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More Employers Are Testing Skill -- and Personality -- to Find New Hires

Employers test your skills and psyche to find the best match.

The latest employment report shows that the number of people who are finding jobs is on the rise, particularly in health care, construction, retail, and professional and business services. Behind the uptick, you’re likely to find plenty of new hires who earned their positions after undergoing a battery of assessments that probed not just their job skills but also their intelligence and their innermost psyches. “In this kind of economy, the stakes, frankly, have gotten higher,” says Caroline Paxman, president for the Americas at SHL, a global leader in employment testing. “With fewer openings and more applicants, there’s a strong desire on the part of the hiring organization to really get it right.”

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An intelligence test might ask you to read something and then write a paragraph, or to solve a word problem. A personality test measures your style. Do you like to collaborate or work alone? How do you handle stress? A competency test will measure a specific skill; an applicant at a software firm might be asked, for example, to write a program. Increasingly, companies want to see how candidates perform in a simulated work environment, either in person or online. Applicants for a retail position might be asked how they would soothe frustrated customers in a busy store on a day when it was understaffed. Would-be managers might be asked how they’d handle the fallout if a subordinate failed to complete an important task.

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American Airlines uses personality and competency assessments as pre-employment screening tools for front-line employees, such as flight attendants and agents in call centers or at airports. One of the things that American measures is resilience. “For a customer-service employee, that’s incredibly important,” says William Mitchell, American’s managing director of leadership planning. Copart, a Fairfield, Cal., company that sells cars salvaged from insurers, repo companies and car owners, uses tests to gauge the critical thinking and decision-making skills of recent college grads and employees who want to move up the ranks. Since the company started testing, “the people we’ve hired are far more successful, with a significant number moving up to be regional managers,” says Copart’s Steve Overcashier.

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At executive levels, employers are seeking so-called soft skills, says Dana Landis, vice-president at executive recruiter Korn/Ferry International: “There’s an increasing focus on the ability to inspire others, adapt to change or communicate one’s vision.”

The right fit is a two-way street: “Job-seekers shouldn’t be afraid of assessments,” says human-resources consultant Josh Bersin, at Bersin & Associates, in Oakland, Cal. “Nobody wants to get a job that’s not right for them.” Not only would you be miserable, but chances are you would not succeed. Don’t even think about trying to game a test. “A lot of science goes into the way the questions are designed,” says SHL’s Paxman. “The danger is trying to overthink or second-guess the process.”

Instead, be yourself. Reflect on how you approach problem-solving, what motivates you, what you’ve achieved and what you’ve learned along the way. If you want to see some sample questions, visit SHL’s site.

Follow Anne on Twitter.

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