The competency connection



The competency connection

By Paul M. Connolly, PhD, 11/24/2003

Screening candidates through personality testing with competency assessment

Let's say you're asked to improve your recipe for hiring success. What ingredients would command your attention? Some of the "master chefs" of the selection business are paying special attention to the new chemistry between personality tests, competency requirements, and behavioral interviewing.

The elements of the formula may sound familiar -- even obvious. All three have been around for a while. But evolution in the testing industry has created some new connections. Add a personality assessment to a behavioral interview and you can substantially raise your chances of identifying competencies that predict performance. According to some test publishers, the chances can be raised by 20%. Given the cost of hiring and training managerial talent, that 20% improvement can save your firm thousands -- even hundreds of thousands -- of dollars in hiring mistakes. You might say you could have your cake and eat it, too.

Christine Fahnestock is a consultant specializing in talent assessment for managerial and executive positions. "The combination of personality tests with competency-based behavioral interviews is invaluable," she says. "Without the personality assessment, it is too easy for a candidate to position themselves to look good in a behavioral interview alone."

Personality tests have come a long way since the early days, with a number of good ones written specifically for the workplace. They shed light on personal competencies, such as approachability, ambition, or interpersonal sensitivity, that translate to performance in the workplace. The testing industry has shown they can assess job-related personality factors without adverse impact.

Fahnestock's Glastonbury, Connecticut firm manages assessments for several large Northeast employers. She says the motivation for connecting competencies with personality test results is clear. "Quite simply, it saves employers a lot of money and time." According to Fahnestock, "coaches and consultants are catching on to this connection. It's an investment up front, but the ROI is so worthwhile."

Case study: personality tests in action

One example is Seabrook Station, a New Hampshire nuclear facility of Florida Power and Light. Since they were licensed to operate in 1990, Seabrook has enjoyed 13 years of safe and reliable operation producing power for one million homes and businesses. The people they select and promote are responsible for the safe operation of the facility.

A leadership talent pool was identified in their Operations Group. From this "feeder pool," they planned to staff a management team over time. "The people who are assessed as having potential to advance into leadership receive approximately 18 months of licensing training at a cost of about $200,000 per person. This enables them to obtain a United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission Senior Reactor Operator License," says Fahnestock. "The ROI of careful selection becomes clear rather quickly."

"Seabrook used to select people for leadership positions based on experience and behavioral interviews alone. Interview scores would be placed on a grid to compare candidates." The competencies they sought were derived from a job analysis. The table below shows a sample of actual interview scores (names and some data have been changed to protect confidentiality):

  Tom Morrow Sara Paul Steve Stone Louise Lane Pete Petersen
Overall Scores Based on Interviews (1 = low, 5 = high) 2.4 3.0 3.4 3.6 4.0

When Fahnestock recommended the addition of personality test results to the assessment grid, she chose the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), a validated instrument designed for the workplace.

"We added the test rankings to the grid on the factors that matched the employer's competencies. We were stunned at the information this added to the process," she says. "We were amazed at the degree to which the personality assessment added third party verification for some of the interview results and caused us to reevaluate others."

In the following table, Fahnestock shares the actual assessment grid. It has both the ideal and actual candidate scores on personality test factors that coincide with the core competencies targeted by her client. In addition, the end of the table lists the candidates' ratings on the three occupational scales relevant to the position:

Actual Individual Scores on Personality Factors Measured by the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI)
HPI Factors Ideal Scores for Position To Be Filled Tom Morrow Sara Paul Steve Stone Louise Lane Pete Petersen
Adjustment (80%) 98% 66% 94% 66% 78%
Ambition (85%) 4% 87% 100% 47% 87%
Sociability (50%) 19% 66% 85% 38% 52%
Interpersonal Sensitivity (84%) 83% 100% 83% 60% 83%
Prudence (77%) 50% 82% 98% 58% 75%
Inquisitiveness (53%) 62% 62% 95% 62% 76%
Learning Approach (45%) 79% 58% 100% 27% 69%
HPI Occupational Scales
Stress Resistance High High High High High
Reliability Average High High Average High
Managerial Potential Very Low High High Average High

When interview scores were viewed alongside test scores, Pete Petersen won clear confirmation as the top candidate. The next two candidates, Steve Stone and Louise Lane, had equal interview scores. Their standings changed, however, when test scores showed that Learning Approach and Ambition were issues for Louise Lane. These personality factors were both especially important for the job. Instead, test scores helped Sara Paul emerge with strong potential, though the interviews would not have predicted this.

The hiring team thus had two sources of input to their decision making, each source adding information that couldn't be obtained with either method alone.

Fahnestock finds the tests useful in another way. "Sometimes you get a feeling during an interview, but can't quite get at the issue. You may have heard the 'what' that bothers you, but you don't know the 'why.' Personality tests will give you a reason why." Conversely, she adds, tests can cause you to ask probing questions during the interview that you wouldn't have thought to ask.

Seabrook Station uses this approach for all management and supervisory candidates. The personality tests were part of an executive assessment of internal and external candidates conducted for the position of Station Director of the entire facility. The confidence they add has convinced this employer that personality testing needs to be a part of their total hiring process. They have broadened the application.

"The investment is well worthwhile," says Fahnestock, "because the cost of failure is so high."

If you're ready to sharpen your hiring practices, the competency connection is one well worth pursuing. Used fairly with a job analysis, you can now shed light on areas that formerly had to remain in the dark.

 Paul M. Connolly, PhD, is president of Performance Programs, Inc., and a NEHRA member. He can be reached at or 860-388-9422.


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