Skip to main content
Your Employee Matters


By August 9, 2013No Comments

Here’s a fact: Half of all employees test better than the other half! My question is, which half do you have?

Testing job applicants and employees is one of the favorite topics in my CEO and HR workshops. Because most companies don’t do appropriate testing, those that do enjoy a significant advantage. I like to begin the subject with a story. Years ago, as I was quitting my litigation practice, a legal secretary (we’ll call Sue) came into my office and wanted to sue the firm she had been working for. The fact that a law firm could be sued by one of its employees came as no surprise. Lawyers get sued by their employees more than just about anyone else – and we rely on lawyers’ advice so we don’t get sued! A little Catch-22 in the system, you might say.

To keep the story short, it turns out this legal secretary had a steady job at neighboring law firm, working for a partner for 15 years. At the same time, a litigation partner at another firm lost his legal secretary with only last-minute notice. He put the word out on the grapevine that he was looking for a replacement, and that’s where Sue met up with him. After meeting for a pleasant lunch, the attorney figured that she had 15 years of experience doing the very job he was hiring for, she seemed pleasant enough – and so he hired her on the spot. To Sue’s surprise, almost immediately after coming to work, he started expressing his disappointment with her productivity. This went on for three months until he fired her without any offer of severance. Sue was a single mom with two kids to raise on her own and no job; that’s what prompted her to walk into my office.

I asked her if she and the attorney discussed any performance benchmarks or requirements at their one meeting. They had not. Understand this: a legal secretary types about half of the day; and half of them type above average and half below average (this holds true for programmers and retail sales clerks as well). Personally, I’ve never hired a legal secretary who typed less than 100 words per minute. When I asked Sue how fast she typed, she told me approximately 80 words per minute. She found out by testing herself years ago. None of her employers had ever tested her. I then tracked down the previous legal secretary; according to a test she took, she typed approximately 100 words per minute. Therein lies the moral to this story – the woman in my office was a failure on the first day of her employment and nobody knew about that fact!

This begs the question, “how many people walk into your company a failure on the first day and no one knows about it?” It makes no difference who you’re hiring , including rocket scientists, What’s the range of skill sets at your company? Without testing, you’re only guessing.

Let’s take this idea one step further. According to both Dr. Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker (perhaps the two greatest management gurus of all time), nine out of ten people want to do a good job every day – and their inability to do so is generally due to a system failure rather than a lack of motivation. Let me give you an example of how this plays out: at about the same time Sue walked into my office, I was consulting with a law firm that was having turnover problems. With the economy growing at the time, the larger firms were simply throwing more money at these employees. Although this was unrelated to my assignment, it dawned on me to ask them a basic question: “Have you tested all of your legal secretaries?” Turns out they had not – so that’s exactly what we did. We tested them not only on their typing, but also on the substantive and procedural knowledge that their job required.

Here’s what we learned: In most law firms, the attorneys get no management training and generally there are two attorneys to each secretary. Let’s assume that two of those attorneys manage intuitively above average and another two happen to manage below average. Now let’s say there’s a legal secretary who types 80 wpm for an above-average manager. The other secretary types 100 wpm for a below-average manager. Who do you think is viewed as the better secretary at the end of the day? When I ask this at workshops, most people respond “the one who types 80 wpm for a good manager.” This secretary gets the better performance evaluation and the raise – which makes absolutely no sense.

You can, and should, test for every essential skillset. For example, a few years ago I helped a real estate investment firm hire a CFO. Because they were Good to Great fans and wanted to have a great company, they decided to have a great CFO. When it came to testing, we decided to address the three essential skillset categories: substantive knowledge of accounting (GAAP), QuickBooks, and finally, Excel (because they used it for their real estate deals). So I contacted SHL (who I’ll talk about in a bit) and we set up tests for qualified job applicants. These tests cost us between $17 and $30 each. Because we wanted a CFO in the top 10% of skillsets, we decided that they would have to test in the top 20% of all three categories. It took us months to find that CFO, and in the meantime we used Account Temps. That’s the type of testing discipline you must go through if you want to have great employees.

For the past ten years, I’ve recommended only one company to do skill testing because I believe that it’s the best. When I first met them they were known as BrainBench. They were then acquired by PreVisor, and finally by the largest testing company in the world, SHL. Our contact is Jason Finney ( He is awesome and is surrounded by a great team. You can contact Jason to set up tests for your job applicants and existing employees. Not only will this help you to hire better, it will also help explain a lot of what’s going on with performance and what training you need to improve it.

Here’s what SHL users have said about testing: If you think this sounds like an endorsement of SHL, you’re right. So use them!

If you’d like a certificate for a free test from SHL, contact Jason directly and he’ll get it to you. If you’re an HR That Works Member, watch the one-hour webinar I did with Ken Lahti, one of the testing experts at SHL.

I also think it’s important to use skill tests when you hire consultants. How do you really know if they’re any good without testing them? For example, when we built HR That Works on a SharePoint platform, how did I know if our project manager was an expert or not? Yes, we were using a Microsoft Certified Partner, but that didn’t mean that the individual project manager was at the top of his game. Fortunately, he took a SharePoint test and scored very high, thus justifying my faith in his skills. Don’t trust the skillsets of employees, applicants, or third parties blindly – test for them!

As a final note, the skill testing I’m talking about is separate from character assessment. Fact is, you can’t fail your personality, so they don’t call them personality tests. However, it’s true that people can have failing personalities– and these are the people to make sure you don’t hire!