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Personnel Testing And Assessment: An Overview For Employers


This paper discusses the topic of personnel testing and assessment. Assessment concerns are considered along with the implications of legal restraints. Different government statutory and regulatory legislation is discussed along with the restrictions such place on business practices.

In addition, five areas of assessment testing are presented so that managers and Human Resource professionals may evaluate and select assessment tools and procedures that most likely ensure the right fit between jobs and employees. The five areas include: drug and alcohol tests, aptitude or ability tests, achievement tests, job skills tests, and honesty and integrity tests.

The paper concludes that personnel assessment has restrictions. Therefore, an understanding of the professional and legal standards while conducting personnel assessment is crucial. A whole-person approach to assessment is recommended.


Today’s employers confront an aggressive market place and complex legal environment. They also face the challenge of attracting, developing, and retaining the best employees. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to help managers and human resource (HR) professionals use assessment practices that will enable them to achieve organizational goals.

Personnel testing and assessment

Personnel assessment is a systematic approach to gathering information about individuals. This information is used to make employment or career-related decisions about applicants and employees. Assessment is conducted for some specific purpose. For example, an employer may conduct personnel assessment to select employees for a job, whereas career counselors may conduct personnel assessment to provide career guidance to clients. (US Department of Labor [USDL], 1999, p.3)

Personnel assessment tools

Any test or procedure used to measure an individual’s employment or career-related qualifications and interests can be considered a personnel assessment tool. There are many types of personnel assessment tools. These include traditional knowledge and ability tests, inventories, subjective procedures, and projective instruments. (USDL, 1999, p.4)

Personnel assessment tools differ in their purpose. They may be used for selection, placement, promotion, career counseling, or training. They are designed tomeasure an employee’s or prospective employee’s abilities, skills, work styles, work values, or vocational interests. Assessment tests come in many formats: from paper-and pencil to computer simulation, from work-sample to standardized. Tests and assessments are designed to predict job performance, managerial potential, career success, job satisfaction, or tenure. (USDL, 1999, p.4-7)

There are two areas of concern for a manager or human resource person. The first is the level of standardization, objectivity, and quantifiability. Assessment tools and procedures vary greatly on these factors. For example, there are subjective evaluations of resumes, highly structured achievement tests, interviews having varying degrees of structure, and personality inventories with no specific right or wrong answers. (USDL, 1999, p.7-8)

The second is that of the legal restraints that are placed on the use of such tests and assessment procedures. All assessment tools used to make employment decisions, regardless of their format, level of standardization, or objectivity, are subject to professional and legal standards. For example, both the evaluation of a resume and the use of a highly-standardized achievement test must comply with applicable laws. Assessment tools used solely for career exploration or counseling are usually notheld to the same legal standards. (USDL, 1999, p.4)

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (CRA)

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 1964, was landmark legislation that prohibited unfair discrimination in all terms and conditions of employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Other subsequent legislation, for example, ADA, has added age and disability, respectively, to this list. Women and men, people aged 40 and older, people with disabilities, and people belonging to a racial, religious, or ethnic group, are protected under Title VII and other employment laws. Individuals in these categories are referred to as members of a protected group. (USDL, 1999, p.8-9)

The employment practices covered by the Civil Rights Act include the following:

  • Recruitment

  • Hiring

  • Job classification

  • Transfer

  • Training

  • Promotion

  • Performance appraisal

  • Compensation

  • Union or other membership

  • Disciplinary action

  • Termination

  • Fringe benefits. (USDL, 1999, p.8-9)

The Tower Amendment to the Civil Rights Act stipulates that professionally-developed workplace tests can be used to make employment decisions. However, only instruments that do not discriminate against any protected group can be used. Use only tests developed by experts who have demonstrated qualifications in this area. (USDL, 1999, p.10)

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 1972 is responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, including Title VII, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the ADA. (USDL, 1999, p.10)

