Have you heard about the tests that are giving employers "fits"? Bruce McWilliams, general manager at Lee's Summit Honda, credits a 15-minute...

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Have you heard about the tests that are giving employers “fits”?

Bruce McWilliams, general manager at Lee’s Summit Honda, credits a 15-minute pre-employment psychological profile with reducing employee turnover and boosting sales at the car dealership.

Rich Mellor, a loss-prevention advisor and division vice president at Helzberg Diamonds, believes a pre-employment integrity and attitude assessment has improved staff quality and cut inventory shrinkage.

Jennifer Bosshardt, spokeswoman for Sprint, says a pre-employment personality test is the efficiency tool the company needs to improve the odds of hiring successful workers in its cellular-phone stores.

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Pre-employment assessments — designed to predict the likelihood that an applicant will be a good “fit” in the job — are sweeping through the work world.

Used sometimes as a first step to reduce the size of the applicant pool or as a backup to reinforce or overrule job interviewers’ instincts, these computerized or pen-and-pencil tests are gaining favor among employers.

Test yourself

Some sample pre-employment questions from different assessments:

Read the following statements and select one that best describes what you feel is required behavior to be successful in this job. In most cases, both choices may seem important. Choose the one that is most critical.

• Upbeat, enthusiastic communication style.

• Direct, specific communication style.

Is clutter in the workplace something you:

• Tolerate pretty well.

• Take time to straighten up.

A customer comes into the store and asks for a salesperson who is not working today. You help the customer and make a $3,000 sale. What percentage of the commission should you get from the sale?

• 0

• 25

• 50

• 75

• 100

Companies’ policies tend to be too strict. To be productive, employees should not be as restricted as they usually are.

• Strongly agree

• Agree

• Normal

• Disagree

• Strongly disagree

You avoid being the center of attention.

• Strongly agree

• Agree

• Disagree

• Strongly disagree

The Kansas City Star

Such testing, designed for applicant screening and employment development, is believed to be a $400-million-a-year industry.

About 30 percent of all companies use personality tests to help make hiring decisions, according to a survey by Management Recruiters International, and the number is rising.

Among job applicants, the embrace isn’t quite as strong.

Rebecca Rose, a 43-year-old Kansas City woman with 12 years of experience as a flight attendant, is sure she has the customer-service skills to be a restaurant server or work in retail sales. But when she’s taken pre-employment tests, she’s often been flummoxed at how to answer some of the questions.

“One store’s test asked if anybody had ever annoyed you to the point that you wanted to sit on them,” Rose said. “How do you answer a question like that? Of course some passengers have annoyed me. Did I want to sit on them? Yes. Did I sit on them? Of course not.”

As more companies turn to pre-employment testing, established vendors and academicians who study the discipline warn against buying testing products from companies that lack the data banks or Ph.D.-level staff to justify their testing results.

Fritz Drasgow, past president of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, said at the association’s national conference in April that the explosion of pre-employment testing “can be boon or boondoggle.”

“In any growing area, you get people who aren’t reputable,” Drasgow said. “There’s no licensing or registration in this area. It’s really caveat emptor … buyer beware.

“The purchaser needs to ask for the empirical data to support the product. You need a product that has good statistical analysis and good questions designed by industrial-organizational psychologists.”

Annie Murphy Paul, former senior editor at Psychology Today, is chief among skeptics about such psychological assessments. Her book, “The Cult of Personality,” criticizes many tests for flawed design and improper applications.

Robert Hogan, editor of “Personality Psychology in the Workplace,” often cited as the bible for the assessment industry, agrees that many employers are buying products from “snake oil” salesmen.

In fact, he’s gone so far as to say that he considers only three or four test publishers to be “legitimate” because of their design and their depth of empirical data to back up interpretation of their results.

Bob Troutwine, a psychology professor at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., calls himself a “converted believer” in the value of pre-employment psychological testing.

“Originally, I was skeptical,” Troutwine said. “But, considering them in context with other abilities and aptitude testing, I’d say they’re definitely valid, especially if you compare them with other techniques — like the job interview.”

In fact, Troutwine has his own company, Troutwine Associates, that specializes in personnel selection and development.

In real life, many hiring managers don’t have the time or training to interview candidates correctly. When that’s the case, hiring is a “shoot-from-the-hip thing,” said Ronald Ash, a management professor at the University of Kansas School of Business.

Preventing costly shoot-from-the-hip hiring — likely followed by high employee turnover — is the big reason pre-employment profiling is popular.

A well-designed pre-employment assessment also can help protect the company from charges of illegal discrimination in hiring.

Joe Schmitt, a Minneapolis lawyer who specializes in advising corporate clients about personality testing, said it’s crucial for employers to make sure that the tests they use “are validated to not have a disparate impact.” That means that a test doesn’t have significantly higher pass-or-fail rates for certain population groups.

The legal community expects to see rising numbers of lawsuits from unhappy test-takers, as well as a public-policy backlash.

“It’s illegal to use polygraph machines for pre-employment testing,” Schmitt said. “But the laws don’t cover these pen-and-pencil or computerized tests that are trying to get at the same honesty or truth-telling things. … It’s only a matter of time before state legislatures start to look at this. We urge our client companies to stay abreast of the law; it could change.”