Special Report: Behavioral Issues

In a perfect world, all jobs would be filled on the basis of a trial period. Candidates would have the opportunity to work in a position for a few months, and managers would observe their performance to determine if they should remain in that role indefinitely.

To talent managers and behavioral psychologists, this scenario is a win-win: Hiring managers are able to assess a candidate’s real job performance, and candidates are able to showcase their fit by actually doing the job.

“That’s absolutely the best way to hire people,” said Ken Lahti, an industrial organizational psychologist and vice president of product development and innovation at The Corporate Executive Board Co., or CEB, an Arlington, Virginia-based research and advisory firm and pre-employment assessment provider.

While some employers do incorporate a defined trial period in the hiring process, not all comapnies can afford this luxury. For most jobs — especially those higher up the corporate ladder — time and money often stand in the way. This leaves managers with the task of placing the right people in the right roles without knowing for certain if they’re fit for the job.

Enter the behavioral assessment, a talent management tool that has caught fire in recent years as employers try to streamline hiring to be more predictive. These tests are used to measure personality, job skills and cognitive ability. News reports peg theassessment industry as a $500 million-a-year business, with robust growth anticipated in the foreseeablefuture.

But behavioral assessments are not a panacea for talent managers. While assessment providers say the tests are sophisticated and rigorously designed as reliable indicators of behavior, talent managers have found they work best when incorporated in a broader hiring framework. Skeptics of such tests, meanwhile, point to fairness and discrimination concerns as reasons to proceed with caution (see “A Legal Tightrope,” p. 17).    

Crafting a Fair Assessment

The idea of evaluating human behavior through a written test isn’t new. According to Deniz Ones, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, the science behind most of the assessments used today was developed 70 years ago and has been used in both academic and business settings.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, Ones said, that such assessments began to converge around a single theory of personality. “The Big Five,” or the five constructs that should be considered to evaluate an individual’s personality, are the backbone of any test used to predict workplace behaviors. The Big Five measures the degree to which an individual is open, conscientious, extroverted, agreeable and neurotic.

Ones, who teaches a graduate-level class in test construction, said the ability to pinpoint a candidate’s exact degree of neuroticism is useless unless the data collected is linked to workplace performance. Thisrequires writing a test that is catered to the specific needs of the organization.

“You don’t just sit down in your cubicle and write a bunch of questions and toss them onto an employment test,” Ones said.

The process of developing behavioral assessmentsbegins with job analysis. At CEB and PI Worldwide, anotherassessment provider, this involves formally studying the job before the behavioral assessment test is written. The company calls upon subject-matter experts — typically high-performing employees currently in the position — to articulate the personality characteristics and skills needed to succeed in that role.

The goal is to first create a personality profile of the ideal candidate, and then link those traits to measurable outputs so statistically significant data can be collected. “We really like to keep that focus on behaviors,” CEB’s Lahti said. “We also want to understand the metrics of the job. If you were able to start hiring fantastic people immediately, how would you know? We start off by asking about those business metrics to help us understand how the talent challenge fits into the overall business strategy.”

Depending on the size of the company, Lahti said this process can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. But job analysis is only half the battle. According to assessment experts, behavioral assessments are useless until they are deemed valid — meaning the test is measuring what it is supposed to measure.

A first pass at creating a personality inventory involves writing roughly 2,000 questions, Ones said. Those questions will be inspected on the basis of wording to eliminate unintended biases. From there, the roughly 1,500 that remain will be given to an experimental group. Companies implementing a new assessment to validate it should deliver the test to at least 1,000 people, Ones said.

“We go through an empirical evaluation and culling effort,” Lahti said. “What comes out of the back end of that process is a validation that the assessment actually measures what we claim it measures and predicts the kinds of things that employers care about in that particular evaluation.”

These efforts eventually produce an exam that typically takes between 10 and 20 minutes to complete. The results are delivered to employers color-coded as red, yellow or green, depending on a candidate’s fit to a given position. The ultimate goal is to give employers a tool that will help them maximize the potential of the interview process.

“It’s not a deal-breaker,” said Nancy Martini, president and CEO of PI Worldwide. “A job analytic is a target, not a person. Within the target there are a lot of ranges of people who would do well in that position.”

Martini said behavioral assessments are a reliable predictor of 20 to 25 percent of human behavior and can be developed to correlate directly with job performance. A 2014 study by consulting firm Bersin by Deloitte found that 60 to 70 percent of the current United States workforce has been given a behavioral assessment in the past year.

