Monday, February 20, 2012

Existential Questions and the Hiring Process

I’m doing some consulting work that has required me to look over some academic materials regarding hiring procedures. This has gone a long way towards reminding me of my personal distaste for formulaic assessment of human worth. Is this symptomatic of the computer age? Are we subjugating even character judgments to algorithms and statistical analysis, in lieu of personal judgment?

In the past, when I’ve taken personality tests and questionnaires as part of the process of applying for run-of-the-mill jobs, I’ve bristled at the notion that my answers to a series of seemingly disconnected questions was trusted as a means of gauging my work ethic, attitude, or personal character. Such experiences also constituted some of the first instances of my feeling cheated by my own ethics, as I worried that interviews and positions tended to go to people who were willing to lie favorably about themselves. I even asked an employer once if their assessments took this into account. Her somewhat sympathetic response was to tell me that the entire thing was handled by an outside company – a fact which I think makes my point even more clearly. Not only are hiring decisions often not made face-to-face, they’re often not made in the same building or within the same professional framework as the prospective job.

The research I’ve lately done on the topic vindicates my concerns at least slightly. Written tests that seek to gauge professional virtue do include a scatter of questions that are designed to judge the honesty of the applicants by encouraging brownnosers to select unreasonably optimistic answers. Still, I think these sorts of tricks are sufficiently obvious that if you’re both dishonest and a careful reader you’ll have no problem exploiting the system despite being a seriously flawed applicant.

My problem with these kinds of practices is that they evidently try to generate a rather nuanced understanding of another person, of the sort that would usually be derived from days or months of interaction with him. And they try to do it at a significant remove, in perhaps as little as a half an hour. Perhaps the best example of this hubris from the materials I’ve been reading is the biographical information blank. As a hiring technique it is apparently almost a century old, though I am not personally familiar with it. It strives to correlate information about the potential employee’s background with indicators of his potential success with the company.

If I were to face the questions associated with this hiring practice, I would feel even more immediately and egregiously misrepresented than I have already felt in the presence of “honesty and integrity tests” or “personality and interest inventories.” I may be unique in this, but I find myself uncomfortable with practically any answer I can give to such quizzes, because there is at least some degree of vagueness behind most questions. Anything that asks me to rank my response to a statement on a scale of one to five prompts a lot of hand-wringing as I try to determine whether to round up or down or how to interpret what would really characterize neutrality on an issue.

One would think this wouldn’t be an issue with a biographical questionnaire, which asks for straightforward short-answer responses to direct questions. But some of the examples that I’ve encountered suggest that my overly analytical nature would make even this distressingly complicated. When it’s printed on paper and I have no opportunity to discuss interpretation with the asker, a question such as “at what age did you leave home?” prompts me to silently wonder what is meant by leaving home. Does going to college count if you remained a dependent of your parents? If a person stayed for several months with a nearby friend and then returned to his family, would that count as having left home? And additionally I wonder, what correlation is such information supposed to have with job performance? But at least that curiosity doesn’t affect how an individual would answer the question.

However, in the case of the question, “How large was the town/city in which you lived as a child?” I feel as though there should be an established standard for how to answer the question if the responses of different people are being judged against one another. It’s easy to answer that question, but it’s pretty likely that different people are going to have different concepts of comparative size. What confuses me about these methods of analysis is the question of how much exposition is needed. I feel like reviewers would want these things to be brief and easily digestible, but I also feel like if they’re supposed to genuinely represent a person’s background they can’t be.

But maybe I’m just insane. I can’t imagine that a lot of other people look at questions like “did you ever build a model airplane that flew?” and think to themselves, what constitutes flying? How much distance does it have to cover relative to its size for it to be considered a successful flight? Also, if it was assembled from a kit, does that count as building it? Is there any way to weight the two scenarios against each other?

I imagine answering to “were sports a big part of your childhood?” and I say, define “big.” Also, define “sports.” And “childhood.” The question doesn’t use the word “playing,” so if a person watched a lot of sports on television, would he get to answer in the affirmative? Is miniature golf as much a sport as football? For the purposes of the question, is late adolescence childhood? If I was heavily involved in martial arts training between the ages of eight and nine, and then again between thirteen and seventeen, does that count?

“Do you play any musical instruments?” Well, how much practice does an applicant have to say yes to this one? What if it’s just the kazoo? Is playing a musical instrument indicative of suitability for the job? It seems to me that even in the case of biographical information an applicant can manipulate the evaluation in his favor by bending the truth to make himself look more impressive than he is. That, however, would never be my impulse. When I face things like this, I need to make myself look as much like myself as possible.

Certainly, I need to reach a personal breaking point after which I’ll be able to let go of some measure of my obsessive need for precision. (I’m not sure precisely what measure of that need I need to get rid of.) But at the same time, I think my neurosis has something worthwhile to say about these types of evaluations, and the powerful elements of society need to reach a breaking point after which they no longer arrogantly think that a person’s background or overall character can be determined from a series of multiple choice questions and short answers. No matter how sophisticated our business literature or computer algorithms, they can’t reproduce acquaintanceship, interpretation, or understanding.

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