Human ResourcesPeer-Reviewed Research

Perfect Match

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  • Measures of technical competence (aptitude tests, high school grades and job knowledge tests) can successfully predict technical performance at work.
  • Measures of personal competence (conscientiousness, extraversion) play a bigger role in predicting teamwork, helping behaviors and other types of non-technical performance at work.
  • A manager choosing employees to send overseas should consider personal competence – not just technical competence.

Hiring the right person is one of the knottiest tasks managers face. Hiring is rarely simple, and the welter of selection techniques that employment-testing companies sell just makes it more daunting.

How does an employer know which employment tests work? And what’s most important to making a hire: ability or job knowledge, high school or college grades or personality traits such as conscientiousness?

Fred Oswald, a Rice psychology professor, has tackled these questions in his research on personnel selection systems that make use of scores on employment tests. His findings support how well-established tests of cognitive ability or technical competence are some of the best predictors of a job applicant’s future technical performance at work.

Oswald notes that there are cases where these measures can be less accurate when predicting performance on tasks that happen to be simple for all employees (either because they are very easy tasks, or because everyone at work is highly skilled at the task). But more often than not, ability tests successfully predict the technical aspects of employees’ job performance, for most employees and across most jobs.

That said, ability tests, like any test, can be misapplied. For example, if an ability test taps language ability at a twelfth-grade level, but the job only requires language at an eighth-grade level, then well-qualified applicants could get screened out.

Turning to the personality domain, measures of conscientiousness robustly predict the technical aspects of job performance. Higher scores on conscientiousness tests tend to predict higher levels of work performance. Lower scores predict poorer work performance. Even better, this prediction is relatively independent of the prediction that cognitive ability test scores provide. In other words, both cognitive ability and conscientiousness matter when selecting employees.

There’s a caveat, though. If you define conscientiousness as attention to detail and commitment to tasks–even with a catchy label like “grit” or “moxie”–then conscientiousness is required in almost all workers across the board. On the other hand, if you define conscientiousness as conformity and social appropriateness, this trait can often hinder achievement.

Employment tests take time and money. So how extensively should job applicants be tested? Recruitment before hiring is essential. So is training after an applicant is hired, Oswald says. Nevertheless, to tap the full range of available talent, minimize training needs and lower the number of terminations, he proposes that managers consider testing applicants for the types of technical competence and personal competence needed for a job.

In sales, for example, a new hire ought to be reasonably extroverted with customers, agreeable as a team member and open to new experiences as products and organizations change. Scoring 800 on a math SAT certainly won’t hurt. And what about high school or college grades? Go ahead and be impressed by an applicant’s report card, Oswald advises. Getting A’s really does reflect cognitive ability and the kind of conscientiousness that’s needed at work.

Resumes and report cards, though, won’t be enough. True, the track record on a sales applicant’s resume may predict future performance in a new sales job. Yet a highly talented young applicant might lack experience to list on a resume. And an experienced applicant might exaggerate past successes and minimize failures. Employment testing, as an alternative or supplement to resumes, can make hiring more reliable and fair.

What about managers who want to judge interpersonal skills and teamwork with an interview? They should ask all applicants the same, structured questions about job-relevant situations they’ve faced that required interpersonal skills, Oswald recommends. This works better than assuming an applicant has those skills simply because she sailed smoothly through an interview.

The farther a worker strays from home, the more important interpersonal skills seem to get. U.S. hiring managers who work for multinational companies often agonize about which workers to send overseas. The stakes are high, the required cultural and technical skills can be unclear and success is often perplexingly elusive. According to multinational companies, failure rates among expatriate workers are somewhere between 15 and 40 percent.

They may be using the wrong hiring approach, Oswald suggests. It may seem logical at first to hire overseas workers for their technical abilities alone. After all, they have a specific task to do. Why do they need to establish cultural bonds or even a common language with coworkers who simply work for the same company?

Yet personal qualities seem to matter even more with overseas hires. Despite the relative neglect of these qualities in making expatriate assignments, Oswald and other organizational researchers have found that people skills, adaptability and family situation all play central roles in supporting employee success in a foreign workplace. Sure, you can call HQ or log on to get many technical solutions. But if you ever need technical or psychological support from your coworkers, it’s going to help if they want to be around you (or even better, want to invite you to dinner).

So what’s the best way to use these techniques? Use a mix of methods, Oswald says. Make sure to measure technical competence, learning ability and interpersonal skills with tests such as those mentioned. Just confirm that the tests are reliable, valid and fair. Understanding a job applicant’s talents and past conduct in the road test of life can mean as much as the bullet points on his CV. Employee testing can be a powerful part of this approach.

In a few years, we’ll all work alongside robots. They’ll never sleep. Their resumes may eclipse those of any human. But for now, managers still need to assess the complex work units known as human beings. Good science can help, in the form of accurate tools for detecting technical excellence, people skills – and maybe even moxie.

Frederick L. Oswald is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Hough, L. M., & Oswald, F. L. (2000). Personnel selection: Looking towards the future, remembering the past. Annual Review of Psychology, 51(1), 631–664.

Also please see: Oswald, F. L. (2008). Global personality norms: Multicultural, multinational and managerial. International Journal of Testing, 8(4), 400-408.

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