The EEOC developed the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. The Guidelines incorporate a set of principles governing the use of employee selection procedures according to applicable laws. They provide a framework for employers and other organizations for determining the proper use of tests and other selection procedures. They apply to all tests, inventories and procedures used to make employment decisions. Employment decisions include hiring, promotion, referral, disciplinary action, termination, licensing, and certification. Training may be included as an employment decision if it leads to any of the actions listed above. (EEOC, 1995, p.6-7)

The Guidelines have significant implications for personnel assessment. One of the basic principles of the Guidelines is that it is unlawful to use a test or selection procedure that creates adverse impact, unless justified. Adverse impact occurs when there is a substantially different rate of selection in hiring, promotion, or other employment decisions that work to the disadvantage of members of a race, sex, or ethnic group. (USDL, 1999, p.12)

Different approaches exist that can be used to determine whether adverse impact has occurred. Statistical techniques may provide information regarding whether or not the use of a test results in adverse impact. Adverse impact is normally indicated when the selection rate for one group is less than 80% (4/5) that of another. This measure is commonly referred to as the four-fifths or 80% rule. However, variations in sample size may affect the interpretation of the calculation. For example, the 80% rule may not be accurate in detecting substantially different rates of selection in very large or small samples. When determining whether there is adverse impact in very large or small samples, more sensitive tests of statistical significance should be employed. (USDL, 1999, p.11)

If the assessment process results in adverse impact, the employer is required to eliminate it or justify its continued use. An assessment procedure that causes adverse impact may continue to be used only if there is evidence that: (a) It is job-related for the position in question, and (b) its continued use is justified by business necessity. Demonstrating job-relatedness of a test is the same as establishing that the test may be validly used as desired. (EEOC, 1995, p.8)

Demonstrating the business necessity of using a particular assessment instrument involves showing that its use is essential to the safe and efficient operation of the business and there are no alternative procedures available that are substantially equally valid to achieve the business objectives with a lesser adverse impact. (EEOC, 1995, p.15)

Another issue of importance discussed in the Uniform Guidelines relates to test fairness. The Uniform Guidelines define biased or unfair assessment procedures as those assessment procedures on which one race, sex, or ethnic group characteristically obtains lower scores than members of another group and the differences in the scores are not reflected in differences in the job performance of members of the groups. (EEOC, 1995, p.18)

Title I of the Civil Rights Act (CRA)

Title I of the Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1991 reaffirms the principles developed in Title VII of the CRA of 1964, but makes several significant changes which require the demonstration of both the job-relatedness and business necessity of assessment instruments or procedures that cause adverse impact. The business necessity requirement, set forth in Title I of the CRA of 1991, is harder to satisfy in defending challenged practices than a business purpose test suggested by the Supreme Court earlier. (USDL, 1999, p.12)

A provision of Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 relates to the use of group-based test score adjustments to maintain a representative work force. The Civil Rights Act prohibits score adjustments, the use of different cut-off scores for different groups of test takers, or alteration of employment-related test results based on the demographics of the test takers. Such practices, which are referred to as race norming or within-group norming, were used by some employers and government agencies to avoid adverse impact. (USDL, 1999, p.14)

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 1990, qualified individuals with disabilities must be given equal opportunity in all aspects of employment. The Act prohibits employers with 15 or more employees, labor unions, and employment agencies from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities. Prohibited discrimination includes failure to provide reasonable accommodation to persons with disabilities when doing so would not pose undue hardship. A qualified individual with a disability is one who can perform the essential functions of a job, with or without reasonable accommodation. (USDL, 1999, p.14-15)

Disability is defined broadly to include any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of an individual’s major life activities, such as caring for oneself, walking, talking, hearing, or seeing. Some common examples include visual, speech, and hearing disabilities; epilepsy; specific learning disabilities; cancer; serious mental illness; AIDS and HIV infection; alcoholism; and past drug addiction. Noteworthy among conditions not covered are current illegal use of drugs, sexual behavior disorders, compulsive gambling, kleptomania, and pyromania. (USDL, 1999, p.14-15)

Essential functions are the primary job duties that are fundamental, and not marginal to a job. Factors relevant to determining whether a function is essential include written job descriptions, the amount of time spent performing the function, the consequences of not requiring the function, and the work experiences of employees who hold the same or similar jobs. (USDL, 1999, p.15)

