Employee Assessment Questionnaire Nonsense

By - March, 2013

As part of my efforts to diversify our income and generate material for my money-topic websites, I recently applied for a job at a restaurant. As is true with many of them now, the entire process must be done online. Part of the application procedure is filling out a questionnaire. This supposedly helps company "find the best fit" for you on their staff. Of course it is also a way to simply screen out prospective employees.

But how useful are these tests really? I doubt that the companies selling their testing service to employers have much science to back up the supposed usefulness of their assessments. You are, of course, instructed to answer honestly, and the introduction to the test claims that there are no right or wrong answers. But when you have to check one of the five possible replies to the statement "If I make a promise, I keep it," can you really believe that responding with "totally disagree" is not a wrong answer if you actually want the job and you happen to be one who can't keep a promise?

Here are the choices offered for each statement on the last of these employee assessment exams I took:

I totally agree (TA)
I mostly agree (MA)
I am neutral (N)
I mostly disagree (MD)
I totally disagree (TD)

I changed the terms (and questions) slightly to avoid infringing on the assessment company's copyright (one of the many things I had to agree to before I could even start the test). But they essentially provide a scale of agreement or disagreement, as do most of the screening employee tools of this sort. After warning you that you should not distort your answers in order to look better, the introduction to the test claims that there is software which can determine if you are distorting your answers. Imagine that. Their computers can read your mind! Or so they say.

This is a psychological test, so it is interesting to guess at what they are trying to determine with some of the question/statements. For example, here is one of the statements you must respond to:

We should all obey people in positions of authority.

Now, if you "totally agree," do they consider you too submissive to be self-motivated, and will that count against you? On the other hand, if you "totally disagree" are you judged too independent for their purposes? I checked "TD" since I believe in doing what's right regardless of what any supposed authority requests. Perhaps I should have distorted my honest reply (I wasn't hired or even contacted again, as you might have guessed.

How about this one:

Employees should always watch for promotion opportunities.

The only rational reply is again to totally disagree, since not all employees are there for the purpose of advancement. Some might be students who need the extra income before returning to college. But what does each of the five possible replies supposedly reveal about a respondent? I imagine that there is some psychological algorithm that looks at the totality of the answers to create a profile, but this doesn't seem like serious science to me.

As suggested, there are some "right" replies if you want the position you're applying for. To the statement "I am a hard worker," you better at least agree, if not totally agree. Some statements are a bit more subtle, such as, "I never get angry with fellow employees." This is apparently meant to trap respondents in a lie, if they are ignorant enough to agree or totally agree, in the hopes that this distorted answer (who can say he has never been angry at work) will make them look like a better candidate. But should you totally disagree or just plain disagree?

The test is full of what we might call mystery statements, for which the intent of the test maker is not clear. Consider this one: "Other employees see me as ambitious." If you totally agree are you judged to be too aggressive? If you totally disagree, are you judged to be too passive and un-motivated? What if their perception of you does not fit the reality of your degree of ambition? You're not supposed to answer how you would like to be seen, so if you happen to do a great job and employees see this as indicative of ambition (and make that clear to you), the honest answer would be total agreement, even if you are currently working at a job where you have no plans for advancement or if you want the position you are applying for as a temporary job. Or if they think you have no ambition at all because you keep to yourself, you have to totally disagree, even if you are in fact very ambitious. Is that confusing enough? (And is confusion a purposeful part of the assessment?)

Here are a few more statements from the test:

Most people are good.

Working slowly makes for the best outcome.

I enjoy analyzing other people.

I have done a few of these employment assessment questionnaires online now, and I haven't been called back for a real interview or even sent an email saying the position has been filled. It is very possible that my replies preclude me from consideration, and that they are right in assessing me as unfit for the jobs. But when I go to the places that use these testing services, I am not noticing any marked improvement in customer service or employee efficiency.

This whole industry might be a good way for some companies to make money with the pretense of of a scientific basis for their service, but I would recommend that employers ask their own questions with prospective employees right there in front of them. I remain a skeptic of this online-mind-reading hiring process.

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