Testing Prospective Employees

... and have some fun along the way. February 8, 2005

I am entertaining the idea of having a potential employee take a math test during the interview process. I am hoping that this will help weed out any problems caused by an employee not knowing decimals, fractions, or even the metric system. Have any employers out there developed some type of simple math test?

Forum Responses
(Business Forum)
From contributor D:
I've used the Wonderlic Personnel Test on the last few employees I hired. It gives me an idea of not just math skills but how fast they learn, etc. It's relatively inexpensive and easy to administer and score. I also use another personality test called the Predictive Index that helps me find the right person for the type of work I need. It costs a fair amount, but it's been worth it for me.

From contributor V:
I think it's a good idea, as long as you factor in the person's will to learn. Just because our school system has failed doesn't mean we shouldn't give the willing a chance. Some kids have a hard time in school, but have common sense . My experience is that a month working tells you if a young person wants to learn. Sadly, so far I haven't found that person that wants to learn and stay in a long term job.

From contributor S:
You can test a person's math all day long, but it will still not tell you if this person is suited for the job.

I spent a whole day once attempting to teach fractions to a 30 year old man.

Me: 7/16" is smaller than 4/8" or 1/2", but is it smaller than 14/32"?
Jo: No, it is larger than 14/32.
Me: Why?
Jo: Anything measured in 32nds of an inch is smaller than anything measured in 16ths of an inch.
Me: What?
Jo: It must be smaller - that’s why it is in 32nds of an inch. Larger stuff, like a sports field, is measured in yards. Rooms are measured in feet and cabinets are measured in inches. Stuff smaller than cabinets will be measured in 1/2 inches and small stuff like drill bits are measured in 16ths of an inch. Really small stuff is measured in 32nds of an inch.

At this point I gave him a metric measuring tape and started teaching him metric in dollars and cents. He lasted one month. The tape I gave him was never used and everything was off by 1/8 -1/2".

A simple test with a measuring tape and a few sections of wood should do the trick. Cut 5 sections of wood from 5 different species, all within 1/32. The test is to measure the five sections in standard and then in metric. Then name the 5 species of wood. If he gets 15/15, he wins a job. If he gets less than 15 but more than 12 and can work out the percentage and name 3 joints used in cabinetmaking, he redeems himself and wins the job. Oh, and if he passes a drug test.

From contributor B:
I've given a basic math and common sense test since I hired my first employee 18 years ago. Total of 20 questions. If they don't pass, I don't hire them. I should stress that basic math is just that - adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. We are talking grade school stuff.

From contributor P:
I wouldn't recommend that any of you give out spelling tests. :)

From contributor K:
My two closest friends own cabinet shops. Neither one completed ninth grade. Neither one can spell very well. However, they run profitable shops and make decent livings. While I have always been a staunch advocate of higher education, I will also tell you that a lot of folks that never received such will probably turn out to be some of your best employees.

Math is a strange animal. You can pose the same problem to 5 employees and end up getting the correct answer, although derived 5 different ways. The fact is, there are several different methods to calculate math problems. My kids can multiply numbers (i.e. 67x93) using one hand. Don't ask me - I didn't learn that way.

Bottom line: All you really need to know about a prospective employee is whether or not they have a strong desire to learn (of course, honesty, stability, reliability, etc. play a part, too). While they may flunk your math test initially, if the genuine desire is there, they will usually develop their own way/method to arrive where you want them to be.

From contributor T:
What one considers a fair math test to give employees may not be a good test of their abilities. A lot of cabinetmakers are not trained in the US method, but they are very good at what they do. Usually they have a solid understanding of a mechanical solution to a complex mathematical equation with excellent results. To expect them to come up with an answer using a calculator and scientific equations with geometric roots is just not a fair test. It might be fairer to give them a math test and let them figure it out their own way. As long as the answer is correct, how important is it how they reached that conclusion?

Keep in mind that a lot of our most famous leaders and statesmen never had the equivalent of a high school education, yet they reached greatness.