Reasonable accommodation is defined as a change in the job application and selection process, a change in the work environment or the manner in which the work is performed, that enables a qualified person with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, qualified individuals with disabilities must be provided reasonable accommodation so they can perform the essential job functions, as long as this does not create undue hardship to the employer. (USDL, 1999, p.15)

Undue hardship is defined as significant difficulty or additional expense to the company and is determined based on a number of factors. Some factors that are considered are the nature and net cost of the accommodation, the financial resources of the facility, the number employed at the facility, the effect on resources and operations, the overall financial resources of the entire organization, and the fiscal relationship of the facility with the organization. An accommodation that is possible for a large organization may pose an undue hardship for a small organization. (USDL, 1999, p.15)

The ADA has major implications for assessment practices. In general, it is the responsibility of the individual with a disability to inform the employer that an accommodation is needed. However, the employer may ask for advance notice of accommodations required, for the hiring process only, so that the company may adjust the testing program or facilities appropriately. When the need for accommodation is not obvious, the employer may request reasonable documentation of the applicant’s disability and functional limitations for which he or she needs an accommodation. (EEOC, 1995, p.2-3)

Reasonable accommodation may involve making a test site accessible or using an alternative assessment procedure. Administering employment tests to individuals with disabilities that require those individuals to use their impaired abilities is prohibited unless the tests are intended to measure one of these abilities. (EEOC, 1995, p.4)

For example, under the ADA, when a test screens one or more individuals with a disability, its use must be shown to be job-related for the position in question and justified by business necessity. One possible alternative, if available, would be to use a form of the test that does not require use of the impaired ability. Another possibility is to use a procedure that compensates for the impaired ability, if appropriate. (EEOC, 1995, p.4)

Reasonable accommodation would be allowing extra time to complete certain types of employment tests for someone with dyslexia or other learning disability. In addition, providing a test with larger print or supplying a reader to a visually impaired individual where appropriate, is reasonable accommodation. (EEOC, 1995, p.5)

The employer may make medical inquiries or require medical exams of an employee only when doing so is work-related and justified by business necessity. All medical information obtained about the applicants and employees is strictly confidential and must be treated as such. Access to and use of this information is greatly restricted. (EEOC, 1995, p.5)

For example, in the past, some employment applications and interviews requested information about an applicant’s physical and/or mental condition. This information was often used to exclude applicants with disabilities before their ability to perform the job was evaluated. (EEOC, 1995, p.6)

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, ADA, an employer can ask disability-related questions and require medical examinations of an applicant after the applicant has been given a conditional job offer. It must be understood that an employer may not ask disability-related questions and may not conduct medical examinations until after it makes a conditional job offer to the applicant. (EEOC, 1995, p.1)

In relation to the assessment tests, the difficulty of knowing what constitutes a medical examination. It is also important to understand what exactly are disability-related questions. At the pre-offer stage, an employer may do a wide assortment of things to establish whether an applicant is qualified for a job. For example, an employer may ask about an applicant’s ability to perform specific job duties. The employer may state the physical requirements of the job, the ability to lift a certain weight, the ability to climb ladders and so forth; or the employer may ask the applicant to describe or demonstrate how one would perform a specific task. (EEOC, 1995, p.3)

Any test or procedure used to measure an individual’s employment or career-related qualifications and interests can be considered a personnel assessment tool. There are many types of personnel assessment tools. These include traditional knowledge and ability tests, inventories, subjective procedures, and projective instruments. (USDL, 1999, p.4)

Personnel assessment tools differ in their purpose. Personnel assessment tools are used for selection, placement, promotion, and career counseling, or training. The tools are designed tomeasure an employees or prospective employees abilities, skills, work styles, work values, or vocational interests. Assessment tests come in many formats, from paper-and pencil to computer simulation, and from work-sample to standardized. Tests and assessments are designed to predict job performance, managerial potential, career success, job satisfaction, or tenure (USDL, 1999, p.4)

