At many firms, what's on a candidate-for-hire's mind matters

To make sure that potential employees would make a good match for an agency before they are invited to join the staff, more firms are adding psychological tests to the interview process.

To make sure that potential employees would make a good match for an agency before they are invited to join the staff, more firms are adding psychological tests to the interview process.

Hiring is one of the most difficult, but important, aspects of agency management, especially in today's competitive talent market. Managers can spend days or weeks sifting through resumes, doing interviews, even giving writing tests, only to find out that the new hire doesn't fit with the team.

As added insurance against bad hires, more and more PR agencies are giving prospective employees psychological or personality tests before making an offer. It's that one last, but potentially critical, bit of insight before bringing a new element into the mix.

"I absolutely believe in the power of psychological testing for finding the right staff," says Patty Briguglio, owner of Raleigh, NC-based MMI Associates. She has used such tests to make her last three hires and says it helps to find people who will be a good match with her staff and her client's needs.

Jeffrey Yarbrough, who heads Dallas-based Big Ink PR & Marketing, agrees that such tests are a key to good hiring and has used them for more than 10 years.

"With the testing, we know when we hire someone that we will not have to wait six months to figure them out," he says. "From day one, we understand where they fit in."

And because psychological tests give insight into a candidates values and motivations, they can be excellent management tools beyond hiring.

"What this tells you is what's going to drive them, what kinds of accounts would they like to work on, what kinds of rewards will motivate them," says Bruce Hetrick, president of Indianapolis-based Hetrick Communications. "It's a good tool to find out what drives people when they get on the job."

Psychological tests can range from quick, 20-question, multiple-choice exams to dozens of pages with complex questions. Herb Greenberg, CEO of Princeton, NJ-based testing company Caliper Management, says that when picking a test, make sure to ask the company for references to show the test has proven effective in the PR field.

Often test results come back as multiple pages with graphs and charts, and might even involve a consultation with a psychologist, all of which can cost anywhere from $25 to thousands. But for those who believe in them, that cost is reasonable.

"Do you know how much it costs to make a bad hiring decision?" asks Briguglio.

Most psychological tests also can be tailored to specific companies and even positions. Jennifer Tramontana, director of Denver-based LeGrand Hart, says that her company has tested all of its employees to create "benchmarks" of test results that match particular positions. New hires are then compared to the profiles of existing employees to see how they compare.

Many agencies say that they use the tests not only for hiring, but also for continuing training. Most of the people interviewed say that they share a new hire's results with the rest of the company as a way to help teams understand how to work together. At Virginia-based SheaHedges Group, part of the test results for all company employees are included in the new employee orientation manual, says VP of operations Reggie Kouba. And that's not an uncommon practice.

"Whenever I hire someone new, we have them read all of our tests," says Briguglio, who includes her own test results in that mix. "Then we talk about what makes us different and alike."

Surprisingly, few people say that prospective employees are bothered by the tests. In fact, most say they find prospective hires to be excited about the results.

"Everyone is very curious to get their report back," says Hetrick.

But Amy Caruso, an Ohio-based PR professional, says she didn't mind taking a test with a former employer, "but didn't think it was necessary to find out if I was a good fit or not.

Because of that sensitivity, most hiring experts say that the test shouldn't be the first, or only, thing a firm does.

"You wouldn't want this being your major tool or your first tool," says Tramontana. "You're sending a poor message."

She also warns that you have to take the results "with a grain of salt," and uses her own test as an example. She scored low marks on energy and leadership skills on her company's test, but "we all agree that I have a lot of energy and good leadership skills."

Picking a psychological test

  • Make sure the test is legal. Ask test providers for proof that the test is weighted equally for all groups. For example, does it reliably recommend female candidates as often as male?

  • Ask test providers about indemnity. Many test providers assume the legal risk of using their tests.

  • Ask what types of results you can expect. Tests vary widely from quick internet true-false quizzes to personally administered in-depth profiles, with equally varying accuracy

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