Hiring firms give weight to 'style'

At Cyberonics, it's called a "style analysis." Over the past three years, some 200 new employees at the Houston-based medical-device company have answered a 16-question, 10-minute test as part of the hiring process - which also includes interviews and background and reference checks.

As a measurement of the traits of dominance, influence, steadiness, and compliance, the "analysis" helps determine if a candidate is suited for the job.

"We don't refer to it as a test," says Freddie Ann Marcussen, the company's director of human resources. "We use it to support what our interviewing tells us about a candidate. A typical sales person registers high in 'influence.' It's reinforced our hiring decisions. But it's not our only recruiting tool."

What Ms. Marcussen calls a style analysis is more commonly known as a personality test. But by whatever name it's called, it's being increasingly used by employers - both as a measure for hiring new employees and as a tool for building teams within an organization.

Designed to measure "soft" skills, as opposed to actual abilities or intelligence, such tests give employers a glimpse into the way a candidate works.

Experts say tests have become increasingly important over the past decade as the world of work has undergone a shift from top-down hierarchies to flatter organizations that rely more on individual initiative. With many employers going to greater lengths to find and retain talent, the tests often help them know who is a "fit" - and who is not.

"Organizations have become much more team-structured," says John Hollenbeck, a professor of management at Michigan State University. "[They] are also becoming a bit more project-based," he says, "where work is often a lot more like producing a Hollywood movie than the old assembly line. In that context, personality traits, and how you deal with other people, have become a lot more important."

According to the Association of Test Publishers, an industry group, the personality-testing market grew by 8 to 10 percent last year. In the year 2000, a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 22 percent of 722 human-resources directors had administered such tests in the past year.

Industry experts say interest in the tests has risen as better tests have been developed and as technology has made it easier to administer tests, sometimes online.

In the 1970s and '80s, they say, personality tests were written for use by clinical psychologists, as a means for diagnosing apparent mental disorders or negative behavioral tendencies.

Today's tests often ask candidates to choose phrases - such as "daring" or "reserved" - that describe them most and least accurately.

"Testing doesn't make hiring 100 percent infallible," says Jane Howze of the Alexander Group, an executive-search firm in Houston.

"But they're a way to assess things like 'Is this someone who can work in an unstructured environment?' "

Test advocates, including Ms. Howze, caution firms against using tests that can't be backed up with a series of validation studies. And they maintain that the tests should be only part of the process.

"The perfect situation is to have two people sit down and do a job for a year, and then you'd know who does it best," says Warren Bobrow, a test designer and industrial and organizational psychologist who works for The Context Group, a management consulting company. "But that's sort of impractical.

"Research shows that if you use a valid test," he says, "the person who does better ... has a higher probability of being successful on the job."

Experts say it's almost impossible to cheat on a personality test. Questions are phrased and rephrased to sift through inconsistencies in a candidate's statements.

Test takers should also be aware of the legal limits of testing. Employers must, for example, be able to show that the test relates to the job itself. In addition, the test used must not have an adverse impact on a group, such as women or blacks.

And because privacy laws differ from state to state, an employer must be extremely careful to not use tests that invade an employee's privacy.

"Sexual practices, religious and political beliefs, those are real danger zones," says Ron Schmidt, a principal at classactionstrategy.com and a lawyer specializing in tests. "If a test asks those questions, you should be concerned. You should look for ... alternatives."

Job seekers who think personality is becoming too great a focus in the hiring process might just be encountering an overzealous firm. Even test advocates are leery of too much reliance on the tools.

There is "a national obsession with personality," says Mr. Bobrow of The Context Group, noting that dwelling on personality can cause an interviewer to lose sight of real abilities. "Personality is sizzle," he says, "compared to the steak of performance."

Would-be bosses also face closer review

Think you know your workplace strengths and weaknesses?

If you're angling for a job in management, you're likely to come across firms that are eager to take the measure of your leadership potential before making you an offer. One of the outfits to which companies turn for help: Vienna, Va.-based Intellicue.

Its "ExecMap" is a 20-minute, Web-based assessment that differs from other approaches, such as the well-known Myers Briggs, because it studies how an individual thinks - as opposed to examining behavior based on what an individual discloses about his or her habits and tendencies. (See the sample assessment at right. Answers, with analysis, opposite page.)

"Knowing how a person processes information in a variety of circumstances enables client companies to predict best 'fit' over the long term," says Derek Leebaert, Intellicue's chief executive officer. "In hockey terms, companies can 'skate to where the puck will be' in their people decisions."

Intellicue's brand of testing can also help firms probe their existing staffs for hidden "brain power," Mr. Leebaert says, and help them decide how to proceed with various forms of training.

"Everything is done online, with immediate reporting customized to the needs of the client company," he adds, citing as clients the global management-consulting firms Boyden International and A.T. Kearney/EDS.

"There are no 'good' or 'bad' results," he adds. "The findings depend on the business problem at hand."

Intellicue is based on the Structure of Intellect (S.O.I.) model of "multiple intelligences," developed for the Air Force to select and train fighter pilots during the cold war.

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