Not a Silver Bullet

Even though companies realize including behavioral assessments has the potential to help them improve talent management decision-making, it’s by no means a singular solution.

For starters, companies are finding different ways to apply behavioral assessments.

Sheboygan, Wisconsin-based food company Johnsonville Sausage uses a 10-minute behavioral assessment as part of its talent acquisition and succession planning. Cory Bouck, the company’s director of organizational development and learning, said the exam aims to produce a valid composite of an employee’s personality as it pertains to a given role.

“Neuroscience and psychology are always moving things forward,” Bouck said. “If we want to get the best candidates, we have to be open to new ways of assessing them.” 

Raul Valentin, vice president of talent acquisition at Comcast Corp., describes the media company’s use of assessments as a supplement to the overall selection process. “There’s no silver bullet,” he said. “It’s part of a number of steps. It is used post a screening or résumé review. It is not used absent of that.” 

At Comcast, behavioral assessments are used primarily for hiring frontline employees. Valentin said the test helps to tease out the interpersonal skills that service technicians and other outward-facing positionsrequire. Comcast also limits its use of behavioralassessments to talent acquisition, preferring to rely on internal measurements like performance reviews to drive succession planning.

Johnsonville, meanwhile, integrates the practice into all aspects of talent management. In the absence of a formal onboarding program, Bouck said Johnsonville relies heavily on the predictive index, or PI, a personality assessment owned by the accounting firm Wipfli, to help identify qualified candidates who will fit well into the company’s culture.

Johnsonville also takes its use of behavioral assessments a step further by retesting employees multiple times throughout their tenure. “Every two or three years, we have them update it so we can gauge their current levels of motivation, engagement and utilization,” Bouck said.

The food company also doesn’t keep assessment results confidential.Any employee can request to see the results of another employee’s assessment. “We’re very transparent with that,” Bouck said. “We believe that the more people understand the PI and the more people have access to the PI, they will be much less likely to tell themselves bad stories about other people.”

Bouck cited an example of having a colleague who asks a lot of questions. The intent of making employees’ behavioral assessment results open is so that instead of making the assumption that someone is annoying or incompetent because they ask a lot of questions, employees can see that the employee is identified by the assessment as detail-oriented.

Additionally, Johnsonville employs a career counselor to help employees understand test results so that workers can understand not only how they work best, but also how to best work with others. “We put in a lot of effort because we believe that you won’t step in a hole that you see,” Bouck said. “These assessments help us understand where our strengths are and where our holes are.”

While the companies interviewed for this article didn’t quantify the exact weight behavioral assessments carry in hiring or promotion, they did emphasize that the tool bolsters their ability to ask more effective questions in the interview process.

“We would never use it as a reason not to talk to somebody,” Bouck said. “Let’s say the job is in accounting. An accountant has to be highly detailed. If a candidate came back with a low detail orientation, we would structure the interview questions around that aspect of their personality.”

Behavioral assessments are not only being put to use in large companies with high-volume hiring demands, but also small companies are finding value in them as well.

Raidious, an Indianapolis-based digital marketing agency, found use in behavioral assessments when it went on a hiring spree to expand from its five original employees in 2009. Ryan Smith, the company’s chief operating officer, said because it relies on a small staff, every hire is especially important. Using the predictive index from PI Worldwide allowed Raidious to cut its typical hiring time in half from six months to three, Smith said.

“We only have 22 people and a huge client workload,” Smith said. “If you start to slack, it is felt immediately. Understanding people’s behavior before they step in the door is huge.” 

While all three companies agreed that implementing behavioral assessments have helped streamline hiring, none have kept data to measure the actual effectiveness of the practice.

Part of the data-collection challenge comes from the fact that the assessments are only part of a larger hiring process. “There are a number of companies where [behavioral assessments] are the only thing that they do,” Valentin said. “That is where you run into risks. It’s not a holistic look at how one selects talent.”

Furthermore, even though the behavioral assessments are only one part of a larger talent acquisition strategy at Comcast, they are not used flippantly. In addition to the precautions that test writers take to ensure a fair assessment, Comcast works closely with its legal and HR team to project the influence and validity of the assessment against things likeadverse effect and discrimination.

“If you have a tool that is powerful in any way, it can obviously be used in the wrong way,” Smith said. “If you have a great fast car, you can enjoy driving it and be safe or you can go out and take your seat belt off and endanger others and yourself. It’s all about how you use it.”

To learn more about the legality of using personality assessments in the workplace, read the sidebar that accompanies this Special Report here.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.