Members of America's professional and managerial classes have always left college and graduate school confident of at least one thing: Unless they let their driver's licenses lapse, they had taken their last test. Charm, cunning and a record of accomplishment would propel them up the corporate ladder.
Say goodbye to all that.
A growing number of companies, from General Motors and American Express to Norwest Mortgage and Supervalu, are no longer satisfied with traditional job interviews. They are making applicants for many white-collar jobs -- for top executives on down -- run a gantlet of paper-and-pencil tests, role-playing exercises, decision-making simulations and brain-teasers. Others put candidates through a long series of interviews by psychologists or trained interviewers, a bit like oral exams.
This is not, rest assured, about math or grammar or any of the basic technical skills for which many production, sales and clerical workers have long been tested. Rather, employers want to grade upper-echelon job candidates on intangible qualities. Is she creative and entrepreneurial? Can she lead and coach? Can he work in teams? Is he flexible and capable of learning? Does she have passion and a sense of urgency? How will he function under pressure? Most important, will the potential recruit fit the corporate culture?
These tests, which can take from an hour to two days, are all part of a broader trend. "Companies are getting much more careful about hiring," said Paul R. Ray Jr., chairman of the Association of Executive Search Consultants.
Ten years ago, candidates could win a top job with simply the right look and with enthusiastic answers to questions like "Why do you want this job?" Now, many can expect to have their mettle measured with questions and exercises intended to learn how they get things done.
They may, for example, have to describe in great detail not one career accomplishment but many -- so that patterns of behavior emerge. They may also face questions like "who's the best manager you ever worked for and why?" or "What is your best friend like?" The answers, psychologists say, would reveal much about a candidate's management style and about himself.
The reason for the interrogations is clear: so many new hires turn out badly. About 35 percent of recently hired senior executives are judged failures, according to the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., which surveyed nearly 500 chief executives. Academic literature cites even higher failure rates for all executives.
And the cost of bringing the wrong person on board is sometimes huge. Searching for and training one manager can cost from $5,000 to as much as $250,000 for a top executive.
Years of corporate downsizing, which has slashed layers of management, has increased the potential for damage that one bad executive can do. And with the pace of change accelerating in markets and technology, companies want to judge how an executive will perform, not just how he has performed.
"Years ago, employers looked for experiences -- has a candidate done this before?" said Harold P. Weinstein, executive vice president of Caliper, a personnel testing and consulting firm in Princeton, N.J. "But having experience in a job does not guarantee that you can do it in a different environment."
At this point, most companies have not shifted to the practice. Some do not see the need, or they remain unconvinced that such testing is worth the cost.
But human-resources experts, while they have no statistical documentation, cite anecdotal evidence suggesting that white-collar testing is gradually growing in popularity. Some top recruiters said that the portion of their clients that want to test candidates -- even for the chief executive's post -- has climbed as high as 30 percent, from a tiny minority a decade ago.
Martin H. Bauman, whose New York search firm tests all candidates, says his business is growing 15 percent a year, about 3 points more than the search-industry average. Mr. Bauman's clients have included Federal Express, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive.
Companies that administer tests also report that business is up sharply. David Heine, a vice president of Personnel Decisions International, a human-resources consultant in Minneapolis, said the company's testing business was growing 25 percent a year. At Development Dimensions International in Pittsburgh, which started an executive-assessment business six years ago, revenue from testing job candidates jumped 40 percent in the last year, Rodney B. Warrenfeltz, a consulting vice president, said.
What has brought so many employers around to testing is a sense of the limitations in the usual job interview. With so little information on which to base a decision, "most people hire people they like, rather than the most competent person," said Orv Owens, a psychologist in Snohomish, Wash., who sizes up executive candidates.
Research has shown, he added, that "most decision-makers make their hiring decisions in the first five minutes of an interview and spend the rest of the interview rationalizing their choice."
