Taking the Human Out of Human Resources
The scary trend of using systems that allow grades and exams to dictate who is hired, promoted, and even fired!
For the last 25-50 years, our society has taught us, as children and students, that people are only as good, worthy, and smart as their grades on a test. We are taught that “A” students have what it takes to succeed in life, that “B” students are destined for middle management, “C” students will be bagging your groceries, and “D” and “F” students will be on welfare or in prison. Up until recently, these ideas have faded away as people grow up and enter the workforce. Grades become less and less important and people are instead assessed by their results, attitudes, experiences, and proven abilities. However, there is a very dangerous, and frankly scary, trend taking hold of today’s corporations and even many small businesses. Modern-day managers and business owners are bringing their understanding of value and worth represented by grades earned through tests and assessments into the workforce.
It makes sense that this generation of managers would be most comfortable grading people rather than getting to know them. After all, we had the concept of tests proving competency and performance ingrained into our minds since preschool. Everything we worked for through college was about getting the grade, passing the final, and proving our memorization abilities more so than our cognitive, reasoning, and critical thinking abilities. So, naturally, today’s managers are looking for ways to assess people in the same way that they have been assessed their whole lives: through tests. This has led to a huge shift in the way companies hire, manage, and promote employees. It is now very common to be asked to pass exams, personality assessments, and even write essays when applying for jobs, being considered for promotion, or even just during annual performance reviews.
The problem is that studies have proven time after time that tests (and grades in general) are horrible predictors of future success. So why are so many companies relying on tests, assessments, and grading to hire, manage, and promote employees? I think it comes down to three things.
As I already stated, we have been conditioned to not only see ourselves, but others as grades. We grew up being taught that our success was based on our ability to pass a test. We grew up being taught that people should be sorted into a new type of social hierarchy. One is defined, not by accomplishments, talents, motivation, or even cognitive abilities, but by their ability to jump through societal hoops and regurgitate the right information, at the right time, to the right people, using the right tools. We all remember the nightmares the night before tests about not having the almighty #2 pencils. Come to think of it, though, I have never seen a # 1 or # 3 pencil…yet I was always in knots checking and double checking the engraved #2 etched into my yellow pencil. Why was the pencil so important? Who knows! Something to do with the scantron technology that somehow could only read the special lead found in an official #2 pencil. It does not matter. The point was that #2 pencils equaled one step closer to success, whereas any other writing utensil was certain failure. Digging deeper, the point was that conformity and adherence to stick to, albeit odd, criteria became more important than learning itself.
It does not matter that this system is so stringent and broken that it could not even recognize the genius of Albert Einstein, but instead marked him a failure due to his inability to conform. He was always asking (and answering) the wrong questions. None-the-less, this is the system that we are familiar with and thus, by default, will be the system we now bring with us into the world of management. To modern managers, it makes perfect sense to grade people and assign them to their careers based on a rating system and test performance designed to measure one’s ability to conform, never question, and memorize rather than apply facts and data.
In my humble, though most likely politically incorrect opinion, assessment-based employee management is the lazy manager’s solution. Is it really that hard to think for oneself? Does it truly exhaust every ounce of energy to make a decision based on personal experience, hands-on information, and even the unfairly discredited “gut feeling?” Obviously, this is too much to ask because we have delegated our God-given common sense over to pre-defined, unthinking, unfeeling systems of generic standardized tests, now even in the work force.
For the sake of the argument, I recently took an assessment exam offered by Upworks.com (formly Odesk). The exam was supposed to prove your competency in your field and job posters were encouraged to give greater weight to those who passed the assessments. As a proven WordPress website designer, I confidently entered the WordPress designer test. Now, keep in mind that I have a successful career specializing in WordPress design. I also happen to be a fairly good test taker, with one of those A+ grade point averages that are supposed to mean something. I failed the exam before I could even finish it. Why? The exam was written by someone who knew nothing about WordPress and focused on programming terminology as opposed to design. There are only a handful of actual WordPress developers (programmers) who could pass the test, yet it was supposed to apply to designers, a completely different field than developers. Most WordPress developers make horrible designers and most designers know very little about developing (programming). This is one of the unique things about WordPress: it separates the two so that each field can specialize in what they do best. Of course, for Upfront, there was no distinction, and thus job posters were encouraged to hire”website designers” who were actually programmers who could pass a test (and were most likely great at what they do) but know very little about design standards, techniques, or the psychology of communication through imagery.
