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Should You Test Your Job Applicants?

Filed under Hiring Workers. Fact checked on May 24, 2012.

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Giving job applicants tests can be a valuable part of deciding who to hire. You should use these tests prudently, to find out what you really need to know and administer them fairly. Also, many tests are governed by laws that pertain to when in the recruiting and hiring process they may be given or if they can be given at all. Conversely, depending on the job, some tests may be legally required.

When hiring for an open position in your business, you may choose to test your applicants to assist you during the selection process. There are various types of tests that you can administer to job applicants as part of the application and selection process. Others can be legally given only after a conditional job offer has been made.

Testing job applicants is supposed to help you pick the best candidate by giving you information that is valuable to your selection process. Only you can determine if it's something you should do.

Generally, a good rule to apply is: If you feel that the information that you can get from a test outweighs the cost, you should administer the test; otherwise, you should not.

Your answers to the following questions should help you to decide whether the benefits of testing outweigh the costs and risk:

  • Do you have enough applicants to justify a test to choose the best one? If you have 100 applicants, testing could be helpful in narrowing the field. If you have two, it may not be worth the time.
  • Is the particular test required? In some industries, specifically in cases where there may be driving, drug tests are sometimes mandatory. If not required by law, do you really need the test?
  • Do the results really matter? If you need someone who can read and write at only a basic literacy level or someone who can make change, do you really care if that person can write an essay or perform complex calculations? If you go to the trouble of testing, is the information going to sway your decision about a candidate? Some people say that things like personality tests are about as accurate as picking a name out of a hat.
  • Is it worth the cost? Buying tests, scoring tests, and paying for doctor and lab fees for medical and drug testing can add up fast, and if you test, you're footing the bill. Make sure the results of the testing are worth it, and be sure you need it.
  • Will giving these test mean I have to keep records and post notices? In some cases, as with lie detector tests, you will have to comply with federal requirements. Make sure you're prepared to keep the necessary records before you start testing.
  • Do you have fewer than 15 employees ? If so, you are generally not subject to federal anti-discrimination laws. Therefore, unless your business is covered by state anti-discrimination laws, the repercussions of testing are mostly in terms of the time that it takes to administer them and the money needed to pay for certain tests. Chances are, you aren't going to want to get too deeply into many of these tests, particularly since the costs usually outweigh the benefits.

If you have 15 or more employees, you are subject to specific federal anti-discrimination laws, and testing conjures up plenty of opportunities to be accused of discrimination as well as creating recordkeeping duties. You'll want to check with your attorney, before testing.

If you decide that testing applicants may be beneficial in the hiring process, the next step is to choose an appropriate and fair test that is a valid predictor of employees' performance.

Choosing and Administering Fair Tests

Employers should choose a job applicant test that's fair and administer it correctly. Avoiding the violation of anti-discrimination laws and keeping testing information confidential is of the utmost importance.

How to Choose a Fair Test

Choosing the right test requires that you first figure out what criteria or behaviors are necessary in the job to be filled. The next step is to look for and find a test that measures those criteria.

When assessing tests you should:

  • know if the test was designed and "validated" for employment hiring
  • determine whether a test taker can cheat on the test
  • peruse the technical manual describing the research establishing the test's reliability and validity
  • have the test reviewed by your attorney

What is a "validated" test? Studying a test to determine whether it actually evaluates what it purports to and whether it is useful as a predictor of job performance is known as "validation." Validation is usually reserved for tests that must be proven not to be discriminatory, i.e., if your business has at least 15 employees so that you're covered by federal anti-discrimination laws or you're covered by state anti-discrimination laws.

There are a couple of common ways to validate a test:

  • Give the test to current employees. Do the best employees have the best scores? If they do, the test may be valid to use on job applicants. This is known as concurrent validation.
  • Another method, predictive validation, is to give the test to applicants but not to use the scores in making hiring decisions. Later, rate these new employees on their job performance. Are the ones who scored highest on the test now doing the best job? If so, the test may be valid to use on applicants in the future.

Do all tests have to be validated? Those tests that screen out a disproportionately high number of minorities, women, or any other protected group must be proven to be a good predictor of job performance.

You cannot defend your selection procedures by pointing out that acceptable numbers of minorities and women are being hired and promoted overall. It does not mean that the tests are valid.

Moreover, generally to meet fair employment requirements, each test must be validated for each job.


An industry-wide validation study proving that a test predicts success at carpentry does not relieve an individual employer who uses that test from the responsibility of validating the test for its own carpentry positions.

Also, a test validated for one location of a carpentry company doesn't mean that the test is automatically validated for other facilities of the same company.

Since validation can be complicated, you may want to hire a consultant to help you through this process.

Administering Tests

Once you've decided to test and have chosen a fair one, if the test is one you will administer yourself, consider the following guidelines:

  • Determine what a potentially successful applicant's test score would be, based on current employees' performances or on national statistics.
  • Schedule the test for a period that will not conflict with an applicant's religious beliefs.
  • Give the test to each applicant in as nearly identical a manner as possible.
  • Keep records of applicants' scores.
  • Make sure that any tests you administer do not discriminate against any protected groups (under federal and state anti-discrimination laws) of people.

Use these guidelines for administering any employment tests, whether they are your own tests or those from another source:

  • For effective test administration, you need to set aside a quiet place where applicants can be tested in private. Fair results require that each applicant be given the test under the same conditions. Applicants with disabilities may require that a reasonable accommodation be made in order for them to take the test.
  • Give specific instructions and tell the applicants the time limits. Encourage them to ask questions if there is something they do not understand.
  • To ease applicants' nervousness, you should explain:
    • the purpose of the test
    • that the test is only part of the selection procedure
    • that their scores will be kept strictly confidential

Confidentiality. Keeping scores confidential is a professional responsibility that must be taken seriously. Individuals taking the tests should always be permitted to see their own scores and have them fairly explained. However, don't share other applicants' scores with a test-taker. Results should be made available only on a limited basis and only after instruction has been given on the meaning of the scores.

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