From contributor O:
This thread made me remember a funny incident. I had called a guy whose company was looking for a sales rep. In the middle of discussing strategy, he paused and said "oh, one more thing, what is 9x9?" The question, although simple as can be, was so out of left field that I drew a blank for about 6 seconds. He thanked me for calling but said I took too long.

What I thought was really funny was the look on his face a year and a half later when I, now working for his competitor, introduced myself in person. It was funny because I had gone on from that embarrassing moment to increase business by $2.5 million, or 300%, for the company I did join. What wasn't funny was that probably a good half a million had come from his customer base.

From contributor E:
Here, all employees take a simple math test and measuring tape test. Then, depending on what they are hired to do, a practical test. For instance, a cabinetmaker would be given a sketch of a box, approximately 12"w x 12"d x 18"t. Instructions are that all corners on all sides must me mitered. He/she must then make a list of all items needed to make the box. If it isn't on the list, they don't get to use it. This is made very clear. The list must be specific as to items, quantity, etc. They also have to give an estimate of time required. Then they move on to the practical. They are brought into the shop, usually on a Saturday morning, and everything that they had on the list is on a bench. They then instruct me on how to use the equipment. I play real dumb, as I have seen a ton of mistakes made with equipment. I act as if I don't know the 1st thing about any machinery. If they pass that test, they make the project using only the material on the bench. They are observed while using the machinery and will be stopped before making any major errors or misusing the machinery. No one is standing over them, but they are observed from another part of the shop. When all parts are cut, they then move on to assembly. When they are finished assembling, sanding and the item is ready for finishing, they are done.

If the completed box is worthy of finishing, we save it for when we need a finisher and they will finish the box. If it gets past that, we donate the box to a charity. This certainly weeds out a lot of people. Only the ones we want get through. Often in our shop, a cabinetmaker is given a project to complete, start to finish. They will work on it solo with the exception of occasional help from an apprentice. They are responsible for making sure that all required materials are on hand and any materials needed can be ordered so that the project is completed in a timely fashion.

From contributor S:

1. A man has two 2" boards that total 47 3/16". If he was to join the two planks together, how many cigarettes would he smoke before this job is done?

2. You and a friend plan to spend the weekend painting a 10" x 10" kitchen. The walls are 96" high with one 45" x 35" window and two doors, each 35" including the trim.
How many 6 packs of beer will it take to finish the job?
How many beers will your friend drink before stepping into the bucket of paint?

3 of the following - what do you do best?
a. play golf
b. goof off
c. lie
d. all of the above (play golf on sick days)

From contributor A:
There are also personality/profile tests that will reveal the person's traits and can tell you whether to hire or not. These tests can tell you whether someone will stay with you or will be gone. They will tell you if the employee will be a good fit.

From contributor G:
I think you guys are looking through a microscope again. Math isn't all that important if your shop is set up right. If your work is very custom, then math would be one of many things to look at.

The testing thing helps, but I'm not sure how feasible this is for a small shop. I would mostly look at the resume - that is the best test. Look for people who are upbeat. They are more valuable than people who are downbeat. Before I tested for math ability, I would test for drugs. Alcohol is a drug, also.

From contributor K:
Let's face it, guys, psych tests are probably overkill for this business. In my area, resume is one of the buttons on the cruise control of a prospective employee's truck. And yeah, if a guy comes into your shop looking like he's ready to commit suicide (downbeat, as opposed to upbeat), I'd probably have to pass on him.

Drug tests can be very expensive for a small shop, however, you can always ask them questions. Owner: "How many beers do you consume each week?". Applicant: "Umm... are we talkin' bottles or kegs?" Owner: "You're my kinda guy... when can you start ?"

