Human Resource Management in Public 1

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Initial Reviewing and Testing

A wide variety of reviewing and testing mechanisms are available. The cost to organizations and the burden to applicants, however, require restraint in the use of these procedures. Most initial tests (in Phases 1 and 2) are education and experience evaluations, letters of recommendation, self-reported assessments (biodata), general aptitude and trait tests, and performance tests for specific job qualifications.

Education and Experience Evaluations

Education and experience evaluations include application forms, cover letters, and résumés (Carlson, 2003; Udechukwu & Manyak, 2009). Video résumés have fans among some applicants, but these have yet to catch on in the organizational world, especially in the public sector (Jesdanun, 2007), where the legal and technical issues they raise are a concern. Video conferencing may be used in the selection process if distance is an issue. Applicants who want to include video résumés as optional information should keep them very brief and professional for public sector positions. Application forms generally run from one to three pages for job- or agency-specific applications to five or six pages for the “general purpose” forms used by many state governments or large agencies. Such forms generally include requests for biographical data, education, job experiences (asking for organization, address, title, supervisor, and duties), the job title or titles for which the applicant is applying, work location preference (in state systems), work limitations (such as availability), and special qualifications. They also normally provide information about such topics as reasonable accommodation, diversity policies, and veterans’ points. Finally, applications invariably have certification and authorization statements to be signed. Such statements notify candidates of the consequences of giving false information, inform them that applications are available for public inspection, and authorize background checks. Occasionally, applications are customized for specific positions, and applicants are requested to provide biographical answers to fit specific job-related questions regarding their achievements, education, training, conscientiousness, and work experience (see the “Biodata” section below).

Not all jobs require application forms. Some substitute a cover letter and a résumé, especially for management and executive jobs. Although forms have the benefit of uniformity and provide standard preemployment waivers, they give little insight into the career development, management style, and unique abilities or experiences of candidates. Cover letters provide an opportunity for candidates to explain why they feel they are qualified for an advertised position, and résumés generally provide more specific information about job experience than would fit in an application form. Typically, applicants are asked to provide references—addresses and telephone numbers or sometimes completed letters of recommendation (see the “Letters of Recommendation” section below). Cover letters and résumés create more work for both the applicant and reviewers, but they generally are more informative than applications. Also, sometimes work samples are requested, such as a written work product or visual image of a completed project. Whenever the cover letter and résumé are substituted for the application, the selected candidate is

generally required to fill out the form later in the process.

A number of jobs require specific licenses, certificates, or endorsements. These include many medical positions (such as doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists), engineering and technician positions, teaching positions, legal positions (such as lawyers), jobs requiring special driver’s permits (commercial, chauffeur’s), and positions in architecture and hazardous material handling. For such positions, licensure is generally the minimum requirement for consideration for hiring. In some cases, certification is required for the position but is provided by the employer as training. In those cases, it is a selection method only to the degree that some candidates drop out or fail the certification process. (Prime examples are positions requiring certified peace officer status and select military occupational programs.)

Although licensure is useful for its definitiveness, it does raise the issue of private control over the process in many occupational settings, sometimes leading to excessive occupational selectivity, which in turn creates a market bottleneck and inflates salaries. Some jurisdictions use emergency and temporary certificates to remedy this situation when it becomes acute.

Letters of Recommendation

Providing letters of recommendation takes considerable effort on the part of candidates and those recommending them, and reading the letters is time-consuming for reviewers. Therefore, such letters should be solicited only with forethought. They are generally most appropriate for those seeking jobs of high potential, such as entry-level professional positions or management posts. Although requests for letters are most easily included in original job postings, increasingly employers are deferring their requests until the finalists have been selected for midlevel and senior positions. Because better jobs require customized letters of recommendation, some highly qualified applicants may choose not to waste a scarce resource on questionable competitions. By postponing this request, the hiring authority often widens the candidate pool. In general, the most useful letters of recommendation are from former employers. The same is true regarding those persons called as references. Former employers can speak to a candidate’s abilities, work effectiveness, and work habits most directly.

