense has to be that it's backed up by a tremendous volume of research," McArthur said. "If I was an employer and somebody knocked on my door with a testing package, I'd say no thanks." Brown said discrimination is permitted in certain case where employers can prove they need certain qualities for a job. Allon says the hallmarks of a legitimate test are validity, reliability and its use of norms.

Validity means it measures what the designer says it will measure. The test must screen for the precise needs of the employer. Only extensive testing will ensure accuracy. Reliability means ensuring the test screens for the same things all the time. If a person scores differently each time he or she writes, the test is flawed. Norms mean the test has been adjusted to fit specific circumstances. "If the test does all those, then you know it means something," said Allon. "Not until then do you know you're measuring something; not until then do you have a test." Asked if most tests being offered to employers meet those criteria, he replied: "Sadly, quality testing is not widespread."

Cost is an indicator of how good a test you're getting, Hackett said. A consultant offering something for a few thousand dollars isn't giving a client what it needs. Allon said his fee is $2,000 a day. Six months to prepare a test isn't unusual, he said. "So what if you spend $200,000 - if you save $1 million down the road?" he said. Serving the bottom line is the concern of private industry. Serving the public is the chief concern of police and other government agencies.

Burlington psychologist Keith Travis conducts psychological testing for police in Metro Toronto and Hamilton-Wentworth. He's been consulting since 1979 and says it's an excellent tool to scrren out "bad cops." But he warns that testing is only one of the tools a prudent employer should use. "(Employers often expect too much - this is no magical piece of litmus paper," Travis said. "We formulate a reasonable hypothesis based on what the person responds to. It's an aid rather than the only answer." Travis said testing is better at screening out negative traits than selecting positive. And he said it does not predict or prevent the development of problems after the assessment. 

Higher price to pay for an impromptu test

HAMILTON- Bill Robertson saw his life collapse two months ago, a casualty of a test he should never have had to take. It was Nov. 19, his 50th birthday, and the part-time ambulance dispatcher with the Ministry of Health was called in before his shift to take what he describes as a psychological test. The province calls it an aptitude test. The Hamilton-based dispatcher for the Niagara region went home for a few hours after writing the exam. When he went to work that night, he discovered he'd failed. And lost his job. "The letter said I didn't pass and that it was goodbye as of Dec. 4," said the former ambulance officer, who has been dispatching for 20 years. "I couldn't believe it - I'm still angry that they put me through this."

Ministry officials told Robertson the test showed he didn't have the aptitude or traits they were looking for in a dispatcher. He was told to work his remaining shifts and finish his career. It was a high price to pay for failing a test he was never meant to take. "I was surprised to find out that I wasn't cut out to be a dispatcher," Robertson says. "I've been doing it for 20 years, then his Mickey Mouse test comes along and tells me I can't do it." The Ontario Public Service Employees Union protested Robertson's firing. He was back on the job three weeks later with an apology and back pay in hand.

It was vindication for him - and egg on the ministry's face. "It was what I consider a no-brainer case," said Larry Butters, OPSEU's top ambulance official for Niagara and Hamilton. "He should never have been but through the procedure." The grievance coupled with pressure from Bob Patrick, head of OPSEU's ambulance division, prompted the ministry to stop testing experienced dispatchers and remove results from the files of any dispatcher who had been forced to take it. New applicants without experience

Must still write the test. "This is a very right-wing approach to hiring - very discriminatory," said Patrick, who added that he feels the test is faulty. "We were seeing people with 10 and 15 years' service, with no blemishes on their records, being told they were incompetent." Provincial spokesmen declined to discuss Robertson's case. Managers would say only the grievance had been resolved. Graham Brand. Ontario's director of emergency health services, said the test is designed to screen untrained applicants for dispatching jobs. It identifies, among others, and do a variety of tasks at the same time.

If tha's the case, Robertson asks, why was he questioned about U.S. steel companies, American presidents and a fictional war in Antarctica? "It didn't recreate may job or what I go through," he said. "What does any of that have to do with my job?" Alex Polgar, the Hamilton consultant who provided the test tot he ministry, described Robertson's claims as "nonsense." Polgar said the test is not a psychological one. He called it a "standardized instrument" designed to find qualities needed in dispatchers. Neither the province nor Polgar would provide The Hamilton Spectator with a copy of the test.

Gary Latham, an industrial psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, said alarm bells should have gone off when longtime dispatchers performed poorly on the test. First, nobody should be fired on the basis of the results, he said. Second, veteran workers should be the ones posting the best results. "That's stupidity," said Latham. "If a person does well on the job but not on the test, it's the test that should be fired." Brand said the plan "went off the rails" when it was applied to more than 30 full-and part-time dispatchers in Niagara, Hamilton, Simcoe and Brantford. Robertson was the only worker fired.