Thursday, 25 November 2010

Testing software skills of new hires (in the US)

I've blogged on this subject in the past, but it just keeps coming up in conversation with HR professionals, Stateside; is it OK to test the basic CAD or BIM skills of prospective employees in the USA? A common conundrum surrounding skills assessments is whether you are legally permitted to screen the technical software ability of prospective employees and contract staff, before they join your team.

The short answer is yes, but only under the right circumstances. Let’s examine some of the evidence.

The most important issue underlying the use of pre-employment assessments is validity. The question we need to ask is this; ‘Is the test valid for this intended purpose; does it support the decisions that are going to be made?’

So what is 'validity'? Validity measures how appropriate a test is for a specific purpose. Simply put, a test may be considered valid for one use and invalid for another. Why do pre-employment tests need to be validated? In 1978, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) created guidelines to ensure that the knowledge gained from testing is applied with impartiality to protect minority applicants from discriminatory employment procedures. What is the best method of validation? The EEOC guidelines do not state that one method is better than another; the method used must fit the needs of the business or organization.

There are three methods of validation set forth by the EEOC:

1) Criterion Validity: If data demonstrates that a test is significantly correlated with a vital measure of job performance, the test is said to demonstrate criterion validity. For example, if all the users that scored highly on a selected test to measure CAD skills completed their projects accurately and on time, the test would demonstrate criterion validity.

2) Construct Validity: The term construct is a technical term for personality traits like intelligence and creativity. Construct validity is demonstrated if a test measures traits that have been found to influence successful performance of a job. A test that measures the interpersonal communication skills of a potential customer service representative would demonstrate construct validity.

3) Content Validity: This is demonstrated if the questions that make up an assessment are representative of content that is required to perform a particular activity or task. A test made up of algebra questions given to an applicant for a maths teacher's position would demonstrate content validity.

Many employers use employment tests and other selection procedures in making employment decisions. Examples of these tools, many of which can be administered online, include the following:

- Cognitive tests assess reasoning, memory, perceptual speed and accuracy, and skills in arithmetic and reading comprehension, as well as knowledge of a particular function or job;
- Physical ability tests measure the physical ability to perform a particular task or the strength of specific muscle groups, as well as strength and stamina in general;
- Sample job tasks (e.g. performance tests, simulations, work samples, and realistic job previews) assess performance and aptitude on particular tasks. NB CAD & BIM skills assessments fall into this category;
- Medical inquiries and physical examinations, including psychological tests, assess physical or mental health;
- Personality tests and integrity tests assess the degree to which a person has certain traits or dispositions (e.g. dependability, cooperativeness, safety) or aim to predict the likelihood that a person will engage in certain conduct (e.g. theft, absenteeism);
- Criminal background checks provide information on arrest and conviction history;
- Credit checks provide information on credit and financial history;
- Performance appraisals reflect a supervisor’s assessment of an individual’s performance; and
- English proficiency tests determine English fluency.

An important item to remember when interpreting assessment scores is to put the results in context, and to compare them to an external performance benchmark. For example, a 58% score does not reflect ‘failure’. If this score is presented by a CAD user against an office average of 60%, it is likely the candidate will comfortably fit in to the team.

Test questions should also have a recognizable skill level; basic, intermediate or advanced. In this way, the benchmark data can be reliably used to compare performance and make sound hiring decisions.

In conclusion, for a CAD or BIM skills test to be valid, it must contain content that reflects a representative sample of the target skill. A reliable skills test should comprise sample job tasks (e.g. performance tests, simulations, work samples, and realistic job previews) and assess performance and aptitude on particular tasks.

Skills evaluations should not discriminate according to; race, colour, national origin, sex, religion, age (40 or older), or disability.

Lastly, employers should ensure that employment tests and other selection procedures are properly validated for the positions and purposes for which they are used. The test or selection procedure must be job-related and its results appropriate for the employer's purpose.


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