The point is that we have assigned meaning, value, and worth to exams that have little understanding of application and allowed ourselves to believe that a non-living and breathing system (exam or assessment) knows best. We have left behind our ability to process information and make sound judgments in order to achieve the convenience of having a grade or score tell us who will best meet our needs. For example, the Topgrading system, created by Brad Smart, conveniently categorizes the top 10% of candidates who happen to apply for jobs using this system into three groups:
A1 player – qualified for executive leadership
A2 player – a player for current position and 1-2 levels above current position
A3 player – a player for current position
All you have to do is ask the predefined questions and record the scores based on the systems 12 competencies: vision, intelligence, leadership, passion, resourcefulness, customer focus, Topgrading (their staff), coaching, team building, track record, integrity, and oral/written communication skills.
I find it very ironic that one of the core competencies is the contestant’s, I mean candidate’s, ability to use the Topgrading system. In my mind, a system that can only validate itself by integrating itself into the criteria for success is flawed. There is no check and balance within such a system. People’s success is based on their use of the system. Thus, the more they succeed, the more the system succeeds. It does not matter if the system actually produces the best results, it has a failsafe built in to insure its unchallenged success.
Moreover, who sets these standards? Self-proclaimed experts who have never met us, our business, or any of our employees. Yet, somehow we blindly want to accept that their dehumanized, guaranteed-to-be-thought-free-or-your-money-back tests will be more effective at judging who is a best fit for our company then we can be.
Or should I say, the ability to dodge any form of accountability. You see, it was the system that decided. That way you’re not accountable if the system was wrong (and you hired the wrong person), and you don’t have to feel bad about letting the passed over candidates know because, after all, you’re just the messenger. The system made the choice, not you. It’s perfect. No matter what happens, your hands are clean.
Arguments against the so-called “pros” of using a standardized system to manage your employees
First, I have to point out that in my research, though brief, I found that most of the validating studies that showed the success of standardized testing in the workforce was produced by none other than the creators and sellers of the systems.
First “Pro” Debunked: Standardized systems and exams puts everyone on the same playing field.
This may seem like a valid point on the surface, but it makes one very flawed assumption: everyone learns, communicates, and operates in the same way. Of course, we know this is not true. People have different learning styles, test anxieties, ways of processing information, and even life events that can make a perfectly capable and qualified individual fail a test.
Second “Pro” Debunked: The experts know better than me.
Again, this comes from the assumption that people can be put into boxes and clearly categorized and understood based on the box their shoved into. Experts can come up with a thousand different classifications for people but the fact is we are each unique and individual. Of course, the “experts” want to deny this fact and instead put more weight on their interpretations of data gleaned from, you guessed it, assessments than from actual life experience. Just to clarify, they use their flawed assessments that ignore individuality to prove that their assessments work.
Third “Pro” Debunked: Organizations that use standardized tests and assessments have a larger success rate in their hiring methodology.
OK, again we have the assessment being used to prove and validate the assessment. What the studies show is that organizations that use standardized assessments are full of people who can pass these assessments. Since the assessment creators believe they have the key ingredients for what makes a good employee, they measure the success rate based on how many people within the organization are following and meeting their set criteria. Therefore, they can publish, with a straight face (and they most likely actually believe it), results that prove their system works because their corporations are filled with people who they deem to be the right workers.
Fourth “Pro” Debunked: Standardized systems help managers avoid making “gut feeling” decisions that often prove wrong.
This one is a little more complicated. There is some substantial evidence that people who rely solely on their gut feelings to make decisions are often wrong. This is undeniably true. People who believe that they have a “sixth sense” about the people and decisions they make often end up on the wrong side of the equation. However, most people who make decisions on their “gut feeling” are actually using intuition and discernment, and not the more superstitious sixth sense. Intuition and discernment are different from a gut feeling. Intuition and discernment are based on known facts, experience, and a strong understanding of the actual circumstances surrounding the decision(s) being made (in this case, the hiring decision). More times than not, reality has proven that managers, business owners, and industry professionals are the real experts when it comes to hiring, promoting, and managing their employees. PhD’s are great – I often think about getting mine – but no amount of studying, categorizing, and standardizing can account for the individual needs of your organization or for the individual skills sets, personalities, and experiences of your people and candidates.
Wow, we covered a lot in this article. It is by far one of my largest articles I have ever posted. But that is because this topic is too important and too large to try and summarize in an 800 word blog post. In closing, I want to leave you with this thought: our culture has become too dependent on looking for and rewarding those who fit into our preconceived ideas and molds. We teach conformity versus uniqueness and regurgitation over application. We put more value on giving the right answer as opposed to asking the right questions. And perhaps more dangerous and disturbing than anything else: we praise and reward those who follow rather than those who step out and lead. Our media, academics, politicians, and celebrities may preach about the importance of diversity, but the reality of our actions show that we only appreciate conformity.