Employers around the world are using assessments to find and screen potential employees.

I hadn’t taken a test in decades. Now I was being timed on my potential creativity.

Like thousands of others worldwide who are now being told to take a test — or several — before being interviewed or selected as a finalist for a job, I faced two booklets and the clock. Did I have what it takes to succeed in a creative job? The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, a 45-minute assessment, would tell me.

The test measures 32 criteria of creative thinking, from fantasy and humour to emotional expressiveness. Published in 35 languages, it has been used with increasing frequency over the past five years, said John Kauffman, vice-president of marketing for Scholastic Testing Service, which is the exclusive provider of the test.

My assessment began with an image of a four-inch tilted black oval in the middle of the page. Turn it into anything you wish, the instructions said, and add a brief description of what you’ve drawn. I made it into a huge stone for an engagement ring, fit perhaps for Rupert Murdoch’s next wife.

Later, I was asked to turn dozens of pairs of straight lines into a drawing of my choice. The instructions explicitly urge test takers to fantasise as wildly as possible, and so mine depicted canoe supports as seen from above.

Turns out I’m in the 98th percentile for creativity. Whew!

Value for employers and test-takers

With good jobs still scarce for many workers, employers are using assessments of everything from creativity to sales skills to personality to find and screen potential employees.

Selection assessments have been widely used in Europe for many years, said Gavin Pomernelle, an executive coach and human resources expert in Darien, Connecticut, who has helped companies find workers in Africa, Asia and Europe. These tests are also increasingly being used in the US and Asia, he said.  

Ability-type assessments are typically used for more junior roles while personality assessments are more often given for people seeking more senior roles, Pomernelle said. Corporate boards also ask candidates for executive roles — including chief executive officer — to submit to assessments that measure everything from patience to listening style.

The biggest reason employers lean heavily on assessments is self-evident: the cost of making a wrong hire, said Ron Selewach, founder of Tampa, Florida-based Human Resource Management Center, can be monumental. 

An unsuccessful hire costs a company from 30% to 50% of a year’s salary for entry-level employees, to 150% for midlevel employees and as high as 400% for specialised, high-level employees, according to Selewach.

Assessments cost from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars to administer and grade.

Successes and failures

Kim Langen, CEO and co-founder of Spirit of Math, a Canadian tutoring firm, has been using the Culture Index, a 10-minute American-made test, for two years. Among other things, it measures autonomy, patience and attention to detail — all critical qualities for prospective teachers and coaches  to possess. Langen has made 20 successful hires using the assessment.

“The test helps me make sure their natural tendencies will help them do their job,” she said. “If they are attentive to detail and the job requires it, it’s a natural strength they’ll be using.”

The Culture Index helped Langen weed out one candidate who had impressed several interviewers, but who would not be a team player or able to multi-task, according to the test.

Sitting on the receiving end of an employment screening assessment can be a mixed bag. They can be long and anxiety-inducing. Typically only those hired will ever learn their results.

Hussain Ali-Khan applied for a job managing a printing plant in Pennsylvania for Bertelsmann, a German publishing company. He spent an entire day taking required psychological tests, only to be told he was not a fit. Applying later for a job at Spirit of Math, Ali-Khan’s completed Culture Index indicated he would be an excellent choice for the company. He now serves as its competitions coordinator in Edison, New Jersey.

“I was sceptical how valuable the test would be,” said Ali-Khan. “But their description of me was really accurate. It told me ... you’re a daredevil, you like new things, you have a high energy level.”

Assessment overload?

These tests aren’t a panacea, said Jan van der Hoop, head of HiringSmart, a Canadian firm that helps companies determine the best fit between employees and their jobs.

“There has been a lot of malpractice out there, where people are using these tests for the wrong purpose,” he said.

Employers need to select the right tool to test for the specific qualities they seek, whether attention to detail, aptitude for teamwork or decisiveness.

In addition, there are thousands of work-related assessments, but their quality, predictive value and reliability vary, van der Hoop said.

While many assessments can indicate whether a prospective hire might fit the corporate culture, they can’t determine a person’s potential to rise within the company, said John Beeson, principal of Beeson Consulting in New York, and author of The Unwritten Rules: The Six Skills You Need to Get Promoted to the Executive Level.

“None is a magic bullet,” Beeson said.

If you are required to take an assessment, “be yourself,” advised Jan van der Hoop. After all, if the test seeks a very specific set of skills or aptitudes, it is in your best interest to get a job at which you can succeed.

Patrice Rice, founder and CEO of Maryland-based placement firm Rice & Associates, said it was important to be consistent with answers and to accentuate the positive.

 “These questions tend to be all or nothing, especially when they are asking you about your ethical standards,” he said. “It’s all black and white.”