[Your Job] How Legal and/or Relevant Are Psychological Assessment Tests?

Reader Robert B. from Colorado asks this week:

“Between reading your blogs and filling out applications, I have come stumbled upon some questions. How legal and/or relevant are psychological assessment tests? Are those assessments relevant if the individual has PTSD? I think it’s possible that these test could be discriminating against people who went through traumatic events in their childhood. I have come across very few court cases that have tried to figure out the issue. What are your thoughts on the matter?”

The short answer is “not very (legal or relevant by themselves).”

The long answer is worth the read.

To be relevant, any good employment test should tell you just one little thing: given this set of facts, how successful is someone going to be doing a task, or a set of tasks. These set of tasks are something which we usually put a wrapper around and call it a “job.” In other words, they should be predictive: people who do score well on the test should have a higher likelihood of doing well on the job, people who score poorly should have a lower likelihood of doing well on the job.


Not exactly.

As written here, the makers of employment tests provide significant assurance that their tests will help you make the right selection. Testing company Brainbench, a unit of Previsor, as one example says “Brainbench assessment products predict employee success.”

Another vendor, Criteria Corporation, states, “Our employment test portfolio includes aptitude, personality, and basic skills tests, and our TestMaker™ feature allows your organization to generate your own proprietary tests.”

The business problem is that none – zero – of the test vendors that I’ve ever encountered  in over 30 years of working in the selection and assessment space provide one simple guarantee: people who score well on the tests will do well in the job, and people who score poorly on the tests will perform poorly in the job.

And because people have a funny habit of suing employers when they figure out the test they took is reason they didn’t get the job, guess how many test vendors I’ve encountered who will stand by the employer and indemnify, or even partially indemnify the employer?

You guessed it: zero.

The lure of tests is that one will tell you who is a fit for a job and who is not ranks right up there with fad diets: everyone has tried one, and no one has ever found one that actually works for any extended period of time. Like a silver bullet that will solve your problems, everybody wants some tests or a series of tests that will be absolute predictors of performance and success.

Life, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your perspective, is not that simple.

Some well grounded tests, along with well done interviews and background checks, can be very helpful in making informed, suggestive estimates about how someone will do in a role. David Edell from executive search firm DRG has a thoughtful post on the matter here.

Assessment and selection expert Ed Yager notes that personality testing alone (meaning well constructed, job specific tests) has an accuracy of 26%, marginally better than interviewing alone at 17%.

So the long answer is that good, well designed tests can be helpful when done with a variety of other well done elements in providing suggestive likelihood of success.

But no one test (or tests) is a particularly good predictor.

What about legality?

The United States requirement is fairly specific, and my experience is that apart from straight forward jobs with few task elements (ticket takers at a tollway, for example, or very junior accounts payable specialists) most personality and assessment tests do not fully comply with the requirements. Here’s the US federal language regarding validity studies:

“Evidence of the validity of a test or other selection procedure by a criterion-related validity study should consist of empirical data demonstrating that the selection procedure is predictive of or significantly correlated with important elements of job performance. See 14B of this part. Evidence of the validity of a test or other selection procedure by a content validity study should consist of data showing that the content of the selection procedure is representative of important aspects of performance on the job for which the candidates are to be evaluated. See 14C of this part. Evidence of the validity of a test or other selection procedure through a construct validity study should consist of data showing that the procedure measures the degree to which candidates have identifiable characteristics which have been determined to be important in successful performance in the job for which the candidates are to be evaluated.”

The US federal code goes on to describe the types of non-discrimination tests which are an additional requirement to ensure that none of the protected classes (over 40, gender, race, national origin, religion, etc.) are disparately impacted. When I discussed this matter with employment attorney Kirby Wilcox in 2005 he told me had never seen a compliant validation study be done, and doubted that you could do one based on the requirements.

Short answer? Not legal. Not predictive (jobs have too many tasks, too much dynamic complexity).

Reader Robert B. raises one other interesting question which is the subject of a requirement to make reasonable accommodations for disabilities in employment matters in the United State. I don’t know if Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder per se is considered a disability though my hunch is that it belongs to a group of mental disabilities that fall under that act as recognized disabilities. While I’m not an attorney, it would seem to be prudent for any employer to steer clear of making employment related decisions with people with PTSD (or any other covered disability) unless reasonable accommodations are made.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.