Componentsof the assessment process

The assessment process is asystematic approach to combining and evaluating all the information gained from testing and using it to make career or employment-related decisions. Therefore, the key to remember, is that tests, inventories, and proceduresare assessment tools that may be used to measure an individual’s abilities, values, and personality traits. Assessment tools are componentsof the assessment process. (USDL, 1999, p.5)

The following are examples of assessment tools:

  • Observations

  • Resume evaluations

  • Application blanks/questionnaires

  • Biodata inventories

  • Interviews

  • Work samples/performance tests

  • Achievement tests

  • General ability tests

  • Specific ability tests

  • Physical ability tests

  • Personality inventories

  • Honesty/integrity inventories

  • Interest inventories

  • Work values inventories

  • Assessment centers

  • Drug tests

  • Medical tests. (USDL, 1999, p.5)

The five areas most common to assessment tests include: drug use, aptitude, or ability, achievement tests, which include knowledge and skills, personality, and honesty. Employers who seek to hire the right employee use these tests. Companies use the tests to gauge positive and negative indicators of future job performance. (Hirerite, 2001, p.1)

An employer may prohibit the use of alcohol and illegal drugs at the workplace and may require that employees not be under the influence of either while on the job. Common negative work behaviors associated with alcohol and drug abuse are industrial accidents, work-related injuries, excessive absenteeism or tardiness, and workplace violence. (Bahls, 1998, p.1)

Current use, possession, or distribution of illicit drugs does not qualify as a disability under the ADA. An employer may prohibit the use of such drugs at the workplace, and they may administer drug tests to applicants and employees alike. (Bahls, 1998, p.1)

An organization may deny employment to an applicant and discipline or discharge an employee currently engaged in illegal drug use. However, one may not discriminate against a former drug addict, who has successfully undergone rehabilitation and is not currently using illicit drugs (Bahls, 1998, p.3)

If an organization is in the public sector, federal courts have generally upheld the use of random drug tests only when applied to safety-sensitive positions. This federal restriction does not apply if one is a private employer. However, state or local laws and collective bargaining agreements pertaining to drug testing may impose restrictions on a company’s drug testing policy. (Smover, 1997, p.5)

Legal medications or even some foods can produce a positive reading on a drug-screening test for an individual who, in fact, has not used illegal drugs. To minimize such errors, it is advisable to have a formal appeals process, and have provisions for retesting with a more sensitive drug test when necessary. (Bahls, 1998, p.7)

Under the ADA, a test for the illegal use of drugs is not considered a medical exam, but a test for alcohol use is. Therefore, an employer must follow the ADA rules on medical exams in deciding whether and when to administer an alcohol test to applicants or employees. Alcoholism may qualify as a disability under the ADA, and hence an individual with this condition may be extended protection. (Bahls, 1998, p.5)

However, organizations may discipline individuals who violate conduct or performance standards that are related to the job. Organizations also may discharge, or deny employment to individuals whose use of alcohol impairs job performance, or compromises safety to the extent that he or she can no longer be considered a “qualified individual with a disability”. (EEOC, 1995, p.34)

A company that uses drug or alcohol tests to make personnel decisions should develop a written policy governing such a program to ensure compliance with all relevant federal, state, and local laws. Most states require written consent of employees and applicants before drug or alcohol tests can be administered. (Smover, 1997, p.8)

“When properly applied, ability tests are among the most useful and valid tools available for predicting success in jobs and training across a wide variety of occupations. Ability tests are most commonly used for entry-level jobs, and for applicants without professional training or advanced degrees.” (USDL, 1999, p.30)

Mental ability tests are generally used to measure the ability to learn and perform particular job responsibilities. Examples of some mental abilities are verbal, quantitative, and spatial abilities. (USDL, 1999, p.30)

Physical ability tests usually encompass abilities such as strength, endurance, and flexibility. Physical ability tests are used to show whether or not the applicant has the ability to do a specific physical skill. (USDL, 1999, p.30)