With advice on how to land a better job about as common as a 10-dollar bill, many are learning to play the interview game. Many are learning to play the interview game. "People study a few books or tapes, and they interview very well," said Patricia Ann Capelli, senior vice president for human resources at the Pershing Division of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Securities Corporation and a recent convert to the Caliper test.
Even companies that have not started extensive testing have toughened their hiring practices. Many now do background checks, for example, looking for signs of drug use, violence or sexual harassment.
But the more comprehensive testing aims to measure skills in communications, analysis and organization, attention to detail and management style, as well as personality traits and the sort of motivations that behavioral scientists believe predict performance.
Many companies, for example, now want managers with "influencing skills," because old-fashioned command-and-control management is considered ineffective. Experts from Hay McBer, a consultant based in Arlington, Va., therefore ask questions and rate candidates, on a zero-to-five scale, for their tendency to calculate whether their words or actions will achieve a goal, like encouraging teamwork.
A zero doesn't grasp the situation at all, and probably issues an order. A skillful person might conceivably do what a recent chemical executive did: He found out the name of someone who worked as a team player, showed up at the plant and asked where he was, then put his arm around him, complimented him on his teamwork and left. Astonished co-workers surrounded the team player to find out what merited such a display.
In testing's simplest form, candidates take a written test or series of tests lasting one to two and a half hours. The cost to the company would be about $225 to $300.
At the next level, psychologists or trained interviewers talk to candidates for an hour or more, sometimes more than once. Frequently, they will ask candidates what they would do in a specific situation and why. They will also ask a question several times in different ways.
The most elaborate form combines written tests and interviews with simulations of real-life situations. A candidate might confront an "in basket" test, where he was given an office with 25 to 30 letters, files and reports, and told to work through the tasks and the problems they present.
The candidate might, for example, find a memo from a marketing manager who wants all salespeople to attend a new-product training session for two days and an E-mail from the sales manager insisting that his people use that time to be out selling because they were below targets for the year. One good response would involve analyzing the new product's impact on revenue to determine whether it would be worth the sales force's time at the moment, possibly proposing written material to cover part of the training and perhaps suggesting that training be done in one day.
That is just one part of the trial, though. At Development Dimensions International, a candidate would probably begin the day with a paper-and-pencil test of 30 to 90 minutes, then face interviews, each an hour or longer.
A simulation would come next, perhaps to assess coaching skills. A trained role player might, say, act as an executive with high turnover among his staff. The candidate would counsel him, winning points for finding out that the executive was too blunt and failed to give employees support and for pointing out that his costs were up and revenue down because of the turnover.
A good answer would also note that the executive was hurting himself financially, since he was rewarded on results, and probably blocking his changes for advancement, and it would suggest help, perhaps a course.
Then come more interviews, followed by another simulation. This time, the potential manager might be given information about a company and its products and asked to write an expansion plan. She would present the report to role-playing executives, who would challenge it and, no doubt, hit the candidate with a surprise.
For that assessment, Development Dimensions International might charge around $4,000, though its bill varies according to the assignment. At Personnel Decisions International, the cost can be anywhere from $750 to $5,000, depending on the circumstances, and it sometimes varies on rank.
Some companies that have tried testing potential recruits say it is worth the cost. "Testing has saved us an enormous amount of money," said James L. Clayton, chief executive of Clayton Homes, who a few years ago gave Caliper his own test to determine whether the Caliper system worked. Mr. Clayton asked 25 of his top-performing employees and 25 who were not doing well to take the two-hour exam. When Caliper identified more than 90 percent correctly, Clayton began using the test, along with multiple interviews, to select employees from executive assistants to senior officers.
Now, Mr. Clayton said, "we are hiring better people and we are seeing lower turnover."
At Norwest Mortgage, which started using Hay McBer's interviewing techniques early this year, it is too soon to prove results. But Kathy M. Murphy, an organization manager there, said she was hearing feedback from "managers saying 'this really works.' "
Chart: "Do You Measure Up?" lists different tests that are being administered to potential job candidates. (Caliper, Personnel Decisions International) (pg. 38)