From contributor D:
If you are a small shop, all the more reason that you need to find the right people for the right position. Resumes only tell you how great they think they are. Being a small shop, I don't have time to invest 30 days to find out weather someone is technically minded and fast paced and cares about the quality of work they turn out. I got rid of a guy that I was paying $20/hr (which cost me $28/hr) for over a month. After he left, I found his stash of broken Grass drawer guides and screwed up material at the bottom of the stack. I then spent $4,000.00 on the Predictive Index Survey and in 15 minutes it gives me a good idea of how that person is hardwired. If they don't fit the profile that I am looking for in that position, I don't hire them. If they do, then I call their references and ask detailed questions about work history and experience and administer the Wonderlic test I mentioned above, which tells me things like math skills and capacity to think and learn. Is it perfect? No, but it's better than hiring somebody and wasting time and money on them to find out it will not work out. When big companies do all this kind of testing, they still only have about 3 out of 10 hires actually work out. Without this kind of testing, it's less than 1 in 10.

From contributor G:
The resume is a test. If the guy hasn't stayed any one place for very long, this is not a good indicator. If he stays put, that says a lot. I agree that the hiring process is worth spending some time on. Labor is the variable that will make or break your business. I haven't had much luck with the testing thing, but maybe I didn't use the right test.

The drug test can be as simple as asking "do you take drugs?" and then watching their reaction. Same for alcohol. I have hired and fired enough drunks/drug addicts over the years to know that they are a liability to your business.

As far as the upbeat versus downbeat thing goes, there are a lot of shades in between. This has been a valuable indicator to me.

If the guy isn't working out, get rid of him quick and move on to somebody who will.

From contributor X:
Here's a simple math test I use: Photocopy a six inch ruler and give ten questions, such as draw and point an arrow at 1 1/2 inch and label it "A", draw and point an arrow at 2 3/4 inch and label it B, and so forth. I have had some applicants take a half hour to complete this and get only four right answers. Needless to say, individuals who quickly do the test in a neat and readable fashion show me that they know the tape measure, can follow instructions, and tend to make less mistakes. One individual told me that he was only used to the metric tape measure. I gave him a photocopy of a metric ruler. He failed that test, also. If you can't read a tape measure, you're looking for employment in the wrong field.

Drug testing, checking references, credit check all help, but the desire to do woodworking is a must. One of the employee's responsibilities is to keep me out of trouble. Keeping mistakes down keeps me out of trouble.

From contributor N:
Drug testing is not something to be dismissed at all. I could tell you some real nightmare stories about druggies on the job. I used to work where ice and coke were the recreation drugs of choice. The two worst involved loud radios. They seem to like to play radios real loud when they are tweaking. I turned one guy's radio down twice before it almost turned into one of those crazy things you see on TV. He had a knife but I had two hammers. Someone broke it up before it made the local news.

My brother was on a high rise job where some coke-head did the same thing with a radio. Some poor guy turned it off, and being much smaller than the coke-head, he got to experience what it feels like to be hanging more than 40' up over the edge of the building. His decision to hang onto the guy for dear life was what saved him before help came. I guess the cokie didn't want to fly with him. There was no murder charge, and the cokie had the nerve to try to sue the company for unjustified firing.

If you aren't worried about drugs or booze, at least don't allow any radios. New workers that need help learning the trade are way better than druggies.

From contributor K:
We can all do a lot of things to try to screen out potential problem employees, but at the end of the day we have to police our people on an ongoing basis anyway. We'll all make bad hiring decisions, as this is inevitable. However, this is okay as long as we continue to clean up our own mess. I believe this is the key here. I've seen too many owners who wait for a near catastrophe before they'll get rid of someone that they regretted hiring. This also affects the morale of the other guys who are doing their best. They see what's going on, and they'll resent you more than the slacker because you fail to act.

From contributor J:
Keep it simple - 30 days trial. You never know what talent you'll inadvertently grab hold of!

From contributor I:
I'm a big believer in the trial employment period. Three months would be better if there are no legal problems.

One well-known problem of employing intelligent people is that they tend to get bored and stop paying attention. The ideal person for any particular job is the one who has to work at a high proportion of their total ability. These are the people who are well-matched to their job, and are usually happier than those who are not stretched by their jobs.