General ability tests typically measure one or more broad mental abilities, such as verbal, mathematical, and reasoning skills. These skills are fundamental to success in many different kinds of jobs, especially where cognitive activities such as reading, computing, analyzing, or communicating are involved. (USDL, 1999, p.31)

Specific ability tests include measures of distinct physical and mental abilities, such as reaction time, written comprehension, mathematical reasoning, and mechanical ability, that are important for many jobs and occupations. For example, good mechanical ability may be important for success in auto mechanic and engineering jobs; physical endurance may be critical for fire fighting jobs. (USDL, 1999, p.31)

Achievement tests, also known as proficiency tests, are frequently used to measure an individual’s current knowledge or skills that are important to a particular job. These tests generally fall into one of the following two formats. (USDL, 1999, p.31)

Knowledge tests typically involve specific questions to determine how much the individual knows about particular job tasks and responsibilities. Traditionally, the tests have been administered in a paper-and-pencil format, but computer administration is becoming more common. Licensing exams for accountants and psychologists are examples of knowledge tests. Knowledge tests tend to have relatively high validity. (Martinez, 2001, p.3)

Job skills tests verify that an individual can perform the tasks claimed in the interview. These tests generally show a high degree of job-relatedness. For example, an applicant for a secretarial job may be asked to type a letter. (Outlaw, 1998, p.132)

In addition to abilities, knowledge, and skills, job success also depends on an individual’s natural characteristics. Behavioral inventories designed for use in employment contexts are used to evaluate such characteristics as motivation, conscientiousness, self-confidence, or how well an employee might get along with fellow workers. (Outlaw, 1998, p.131)

Research has shown that, in certain situations, use of personality or behavioral tests with other assessment instruments can yield helpful predictions. Some personality inventories have been developed to determine the psychological attributes of an individual for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. (Delikat, 1998, p.2)

These clinical tools are not specifically designed to measure job-related personality dimensions. These tests are used in only very limited employment situations, primarily with jobs where it is critical to have some idea about an applicant’s state of mind, such as in the selection of law enforcement officers or nuclear power plant workers. (Hirerite, 2001, p.5)

Concerns of behavioral style instruments

This distinction between clinical and employment-oriented behavioral inventories can be confusing. Applicants asked to take personality tests may become concerned although only employment-oriented personality inventories will be administered. If a behavioral instrument or other assessment tool provides information that would lead to identifying a mental disorder or impairment, the tool is considered a medical exam under the ADA. The ADA permits medical examinations of applicants and employees only in limited circumstances such as when a certain level of physical strength, endurance, or health is required. A firefighter is an example of a type of employment where a medical examination would be necessary. (EEOC, 1995, p.42)

There are a few additional concerns about personality tests. As there are usually no right or wrong answers to the test items, test takers may provide socially desirable answers. However, sophisticated personality inventories often have “lie-scales” built in, which allow such response patterns to be detected. (USDL, 1999, p.33)

Honesty tests are a specific type of personality test. There has been an increase in the popularity of honesty and integrity measures since the Employee Polygraph Protection Act (1988) prohibited the use of polygraph tests by most private employers. (Outlaw, 1998, p. 129)

Honesty and integrity measures may be broadly categorized into two types. Overt integrity tests gauge involvement in and attitudes toward theft and employee delinquency. Test items typically ask for opinions about frequency and extent of employee theft, leniency or severity of attitudes toward theft, and rationalizations of theft. They also include direct questions about admissions of, or dismissal for, theft or other unlawful activities. (USDL, 1999, p.34-35)

Personality-based measures typically contain disguised-purpose questions to gauge a number of personality traits. These traits are usually associated with a broad range of counterproductive employee behaviors, such as insubordination, excessive absenteeism, disciplinary problems, and substance abuse. All the legitimate concerns and cautions of personality testing apply here. For instance, test takers may raise privacy concerns or question the relevance of these measures to job performance. (USDL, 1999, p.34)

A company that uses an honesty test to select people for a particular job should document the business necessity of such a test. This would require a detailed job analysis, including an assessment of the consequences of hiring a dishonest individual. (Outlaw, 1998, p.131)

