A Test of Character.
By Christian Anklin, HVS Executive Search London
Monday, 24th July 2006
When faced with finding the right type of candidate to fill a certain position many companies have recently stated that they can teach people the required skill set and that it is much more important to find someone with the suitable personal characteristics; a statement that rings especially true for the people-intensive hotel industry.

These are character traits which cannot necessarily be taught, but rather are ingrained in the person. But how do you determine whether someone has the right natural leadership qualities, creativity or self-efficacy to do the job? How do you know if a candidate possesses the necessary level of service orientation or works well in groups?

According to statistical surveys, up to 56% of candidates exaggerate their skills or experience on their resumes, and even if the information on a resume is accurate, it will only tell the potential employer where the candidate worked and what the candidate achieved. While certain claims that are made on the resume can be verified by the potential employer, he/she is still left to make educated guesses or gut instinct inferences as to whether the achievement implies a heightened degree of leadership or self-efficacy, or any one of the other desired characteristics.

Consequently, and quite obviously, employers cannot rely on the resume alone. This is why they conduct face-to-face interviews. This is an arduous and time-consuming process. Considering the great number of potential applicants to a position, the simple method of weeding out "unsuitables" according to their resume does not suffice.

In addition to the insurmountable task of interviewing each and every applicant, there are two further obstacles. One is the inherent bias in a one-off, face-to-face interview. There may be a simple lack of chemistry between the interviewer and the interviewee, which can strongly affect the interviewer's assessment of the candidate's characteristics. Moreover, the candidate may be an avid interviewee who will talk up his character. It is, to put it bluntly, a subjective assessment.

A further obstacle lies in covering all the relevant characteristics during one interview. Even when the oral interview is supplemented with written tests or case studies, it is hard to cover all the bases in one succinct session.

Thus, it would be immensely helpful to have a tool that measures all the necessary characteristics in an objective and comparable manner. It would be even better to be able to adjust this tool to the type of organization and the type of position for which the candidate is applying, and it would be wonderful if this tool could be administered over the Internet, adjusted to different languages and executed within a maximum of 60 minutes, requiring only the presence of the interested candidate.

This is where psychometric testing comes in. Psychometrics, the field of study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement, is not a particularly new discipline, but it has been developed and refined tremendously of late. Originating in an attempt to measure intelligence, the theory of psychometrics has more recently been applied to the measurement of personality. The more sophisticated personality assessment tools will use "Item Response Theory" or IRT, which is the same statistical gold standard as used in well-known admission and achievement tests, such as GRE, LSAT, and MCAT in the United States.

In laymen's terms, IRT mathematically determines whether certain items on an assessment measure low, medium or high levels of a given trait, such as Service Orientation or Leadership. These are generally statements about the candidate, where he/she is asked to rate his or her degree of agreement or the level of frequency in which they perform certain tasks or act in a specific way. However, IRT also works with a wide variety of question types including Poisson counts, percentages, and even paired comparisons. Thus, IRT produces rigorous assessments that actually plot test takers along an interval-level continuum or "ruler."

The result of IRT-based assessments will show how the candidate rates on the individual characteristics by indicating his or her level on a scale that may be based on a national benchmark of people's traits for a specific position. Alternatively, the employer may wish to establish a company-internal benchmark by having all employees complete the assessment. This allows a direct comparison of a candidate's character traits to his or her successful counterparts in the company.

This kind of assessment is really more of a tool than a test. There are no right or wrong answers unless there is an added section measuring the candidate's cognitive or computational skills. As such, the candidate need not be nervous or apprehensive about completing a psychological assessment. It is in both the employer's and the potential employee's interest that there be a fit between his/her character traits and the ideal character profile for the position at hand.

The development of psychometrics for personality assessment has spawned an entire industry of companies offering assessment services, spanning from credible ones, such as Personnel Decision (personneldecisions.com), the DISC test (e.g. discprofile.com), Thomas International (thomasinternational.net) or Talent Plus (talentplus.com), to companies of a less reputable nature, offering their wares on the Internet. In choosing a personality assessment company, it is essential to make sure that their tests are both scientifically grounded and, if possible, that they are geared toward your specific industry requirements.

The only company to date that offers an assessment tool which is exclusively grounded in IRT and is tailored toward the broad hospitality-service industry is 2020 Skills ( www.2020skills.com ). This tool was created in collaboration between HVS International, Cornell University and Integrated Knowledge Systems, Inc. The models that it employs were designed specifically for the characteristics and skill sets that are needed in the service industry today.

Psychometric assessment tests are most useful when used in conjunction with an interview. While they offer an objective way of assessing the candidates' character traits, the scores should be seen as an indicator, which can then be followed up on or expanded upon further.

The usefulness of such assessments goes even further. Companies who have benchmarked their employees through psychometric assessments can use the results to determine where some of them may need additional training, development or follow up.

For instance, one of your mid-level employees may have responded more strongly to the issue of "preferring much responsibility at work" than his or her peers. This may prompt the employer to question whether this employee has a tendency to stretch him/herself too thin at work. The problem can then be addressed by speaking directly to the employee in question and offering additional training in time-management and multi-tasking.

The effectiveness of psychometric testing, both in aiding such internal fine-tuning measures and in identifying the most suitable candidate, should not be underestimated. It can significantly increase the likelihood of superior performance by individual employees, reduce staff turnover and thus improve the bottom line.

As an increasing number of companies are beginning to use the latest generation of psychometric tools, not just in their hiring process but as a company-internal benchmarking, evaluation and training tool, you may ask yourself if it is time that your company did the same.

Christian Anklin

HVS Executive Search - London
7-10 Chandos Street
Cavendish Square
London, W1G 9DQ
United Kingdom

Tel:+44 20 7878-7741

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