Equity & Diversity Opinion

Can Employability Skills Be Assessed Equitably?

By Contributing Blogger — August 29, 2017 4 min read
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This post is by Rafael Heller, Managing Editor, Phi Delta Kappan magazine, and Mary Wright, Director, Employer Alliances, Jobs for the Future.

In 2007, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a brief document--a “fact sheet” in the agency’s parlance--meant to clarify its position on a fast-growing trend in the business world: the use of standardized assessments to inform the hiring process, especially tests of cognitive skills and personality traits.

So long as a test offers a scientifically valid (and the best available) means of gauging a person’s ability to perform a given job, employers have every right to use it, the EEOC noted. But it is a violation of federal law to use a test that isn’t valid and job-relevant and that creates a disadvantage for candidates of a particular race, sex, age, religion, nationality, or disability status.

Thus, for example, it would be illegal for a company to hire accountants based on their ability to tap dance, or to reject foreign-born security guards based on their limited knowledge of American television shows from the 1980s. Or, to cite a more realistic and quite common example, it would be illegal to hire middle-managers based on SAT-style tests that provide no valid information about managerial competence but which tend to generate lower scores for women and minority test-takers.

Since 2007, the EEOC has been aggressive in going after employers that cross the line. And, for the most part, human resource directors have gotten the message, steering clear of assessment tools that are invalid and discriminatory, particularly cognitive tests in written formats, which have invited the greatest scrutiny.

But the question is, how will the EEOC and other civil rights watchdogs respond to the latest trend in employment testing, which goes well beyond personality traits and job-specific skills to focus on personal and interpersonal competencies such as teamwork, self-discipline, flexibility, and respect for individual differences?

Not that there’s anything new about the demand for workers with such competencies. Researchers, business leaders, and university faculty have been clamoring for more attention to “soft skills” (we prefer to use the broader term “employability skills,” or in discussions of K-12 education, “deeper learning skills”) for at least two decades already. However, efforts to test for such skills have begun to take off only in the past few years.

As part of a technical assistance project for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, JFF recently conducted an online search for employability skills assessments. The search easily identified more than 150 assessments, many of them hot off the press, suggesting that commercial testing firms are actively investing in this area.

The majority of these assessment tools appear to be updates of or holdovers from past decades, and they are designed mainly to assess cognitive skills (especially critical thinking and problem solving) and the so-called “Big 5" personality traits. However, dozens of them are meant to gauge personal and interpersonal capacities, from the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively to having such characteristics as persistence, ethics, integrity, leadership potential, and self-esteem. And while most of the older tests of cognitive skills and personality traits have been subject to extensive and independent research, the same cannot be said of the newer assessments, most of which are being marketed to employers to use in ways for which they have not yet been validated.

All of this leaves us feeling both optimistic and terrified. On one hand, we applaud current efforts to better understand and assess the complex range of skills that contribute to an individual’s success in the workforce. Particularly exciting is the possibility that this will lead to new and effective ways to teach and learn such skills, both in educational settings and on the job.

On the other hand, we know that discrimination remains as prevalent in the American workplace as it does in every other part of American life, as is evident from studies of police shootings and traffic enforcement to health care, school disciplinary practices, and even in the vacation rental market. Therefore, we worry that the new generation of assessments will only feed the beast.

Over the past decade, numerous employers have argued that while the EEOC’s 2007 fact sheet offers some guidance as to legal and illegal uses of employment tests, a great deal of murkiness remains, especially as to what counts as a “job-related” skill. The latest turn toward the assessment of employability skills only promises to introduce more murk than ever, as HR managers turn to instruments that may or may not be valid, that may or may not be relevant to any given job, and that may or may not result in greater hiring discrimination. This makes us awfully nervous, and we’ll be watching to see if the EEOC will manage to keep up.

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