It is generally recommended that these honesty tests be used only for pre-employment screening. Using the test with present employees could create serious morale problems. Using current employees’ poor scores to make employment decisions may have legal repercussions when not substantiated by actual counterproductive behavior. All honesty and integrity measures have appreciable prediction errors. In order to minimize prediction errors, an employer should follow up on poor-scoring individuals with retesting, interviews, or reference checks. (EEOC, 1995, p.43)

In general, integrity measures should not be used as the sole source of information for making employment decisions about individuals. A number of states currently have statutes restricting the use of honesty and integrity measures. At least one state has an outright ban on the use of integrity tests. Before using honesty tests, an employer should consult the regulations of his or her state. (USDL, 1999, p.36)

Personnel assessment is a process that is asystematic approach to combining and evaluating all the information gained from testing and using it to make career or employment-related decisions. A review of the procedures of the assessment process can be found in the Appendix.

Use of assessment tools

Assessment instruments, like other tools, are helpful when used properly but can be useless, harmful, or illegal when used inappropriately. Often, inappropriate use results from not having a clear understanding of what you want to measure and why you want to measure it. An employer must be clear about what they want to accomplish through their assessment program in order to select the proper tools to achieve those goals.

Assessment strategies should be based on both an understanding of the kind of employment decisions to be made and the population to be assessed. Once you are clear on your purpose, you will be better able to select appropriate assessment tools, and use those tools in an effective manner. Only use tests that are appropriate for your particular purpose, (USDL, 1999, p.66).

An assessment instrument may provide you with important employment-related information about an individual. However, no assessment tool is 100% reliable or valid; all are subject to errors, both in measuring job-relevant characteristics and in predicting job performance. Moreover, a single assessment instrument only provides you with a limited view of a person’s qualifications.

Using a variety of tools to measure skills, abilities, and other job-relevant characteristics provides you with a solid basis upon which to make important career and employment-related decisions, (USDL, 1999, p.67).


Bahls, J. E. (1998). Dealing with drugs. Keep it legal. HR Magazine, Mar. [Online]. Available: [2001, Aug. 11].

Delikat, M. (1998). Personality and aptitude tests: Insurance against hiring mistakes or invitation to litigation. Managing Office Technology, Mar. [Online]. Available: [2001, Sep. 21].

Hirerite[Online]. (2001). Available: [2001, Sep. 14].

Martinez, M. N. (2001). Online skills tests assist in selecting better-qualified job candidates. HR Magazine, Sep. [Online]. Available: [2001, Sep. 12].

Outlaw, W. (1998). Smart staffing: How to hire, reward, and keep top employees for your growing company. Chicago: Upstart Pub.

Rundquist, K. (1997). Pre-employment testing: Making it work for you. Occupational Hazards, Dec. [Online]. Available: [2001, Sep. 21].

Smover, J. (1997). A practical approach to the issues of drug and alcohol testing. HR Magazine, May. [Online]. Available: [2001, Sept. 4].

The United States Department of Labor(USDL). (1999). Testing and assessment: An employer’s guide to good practices. Employment and Training Administration. Washington, DC: Author. [Online]. Available: Digests/ed308061.html [2001, Aug. 8].

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (1995). Enforcement guidance: Preemployment disability-related questions and medical examinations. ADA Division, Office of Legal Counsel. [Online]. Available: [2001, Aug. 8].


Personnel Assessment-a review of procedures

1. Use only assessment instruments that are unbiased and fair to all groups.

2. Use only reliable assessment instruments and procedures.

3. Use only assessment procedures and instruments that have been demonstrated to be valid for the specific purpose for which they are being used.

4. Use assessment tools that are appropriate for the target population.

5. Use assessment instruments for which understandable and comprehensive documentation is available.

6. Ensure that staff is properly trained.

7. Ensure that testing conditions are suitable for all test takers.

8. Maintain assessment instrument security.

9. Maintain confidentiality of assessment results.

10. Ensure that scores are interpreted properly. (USDL, 1999, 66-70)

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