In a previous Forbes post, we considered the disconcerting reality that even in the midst of an unemployment crisis, employers across industries are still unable to find the talent profiles they need. How is it possible that even highly educated candidates are unable to find skilled work when millions of open positions go unfilled? Evidence indicates that this talent gap is not due to the absence of technical skills, as one might expect, but rather to the absence of “soft skills,” or what we’ll call 21st century skills, in prospective candidates. These primarily refer to interpersonal and general analytic abilities like teamwork, empathy, leadership, negotiation, adaptability, and problem solving.
As we discussed, this is useful information for students and educators, but lessons from this research could be of particular benefit to employers, as well. The problem is that 21st century skills are very difficult to assess with any kind of rigor, especially before one can evaluate a candidate on the job. Can a candidate think innovatively? Collaborate with other team members? Assimilate feedback and coaching? Will the candidate be adaptable to new environments and successfully integrate with teams? It is very difficult to reduce these questions to discrete qualifications and quantifiable metrics in the same way we assess recognized degrees and numerical grades.
Certainly some approaches exist. For example, businesses have used “type”-based personality tests for decades in attempts to measure the soft skills of prospective candidates, assuming that certain personality types would correlate with high performance. One example is the Jung Typology Profiler for Workplace™ (JPTW), which purports to measure qualities such as “Power” (leadership potential), “Assurance,” “Visionary,” “Rationality,” and so forth.
Despite the promise of measuring key skills, the reality is that personality tests have serious methodological flaws and lack the statistical reliability to predict performance among prospective employees. For example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a closely-related profiler to the JPTW that also has its origins in Jungian typology from the early 20th century. The makers of the MBTI clearly state in their ethical guidelines that “It is unethical, and in many cases illegal, to require job applicants to take the Indicator if the results will be used to screen out applicants.” Because of their shared methodological limitations, the same restrictions should apply to the JPTW.
It’s clear that we need 21st century methods to assess 21st century skills. Unfortunately, that seemingly simple idea proves to be much trickier in practice than it is in theory.
Tools for talent development do not work for pre-employment screening
Part of the problem is that many companies are using the wrong tools for the job. There is a fundamental difference between tools intended to develop existing teams and tools used for pre-employment selection.
For developing existing teams, there is evidence that “type”-based personality tests can help managers better develop and deploy the talent they have already hired. For example, Gallup’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 is a tool that helps individuals understand and describe their own talents, and is commonly used by managers to understand and capitalize on the strengths of those they hire. More importantly, it is methodologically sound, and its reliability and validity are backed up by clear evidence.
For example, Facebook uses StrengthsFinder in a clever way to deploy talent efficiently. Regardless of the job openings they have available, Facebook simply hires the smartest people it can find, then uses StrengthsFinder results to understand their talents and create a job tailored to the candidate.
One might naturally assume that the same type of test that helps identify and develop strengths in an existing team could also be used to assess suitable candidates for entry into that team. In the words of Gallup, “Absolutely not… A development-oriented assessment such as StrengthsFinder is markedly different from selection tools because its purpose is not to assess whether an individual is suited for a particular job or role. Instead, it aims to provide talent insights for developing strengths within roles.”
Personality tests cannot be used for the same purpose as pre-employment selection tools because they simply can’t perform the key function: predicting employee performance. For example, two people who have the same set of innate strengths (according to a personality test) could have widely varying job performance. And of course, two people with a completely different set of strengths could do the same job equally well.
Pre-employment selection tools can predict employee performance on the job
Many pre-employment selection tools succeed at predicting performance because they have a completely different design than talent development tools like personality tests. Instead of seeking general traits and preferences, selection tools are tailored to a particular job in a particular organization, and are statistically calibrated to provide reliable predictive results (i.e., candidates who score highly on these tests also tend to perform well after they’re hired). In addition to the StrengthsFinder development tool, Gallup also offers these pre-employment selection tools, which include analytic services to confirm the validity and predictive value of the measures for candidate screening.
Pairin, Inc. is another organization that seeks to combine the personality test approach with specialized testing (for specific jobs, values, culture, etc.) as part of a pre-employment selection system. Using the Job Pairin System, employers can assess the presence of around 100 coachable/changeable behaviors such as emotional intelligence, leadership, attraction of followers, and even character.
A new spin on the behavioral interview
While services from Gallup and Pairin provide strong, evidence-based methods, the debate on using metrics to assess 21st century skills will certainly continue. For good or bad, it is unlikely that the traditional way to measure 21st century skills – the behavioral interview – will be unseated anytime soon. (Behavioral interviews are those that include situational questions like “Tell me about a time when you worked effectively under pressure.”)
Certainly, behavioral interviewing has problems of its own – for example, canned and otherwise disingenuous responses are all too common. While most companies still use a behavioral interviewing approach, those with top hiring practices are able to mitigate these issues. First and most importantly: skilled interviewers are often able to weed out rote responses by probing on the details of the situation discussed. This can help get the candidate “off script” and thus generate better insights about their true personality.
The behavioral questions themselves can also be written in a way that yields better insights. For example, Teach for America includes tough questions like “What would cause you to want to dropout of Teach For America if you were chosen?” Questions like these, for which the “obvious” answers might not be the best, could evoke a wider spread between canned responses and those that show more nuance and self-awareness.
As another example of innovation, Google also uses behavioral interviews, but structures them in a way that allows HR to perform analytics and prove that certain responses reliably predict employee performance.
Beyond the interview
Whatever method companies use to assess 21st century skills in prospective employees, it’s important that they reflect on the key principles behind the assessment approaches. Findings from research on 21st century skills provide an extremely valuable lens through which companies can view all interactions with candidates. Consider: What can you teach a new hire on the job, and what can you not teach? With information now abundantly available to us, almost anyone can learn basic Photoshop skills, for example, via online seminars. But what about skills like adaptability and empathy – can they be taught on the job?