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Pencils down. Time to see if you're right for the job

Every year, air transport services operator NAV Canada receives a daunting number of online applications for one the world's most demanding jobs: air traffic controller. The only requirements for the position are a high school diploma and Canadian citizenship or permanent resident status. As a result, the company receives more than 16,000 submissions every year, says Michelle Gauthier, national manager for candidate selection. To sort through such a large volume of applications, the company uses a series of screening procedures, including a personality test.

"The personality test looks at things like stress tolerance, flexibility, dealing with others, working independently and so on," said Ms. Gauthier. It helps NAV Canada, a private, non-share capital corporation with 4,900 employees, select the most suitable 40 per cent of applicants to interview and put through a battery of other tests. Its training program "lasts upwards of two years and implies a significant investment for the organization," she says. For a company where safety is paramount - it won last year's Eagle Award from the International Air Transport Association - gauging the attributes of potential employees is "of significant value," according to Ms. Gauthier

An increasing number of human resources departments throughout North America are relying on personality tests, also called pre-employment assessments. A recent American Management Association survey found that 39 per cent of respondents use them as part of the hiring process. The practice is growing in Canada as well.

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"We have more people asking about them, and using them," said Shawn Bakker, a psychologist at Edmonton-based Psychometrics Canada, a company that helped develop the NAV Canada test. And as David Towler of Creative Organizational Design in Waterloo, Ontario puts it: "We wouldn't have been in business for 30 years - and the suppliers we deal with wouldn't have been in business for more than 30 years - were there not a need for these types of assessments."

Originally devised in 1919 to help the United States Army screen for recruits susceptible to shell shock, standardized personality assessments have not only grown in number - Creative Organizational Design, for example, carries over a thousand titles - but also in scope.

At their simplest, they "try to measure different traits that people have, that they would bring whether they're at work or to any situation," said University of Guelph professor Peter Hausdorf. "It gives you an extra piece of information with a candidate."

The former chair of the Canadian Psychological Association's Section on Industrial-Organizational Psychology, he believes that they can be useful to employers because some traits, like conscientiousness, for example, are relevant for many jobs.

"What they do is bring you an efficient way of covering a lot of bases," said Mr. Bakker. "You can consider a personality assessment like a pre-interview, allowing you to quickly gather information you could find out in other ways but that will take you a lot more time."

Potential employers may look for extroversion, for example, in hiring a sales rep, or other attributes that will mesh with the company's culture. Making sure the candidate is right for the job means less turnover and better performance and, added Mr. Bakker, tests help employers go beyond the first impressions of an interview and be more objective.

Yet a tool meant to clarify questions for employers can find itself in a murky policy area. If the test screens out anyone on the basis of creed, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, marital status or disability - even indirectly - it could result in a complaint to Ontario's Human Rights Commission.

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"Our position is that the tests that are given during a selection process should be tailored to the actual job needs," said Commission spokesperson Pascale Demers, "but if an employer is going to ask candidates to do this type of test, it only be done after a conditional offer of employment has been made." While she was unaware of any current complaints about employers requiring a personality test, she said, the Commission has received inquiries about them.

Mindful of that, Mr. Towler prefers to use them with existing employees. "You can use personality tests for team-building purposes, career development, for individual counselling and coaching and for situations in which you have people who are having internal conflicts," he said. They can also be helpful in writing up resumés and carrying out job searches.

For his part, Dr. Hausdorf has found that concerns about discrimination in the tests may be largely unfounded. "I've done a couple of studies where we found that there is no adverse impact against visible minorities with these measures," he said.

Nonetheless, experts agree that personality testing needs to be approached with care. Employers have to be very clear about - and only test for - the traits that are relevant for the job.

What's more, companies hiring too many like-minded employees run the risk of fostering a lack of diversity among staff, leaving it with gaps in its overall efficiency, experts point out. An employer might like having an outgoing person around the office, but if the job doesn't fit, that person could be unhappy and leave. Using a test as the only measurement for consideration is also ill-advised. As Dr. Hausdorf suggested, "I may not be that conscientious at home, for example, but can be very conscientious at work."

Providing candidates with the right test is crucial, and running with an off-the-shelf product could lead to not only a hiring mistake but a lawsuit. "It's hard to use personality tests without having an expert resource," said Dr. Hausdorf.

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That's why psychometric experts and even the Ontario Human Rights Commission agree that for any company seeking the advantages of personality testing, it's best to consult a professional.

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