Fit For Hiring? It’s Mind Over Matter
New York – Members of America’s professional and managerial classes have always left college confident of at least one thing: they had taken their last test. From here on, they could rely on charm, cunning and/or a record of accomplishment to propel them up the corporate ladder.
But that’s not necessarily any longer. A growing number of companies, from General Motors Corp to American Express Co., are no longer satisfied wit traditional job interviews. Instead, they are requiring applicants for many white-collar jobs – from top executives down – to submit to a series of paper-and-pencil tests, role-playing exercises, simulated decision-making exercises and brainteasers. Other put candidates through a long series of interviews by psychologists or trained interviewers.
The tests are not about mathematics or grammar, nor about any of the basic technical skills for which many production, sales and clerical workers have been tested. Rather, employers want to evaluate candidates on intangible qualities: Is the flexible and capable of learning? Does she have passion and a sense of urgency? How will he function under pressure? Most important, will the potential recruit fit the corporate culture?
These tests, which can take from an hour to two days, are all part of a broader trend. “Companies are getting much more careful about hiring”, said R. Ray Jr., chairman of the Association of Executive Search Consultants.
Ten years ago, candidates could win a top job with the right look and the right answers to question such as “Why do you want this job?” Now, many are having to face questions and exercises intended to learn how they get things done.
They may, for example, have to describe in great detail not one career accomplishment but many – so that patterns of behavior emerge. They may face questions such as “Who is the beat manager
you ever worked for and why?” or “What is your best friend like?” The answers, psychologist say, reveal much about a candidate’s management style and about himself or herself.
The reason for the interrogations is clear: mane hires work out badly. About 35 per cent of recently hired senior executives are judged failures, according to the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina, which surveyed nearly 500 chief executives.
The cost of bringing the wrong person on board is sometimes huge. Searching and training can cost from $5000 for a lower-level manager to $250,000 for a top executive. Years of corporate downsizing, a trend that has slashed layers of management, has also increased the potential damage that one bad executive can do. With the pace of change accelerating in markets and technology, companies want to know how an executive will perform, not just how he or she has performed.
“Years ago, employers looked for experience – has a candidate done this before?” said Harold P. Weinstein, executive vice-president of Caliper, a personnel testing and consulting firm in Princeton, New Jersey. “But having experience in a job does not guarantee that you can do it in a different environment”.
At this point, most companies have not shifted to this practice. Some do not see the need or remain unconvinced that such testing is worth the cost. But human-resource specialists say anecdotal evidence suggests that white-collar testing is growing in popularity. What has brought so many employers around to testing is a sense of the limitations in the usual job interview.