From contributor N:
I know some highly skilled people who would probably not do too well on those tests. They get intimidated just by the format of the questions and their mind sort of goes blank.
I like the testing ideas that give the applicant a chance to prove what he can do. Hand and eye coordination stuff. Not too complicated, either.

An example might be to see if the person can use a jigsaw to follow some cut lines with reasonable accuracy. I'd be afraid to let someone use the serious equipment until I was sure they knew what they were doing. See if they can line up a drawer slide and screw it off.

Some people with high IQs might know how to read a tape, but they just don't have what it takes, no matter how much they try.

From contributor C:
You might also try your county courthouse. In our area, they have a website that is public record. You can look up the court record on anyone you are considering to see if they have a criminal record. We have found that due to fear of legal litigation, many employers will not even give out the most basic information, which makes it difficult to really find out a person's history. I had a guy show up for an interview with what looked like a good resume. I called previous employers and got no real information. I was ready to hire the guy and went to the county court website and found that he had at least 3 counts of battery and 2 of domestic violence! You can also find driving records and drug or alcohol related charges. This has been helpful to us to eliminate some of those who applied for hire. This is a no-charge service that most counties now carry and it is all public information.

From contributor H:
Getting anyone to give out info when you call to check references is difficult. I have always been very careful myself. One easy question that will almost always get to the truth is "Would you hire this person again?"

From contributor J:
In all seriousness, I don't believe a written IQ test is worth the ink it's printed on. Although they're fun to take, they will only evaluate basic math skills and how much the test taker is able to focus. Some people focus on tasks better at a desk, others when things get hot and heavy. I know many engineers who are incredibly intelligent but do not have the capacity to put together a door handle. Same is true in reverse. I've labeled someone as rather slow, only to be amazed by the person's ability to build or repair.

When I'm the new guy, I get nervous trying to show how well I can fit in. If not for some of my employers' people skills, I would have been fired on numerous first days. Think about the damage you can do to someone's belief in themselves if a fair and honest effort isn't given to evaluation! Even when terminating them, let them go easy. For example, "Honestly, I think your skills are not fitted for this type of work and I just do not want to see you get hurt."

One last thing. The worker who hid all his mistakes at the bottom of a pile… why did he feel the need to do that? If it took you until after he was fired to notice, what's the big deal? How many workers are throwing away their mistakes? I'm just a wood finishing business owner, but it sounds like they're afraid of coming to you for even minor mistakes. Maybe it was the way I read the response, but it almost sounds like a seasoned employee was fired based upon his salary. Hell, I think I'd hide things, too!

Lastly, do you think a test can detect honesty or integrity?

From contributor S:
I'm assuming that this testing pertains to applicants who have not worked in a cabinet shop before. Surely, if the person has a few years behind him/her doing cabinet work, he/she is skilled. I could care less if a person can figure out how many oranges Jenny has compared to Jill. I need to know that the person can measure something, that he/she has talent and artistic skill. With proper supervision, an unskilled person with talent can become skilled. After all, none of us were born with the skills we have today.

I read that some of you bring people into the shop to use your tools and machinery as a test. This is very dangerous. You know the person is not familiar with your shop, he/she is going to be on the edge and feeling the pressure. You have a nitroglycerin milkshake here. What happens if that person gets hurt? If he cuts a finger off, I guess he failed the test, but you are going to have some interesting conversations with interesting people soon after.

And as for checking court records… Man, are you hiring him or adopting him? Today it is very easy to get charges put against you. And I don't care who says what, blue collar workers and tradesmen are police magnets. Any honest police officer will tell you that they profile young black and Hispanic men and white tradesmen as having what they call "quality of life" problems. So should they be pulled over, they are going to get the book tossed at them. A traffic violation becomes resisting arrest and battery of a police officer in the blink of an eye. Punching a guy for feeling up a girlfriend becomes assault and battery. Knocking him out is attempted murder.

I would never even think of looking into somebody's past and making assumptions based on court records. Besides, I think it is against the law to pass an applicant up for a position based on criminal records. If not, it should be, as we as a society have to believe that prison is reforming inmates while they are there, or it is an institution that serves no purpose other than housing for bad people.

