In the 1950s, U.S. companies put potential employees through a battery of vocational and psychological tests. Such testing went out of fashion over the next couple of decades, for a number of reasons, including doubts about its fairness. But now, the tests are back, and they’re a lot more sophisticated—supposedly.
“Perhaps the most exotic development in people analytics today is the creation of algorithms to assess the potential of all workers, across all companies, all the time,” Don Peck writes in the latest issue of The Atlantic. For example, a company called Gild looks at people’s online histories to see how promising they are. “Gild can . . . score programmers who haven’t written open-source code at all, by analyzing the host of clues embedded in their online histories,” Peck notes. “They’re not all obvious, or easy to explain. Vivienne Ming, Gild’s chief scientist, told me that one solid predictor of strong coding is an affinity for a particular Japanese manga site.”
Peck reports that he began his research into the trend as a skeptic, but emerged as more of an optimist. The reason is that, even if blind testing has its shortcomings, going by gut instinct or personal impressions in interviews tends to be even less reliable, producing “clubby, insular thinking” that encourages managers to select people like themselves. By contrast, tests “allow companies to confidently hire workers with pedigrees not typically considered impressive or even desirable,” opening up more opportunities for more people.
When Peter Drucker wrote The New Society in 1950, employment testing was taking off, and he described the “mushroom growth of all kinds of ‘infallible’ tests for all kinds of jobs, aptitude tests, personality tests, etc.”
As might be inferred, Drucker was a skeptic. “Not one month goes by without the discovery of another such Chinese torture claimed by its inventor to be the definitive answer to the placement problem,” Drucker wrote. “But it is very doubtful whether any of these gadgets, however scientific, will contribute much to the solution of the problem.”
Yet Drucker seems to have softened his stance over time for some of the same reasons that Peck did: Testing eliminates some of the arbitrary and unhelpful preferences employers might otherwise exhibit in hiring and promoting.
In an interview that appears in his 1995 book Managing in a Time of Great Change, Drucker warned of the “enormous danger that we would not value the person in terms of performance, but in terms of credentials.”
The “greatest pitfall” in a knowledge economy, he added, “is in becoming a Mandarin meritocracy,” when really “it takes judgment to weigh a person’s contribution.”
What do you think of the resurgence in employment testing?