Biodata—Matching Past Experiences With Current Job Requirements

Because past performance is the best predictor of future performance, one effective assessment technique is to ask candidates to provide detailed examples about themselves on the important accomplishment dimensions (i.e., competencies) of the job. The assessment technique of collecting biographical data related to job competencies is called the biodata method, or the behavioral consistency method (U.S. OPM, 1999). Ideally, candidates are asked to report information about five to ten accomplishment dimensions on which they are rated. Critical competencies for a frontline employee might be examples of mastering new skills, work accuracy, work speed, cooperation with colleagues, innovation, perseverance, and commitment. A supervisory position, in contrast, might include monitoring work, operations planning, delegating work, clarifying and informing, developing staff, motivating staff, building teams, managing conflict, and stimulating creativity. Prior to judging the biodata self-reports, the evaluators should have established anchored rating scales. If the competencies are valid and the rating scale is carefully designed, this can be one of the most statistically valid of all selection methods (Schmidt & Hunter, 1998, p. 268). Shortcuts in this method, however, lower the validity significantly, even where the method is encouraged (U.S. MSPB, 2006). Behaviorally anchored questioning (relating specific experience to current job competencies) can be integrated into customized applications, requested as a complementary tool to the biographically oriented résumé, or become the basis for much of a structured interview. The biodata method, with its concrete experiential basis, is often compared to other approaches that test for attitudes, subjective judgments, and hypothetical situational decision making (Breaugh, 2009).

General Aptitude and Trait Tests

There are at least three types of aptitude and trait tests: (1) psychological, (2) general skills, and (3) general physical ability.

1. Psychological tests examine personality traits and compare them to job requirements (Corcoran, 2005; Lievens, Highhouse, & De Corte, 2005; Scroggins, Thomas, & Morris, 2009). For instance, research has shown that, compared with others with equal knowledge and skill, people who have a low sense of efficacy shy away from difficult tasks, have low aspirations and weak commitment to goals, and give up quickly in the face of difficulties. For example, the military forces sometimes use psychological hardiness tests to predict resilience under stress (Bartone, Roland, Picano, & Williams, 2008). The challenge is that it can be difficult to demonstrate the necessary validity of such tests for specific positions, given the standards of correlation that the courts have demanded (see Exhibit 4.4). The use of these tests is common only in relation to public safety positions—law enforcement, corrections, emergency services—where job structure and stress justify the research and expense. Noncognitive abilities found to be critical are also assessed, such as motivation, attitude toward people, and sense of responsibility. Although not as prevalent, integrity and civil virtue tests (Viswesvaran, Deller, & Ones, 2007) are used (and seem to be on the rise) to screen out those with attitudes poorly suited to public sector ideals and the particularly high ethical standards required.4 Honesty and integrity tests are, however, among the least accepted by applicants themselves (Anderson & Witvliet, 2008), and there are concerns about faking and coaching for personality and integrity tests (Miller & Barrett, 2008). Tests measuring very broad psychological constructs such as intelligence might be useful (Ree & Earles, 1994) but generally have been considered to fall far short of contemporary validity requirements. There is a good deal of debate over the use of personality, integrity, and civic virtue tests for selection in both the practitioner and research communities (see, e.g., Morgeson et al., 2007; Ones, Dilchert, Viswesvaran, & Judge, 2007).

2. General skills tests provide information about abilities or aptitudes in areas such as reading, mathematics, abstract thinking, spelling, language usage, general problem solving, judgment, proofreading, and memory (Ryan & Tippins, 2004). These tests are frequently used for entry-level positions where commercial vendors have a wide variety of products from which to choose, or where large agencies can create their own tests for large job classes. The measurement of general cognitive skill is used in educational selection in tests

such as the SAT, the ACT, and the GRE. In a common case, a 100-item police officer general skills test covers learning and applying law enforcement– related information, remembering details, verbal aptitude, following directions, and using judgment and logic. Although such tests are most often used for broad classification series at the lower end of the administrative hierarchy, they can be purchased or developed for more senior professional positions that justify the expense and effort, such as air traffic controllers (Ackerman & Kanfer, 1993), general skills for middle managers, and for various police and fire commanders. For example, for many years the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had a problem with its Border Patrol training program because more than 10% of candidates were unable to complete the language component successfully. The INS designed and implemented an artificial language test as a selection screen that assessed ability to learn a new language. Subsequently, the failure rate fell 76%, and use of the test produced a $6.5 million savings over 5 years (U.S. MSPB, 2002, p. 9).