Hiring people is part of the risk we take. Let the applicant's starting salary reflect the risk factor.

From contributor K:
You said "I could care less if a person can figure out how many oranges Jenny has compared to Jill. I need to know that the person can measure something, that he/she has talent and artistic skill."

These things and more are precisely what tests like the Tickle assess. However, as I previously said, I think these tests are overkill for most shops as a hiring tool.

You balk at criminal history? Even by liberal standards, the people you describe would never be employed by me. Sure, if I know someone well and am familiar with particular circumstances surrounding a past arrest charge/conviction... no problem. However, someone with multiple convictions, no matter how trivial the charge, would tell me that this person has a problem. Period. You must do business in a pretty rough area to so graciously dismiss this kind of behavior as simple typecasting. I could not do so.

From contributor J:
Whatever happened to common sense? If you're hiring minimum wage people, don't expect them to be able to read a tape measure. The basic work history should give you a clue about what kind of personality you're dealing with. If it takes a twenty-one year old two pages to fill out employment history, that's a pretty good indicator there might be a problem.

I don't think a couple phone calls to former employers violates anyone. Most employers would be more than pleased to provide information to save someone else grief. Don't override that gut feeling - it's there for a reason.

If you're hiring for positions of skill in woodworking and the employee can't read the tape, there was failure on the hiring side. Trial periods of 30 days do not mean you have to keep them that long, or even try them out during that 30 day period at the normal pay rate.

From contributor K:
If you like, you can call a previous employer, which is probably the best source of info on someone. However, depending on the state you live in, the previous employer will be violating the law (and can be sued) by offering any information about a past employee other than employment dates, position held, and perhaps salary. You should remember this the next time you're contacted for such a reference. If a disgruntled past employee wants to nail you, he could simply have a buddy call you claiming he needs a reference on the guy. Say one negative thing and you'll have a witness against you regarding this violation (in some states, you can record conversations legally, also).

Technically, you would also be in violation for giving a good reference. Why? Example: "Was John a great employee?" Employer: "Yes, he was fantastic." Next reference, the employer is asked the same question about another past employee. Response: "I can only verify employment dates." In comparison, this is obvious condemnation for the past employee who only gets the basic info. This is why it is not legal to give out anything more than the basic lawful info. So, be very careful. This stuff gets deep, but I must warn you that it is also the policy of most large corporations to not allow any company officer (this is usually President, VP, etc.) to issue a letter of recommendation.

From contributor S:
There is a difference between being charged and being convicted.

I'm not sure what people I described that you would not hire. The guy that got pulled over or the guy that punched another guy for feeling up his girlfriend? Anyway, you hire who you will and take your risks accordingly. I'm a "give them a second chance" kind of guy.

I don't think recommending that others do the same as you is a good thing, as there are millions of good people who have found themselves on the wrong end of the stick with Johnny Lawman, quite by accident. Stepping on their fingers as they attempt to climb out of the hole is an all too common practice in this country.

From contributor J:
Applications and information on prospective employees can be one of our worst nightmares if they are not handled seriously. I wouldn't call any of the references singing praises of my prospect and expect to hear anything other than smoke. But to call down the list of a prospect's previous employers? Hell yes! As far as asking previous employers about their personal feelings and juicy details regarding the former employee, no. I also would be conscious of anyone asking me to hype or gripe about one of my former employees.

You are incorrect about the legal parameters of questions employers can ask. On the application form, you can ask if they have ever been convicted of any felonies or spent time in prison. You cannot inquire about misdemeanors and a whole ton of other important topics that we all might think are innocent. With an applicant who has a disability, you cannot ask what duties they are capable of performing.

From contributor K:
"You are incorrect about the legal parameters of questions employers can ask."

