Should I test potential hires?

One of the hot button questions these days is what kind of testing should you do on potential hires. There are a number of aspects to this question, and there are moral, legal, and psychological implications that need to be considered.

First, it’s important to consider what type of testing we’re talking about. Some that people consider are: drug testing, skills testing, and psychological testing. Note, this is not a discussion on background checks, which are discussed in another FAQ, but rather the kind of testing you administer before you hire someone.

Drug Testing

Cup of Urine

Drug testing is an extremely difficult subject. For many organizations, it is simply not optional. They have people in dangerous, secret, or sensitive positions, and testing is required by either law or insurance. My advice to those groups is simply to have very strict, consistent, and professional processes, and get on with it.

For the rest of the world, I’m not a big fan of drug testing. The distrust it shows to your potential new hire is huge. Like copy protection schemes in software and/or music, or prenuptial agreements in relationships, it assumes that everyone is wrong, and you need to weed out the few honest people from the mass of criminals. The implied message to the new hire is corrosive. They have to be thinking, “if the first thing they want out of me is a cup of my urine, what else is coming?” For one company’s interesting take on drug testing, check out this post.

“If the first thing they want out of me is a cup of my urine, what else is coming?”

And, let’s be real, if they have a drug problem that will interfere with their work performance, you should be able to tell it in the interview or at least in the first few weeks of work. If it doesn’t show up until later, then that means you need to have a regular regime of testing. That starts sounding scary.

Finally, if it doesn’t interfere with their work performance, frankly, I don’t think it’s your problem. So why test for it?

Skill Testing

Skill testing is another matter altogether. I strongly believe that you want to check potential hires’ claims of ability against reality. The question is how to do it most effectively, and least insultingly.

Algebra Test

At Microsoft, there is a heritage of doing the “interview from hell,” where the candidate is subjected to a battery of abuse by a parade of interviewers. Examples of this are shown in the book “How would you move Mount Fuji” by William Poundstone (ISBN: 0-316-77849-4) which chronicles how Microsoft, and other companies, use puzzles to get at the meaningful question of “how smart is this person?” I discuss this an much more about recruiting and interviewing elsewhere in the “recruiting” category.

But more common is specific skills testing such as having the candidate take a multiple choice test to examine their skills with some required computer programs, or to test their specific industry knowledge. These multiple choice tests don’t get to the question of how smart a person is, but they do check to see if they are lying on their resumè. If you have a lot of candidates and really need to separate the wheat from the chaff, then multiple choice tests like these are OK.

The question is how to do it most effectively, and least insultingly.

To find out how smart someone is (a very important question) you have to ask questions that draw out how they think. You have to watch them solve a problem and see if they can work effectively through it. That’s where “Mount Fuji” comes in, and that’s a discussion for another FAQ.

So, if you have very specific skills requirements, and a lot of candidates to screen, then I guess it is OK to do multiple choice tests. But here again, you have to think about the psychological effect it has on the candidate: their first interaction with your company is the firm questioning their integrity. Ugh.

Psychological Testing

Fortune Teller

Finally there is the battery of psychological testing that some firms use. This is, plain and simple, a ridiculous waste of time and an insult to the candidate. If you’ve ever taken, given, or read the results from these tests (such as Myers-Briggs, and others) you know how silly they are. These tests are just this side of Nancy Reagan’s astrologer. You can no more find something useful or valuable about a person from this kind of testing that you can from reading the leaves in the bottom of their tea cup.

The real issue is that, even if these tests were valid (which I truly doubt), even if people didn’t game them (which I believe everyone does), and even if they could put you in some magic bucket, what do you do with it? Do you go into a recruiting situation knowing exactly what type of person you need for an opening? Have you ever been able to predict how a person would work in a group? Or how the group would react to a new person?

Have you ever been able to predict how a person would work in a group?

Teams are not predictable. The chemistry that makes up a team is delicate, volatile, and mysterious. Sometimes you have a laid back team and need to add an aggressive sort, you do it, and the team rises to new heights. Other times, you do it and the team falls apart. There are just too many variables, too many subtleties, too many types of people. Trying to categorize people and predict how precisely they will effect a team is a hopeless case. Don’t try it.

These tests can’t tell you if you the candidate will embezzle, or even if they are an axe murderer. And the downside is, again, the effect they have on the candidate. Again you leave the candidate thinking: the first thing they ask me is if I like the color red, and if I prefer dogs over cats. Give me a break.


So, it’s simple: drug test if you are required to, skill test if you have a specific set of requirements and a large number of candidates, and don’t bother with psychological testing. Instead of most of these, trust your instincts, ask tough questions, and listen, listen, listen.