3. When general physical ability is a major part of the job, as it is for public safety personnel, tests of physical ability (e.g., strength, agility, eyesight) may be part of a battery of tests used to determine initial job qualification (Arvey, Nutting, & Landon, 1992; Hogan, 1991). Generally, however, medical, physical, and eyesight examinations—when incidental but necessary—are done after a conditional offer has been extended but before employment (see the “Postoffer and Hiring Issues” section below).

Performance Tests for Specific Jobs

Performance tests directly assess the skills necessary for specific jobs.5 Although tests based on single-factor performance models are somewhat useful and dominated early personnel research and practice, the multifactor nature of performance is better appreciated today (Campbell, 2001). Some jobs involve specific physical skills, such as typing (or keyboarding) or equipment operation, that can be tested. Many job-related knowledge tests use multiple-choice, true-false, and short-answer formats. Sometimes video versions of tests are administered. Occasionally, an essay or an oral presentation is analyzed in the first screening. Knowledge-based tests are also commonly utilized in promotional hiring in public safety and technical positions.

Job-related skills may be tested through work samples or job simulations: Those applicants tested are required to produce samples of the work or demonstrate their skills in a series of simulated activities, generally known as assessment centers (Thornton & Gibbons, 2009). Examples include requiring candidates for a trainer position to conduct short workshops, an operator to demonstrate telephone skills, and management applicants to complete a series of activities requiring them to write memoranda, give directions (in writing), and decide on actions to take. Work samples and assessment centers generally are quite effective but are not often used as initial screening devices because of the substantial time and cost involved for customized screening (Thornton & Potemra, 2010). They are used more commonly as part of the process to review the narrowed pool that goes through an interview process or for promotional purposes.

Other Considerations Regarding Reviewing and Testing

Licensure, general aptitude, and performance tests have proliferated over the years. For example, a posting for a civilian detention officer position in an Iowa county sheriff’s office listed seven tests, excluding the interview: (1) written exam, (2) physical ability test, (3) polygraph exam, (4) psychological test, (5) medical exam,

(6) drug test, and (7) residency requirement. More testing methods and higher-quality testing methods can substantially increase the likelihood of successful hires. Many critics, however, have called for more selection flexibility and a greater reliance on background, education, and experience reviews than on aptitude and performance tests (Gore, 1993; U.S. MSPB, 2004). The reasons are easy to discern. Lengthy testing protocols are expensive to administer and discourage some qualified job seekers from applying. Testing often slows the employment process as applicants wait for test dates and organizations wait for test scores. This is particularly true in a low-unemployment economy. However, the advent of online testing has provided flexibility in this regard. Unproctored versions may be subject to proctored retesting as a postoffer requirement. Also, vendors provide convenient composite tests for job classes that include language, knowledge, aptitude, and attitude questions in a variety of formats, sometimes with performance elements built into them. An example is testing for the ability to multitask by asking applicants to respond to “requests” during the test itself.

Another challenge in using standardized tests is the changing nature of contemporary work (Howard, 1995). Compared with in the past, jobs in general today tend to be broader, change more frequently, require more interpersonal and team skills, need more creativity and self-initiative, and have more demanding performance standards, with broader skill sets required (Jordan-Nowe, 2007; Van Wart & Berman, 1999). This scenario suggests the need for an increased use of examinations and tests that look for the more abstract characteristics of the job in the applicant. Even with this new need—and although the ability to screen for these skills has increased because of research in affective behavior, general aptitude, and attitude testing—concerns about cost, time, and validity have dampened usage. Thus, in some instances there is a strong countervailing trend to use more tests to increase the rigor. In others there is a tendency to reduce the numbers of exams and avoid testing for abstract constructs.

There is no simple rule of thumb for which or how many tests to use. For example, see Exhibit 4.5, which indicates that although some methods have greater validity, several are necessary at a minimum to provide the degree of assurance appropriate for such important decisions. Factors that lend themselves to larger test batteries

include sizable applicant pools and criticality of candidate suitability because of training cost or public safety. Factors that lend themselves to reduced test procedures include difficulties with travel and test administration, the need to move candidates through selection quickly (U.S. MSPB, 2006), and the ability to screen a manageable number of top applicants through interviewing and reference checks (see the discussion of Phase 2 below).

Exhibit 4.5 Validity Scores of Selected Assessment Methods

SOURCE: U.S. MSPB (2008a, p. 24).


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