No, I am not incorrect about legal parameters. I worked in HR for a major corporation for many years. I was only trying to impart to you a few basic facts and concepts, as this subject is vast and differs (usually not that much) from state to state. I suggest you check your own state's D.O.L. for information. Most small to medium size shops do not have an HR deptartment. They usually only have an owner who has no real experience with labor laws except very basic ones that he/she has learned the hard way. Although many of you have probably skated by without this type of labor law knowledge, it would benefit you to delve deeper into the subject to keep you from possible legal hassles in the future.

From contributor J:
Kevin, you state that if you say one negative thing about a former employee, you can get sued. You're saying that if I ask another employer why an applicant is no longer on their payroll, that an answer such as "employee was terminated" would be slander?

Also… your statement about hiring someone that you know, even with convictions... That would be a slam dunk case of prejudice. Being from H.R., you should know that you just practiced discriminatory behavior. And the phrases "policing" and "getting rid of", although I believe I know your intent, raise questions to further legal problems, hypothetically. If you can't ask questions without always receiving positive answers, what good is that?

From contributor K:
1.) Yes, if a company official says negative things to an employer calling for a reference on a past employee, they can be sued.

2.) The word termination means ended, stopped, over, etc. People associate the word with negative connotations if used in a certain context. Example: a) "John was terminated in February." b) "John terminated his employment with us in February." c) "John's employment with us was terminated in February." All three are different statements. Statement C is the most proper for a past employer to issue.

An application usually asks "Why did you leave your last job?" This allows the prospective employee to hang him/herself. It does not ask the employee if they were drunk on the job, fired for stealing, etc., though some employees will volunteer this information themselves.

Next, if I hire someone I know that has been previously charged with misdemeanors and don't hire another guy because he has been charged with something, this is not legal discrimination. If there was premeditated discrimination on my part in another case scenario (like race, religion, etc.), only I, the boss, the head honcho knows this. If the D.O.L. asks me why I didn't hire him, I'll have a hat full of other lawful reasons why I did not. If you work in a "right to work" state (if you don't know what this is, call your D.O.L.) you can fire someone for combing their hair wrong. However, this doesn't mean that they couldn't file and collect unemployment and/or even file a civil suit against you. I must emphasize again that laws vary by state.

Bottom line: this type of interaction between an employer, past employer, employee, or prospective employee, is a game. You just have to learn how to play. It only takes one well informed, disgruntled past or present employee to teach you how the game can be played. You want to learn the rules and be better at the game, so you don't lose. I can assure you, losing can be very costly to an employer in several ways (besides monetary).

I have had the benefit of attending seminars and classes that were taught by state and federal D.O.L. folks. If in the future you are not sure about any issue that may arise on this topic, check with legal counsel or your state D.O.L.

From contributor U:
I had the opportunity to put all this advice to good use. Hired a guy yesterday, sent him on his first job with an old hand. He mounted a cabinet upside down, thrashed another and disappeared. Previous experience? None. He had an impressive CV from a leading bank (as credit manager), did woodworking as a hobby for the past 20 years, had an honest face, extremely positive attitude and maturity (46 years old). He passed the basic aptitude test and a tricky math test and still bombed out. Moral of the story? It remains a gamble!

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor Y:
I've encountered so many employers using personality/attitude tests like a safety valve against spending even a few minutes talking with a job applicant. If I want information about the job I must take the test. Personality tests are one of the biggest wastes of time and money. I've taken a lot of them.

I tailor my answers to fit the personality of the employee they'd like to hire. A required psychology course in college demonstrated to me that at least 40 out of 120 students in the class already knew how to take and pass tests in a subject they knew nothing about. With a little effort and concentration even a personality/attitude test, like the lock on your front door, is no match for one determined not to be stopped by it.

Nothing beats sitting face to face with a prospect, paying attention to him/her, and really listening to his/her answers. You can tell if the prospect is honest, hardworking, smart, and wants to improve if you spend at least an hour with him/her.

But you must be honest, hardworking, smart and yourself in order to recognize them in others. Otherwise that good honest employee will just make you uneasy with your own dishonesty (though its human nature to deceive yourself that it's something else that bothers you) and you waste the employee’s time and yours. Look him/her in the eye and talk to him/her.