Assessing Employees and Working With The Results

An abstracted photo of a colouful rorschach

Through good times and tough times, a psychologically based management assessment can add value to both an employee and an organization.  The conditions in which assessments are warranted are numerous and not necessarily tied to economic circumstances.  The need to assist plateaued, underperforming, or high potential employees, as well as to engage in succession planning and team development is ongoing during all types of economic situations.  To enhance the value of assessing employees and their results, managers often need some practical skills so they are better able to discuss, implement, and monitor any developmental issues that are identified. 

The reasons for conducting professional psychological/management assessments are as diverse as the organizations or individuals who request them.  Some reasons are straightforward, such as evaluating external candidates for a specific role, while others are complex, for example, an employee’s future with the company is held in balance.  When to seek a professional assessment and, more importantly, what to do with the results are  some issues many organizations and managers struggle with.  This article is written to provide guidance to those who seek greater returns on the most important asset in their organization – human capital.

Services in the marketplace for assessing employees are extensive and wide ranging.  Who is qualified to conduct a professional assessment is a self-serving marketing claim of nearly every provider, including those at the top of the professional heap – Ph.D.’s specializing in industrial/organizational psychology.  Like most things, quality and value are typically a function of cost.  It is not for us to hold high or malign our own profession by intimating that I/O psychologists are the most expensive assessment service in the marketplace, for they are not.  However, they are typically highly cost-effective.  Qualified industrial psychologists provide real science, professional standards, and demonstrated value that less qualified providers lack and do not aspire to.  

For some years, our profession has been dismayed by the proliferation of and public appetite for Internet-based tests with pages of glossy printouts and computer-generated verbiage providing an illusion of science and exactness.  The low validity of such tests, with their potential to do more harm than good, is a concern managers seeking a cost-effective solution to managing human capital are often unaware of, until the errors and costly shortcomings of such services hit home.  Nevertheless, at times, a low-end assessment involving a single computer test may be quite adequate for an organization, e.g., to provide employees in a training session with feedback on their basic personality characteristics.  There is no need for a CAT scan and consultation with a radiologist when all that is needed is a simple x-ray and a technician to confirm the limb is broken.  Who and how the limb will be mended are questions that leave many unqualified assessment providers mute or spouting management nostrums.  It is in this arena that our profession thrives and takes pride in service delivery. 

When to Assess Employees and when not to assess

To know when an assessment is not warranted is almost the acid test of a professional assessor.  Not all human resources issues require an assessment.  Not all employees can be saved, and continued employment of some is downright dangerous.  About one percentage of the population is considered to fall into the moral compass-less category of being a psychopath.  The carnage that one such individual can unleash may cost a company millions and, ultimately, its reputation and business.  The time to assess this individual was before hiring, not after concerns and problems emerge.  By this time it is too late and the damage has been done.  In these situations, quick action is needed, and the services of a professional are likely in order, but a forensic accountant rather than an industrial psychologist is what is required.

A less straightforward example of when not to assess is when a weak or inexperienced manager seeks outside assistance to justify a well-deserved and overdue termination.  When called into such a situation, we listen, ask the tough questions, and depending on the answers, often decline to provide assessment services.  A professional assessment should not abdicate management responsibility.  Nor should the outside professional be burdened, legally and ethically, with ostensibly the main or only reason for an employee’s termination.  An assessment professional may still have a role to play here, but it is often assisting the subordinate to see the proverbial writing on the wall and directing them to the services of a qualified outplacement counsellor. 

An occasional corollary of when not to assess involves whom to assess.  A manager struggling with a subordinate may provide more value by putting himself/herself rather than his/her subordinate through an assessment.  Typically, the manager lacks some of the skills for dealing with a strong but generally competent subordinate.  Often effective communication skills are also lacking in the manager, as well as not knowing how to be assertive, how to set clear goals and deadlines, or how to hold a subordinate responsible.  After the manager understands his/her own shortcoming and has addressed them, then the attention can be turned to the subordinate who, more often than not, is no longer seen as a problem employee. 

Recruiting in a hot economy

In a hot economy, companies are often concerned about losing candidates to a competitor, and the temptation not to assess is great.  Hiring practices are typically expedited and some steps skipped altogether.  However, the rush to make the job offer and seal the deal, so to speak, is fraught with problems.  One of the main things managers or recruiters often overlook is that in a hot economy not only are fewer qualified candidates out there, but the overall quality of those available can be low.  Those unemployed in a hot economy are typically unemployed for a reason, so when you find a candidate who appears to be competent and an ideal fit for your organization, you need to ask yourself what you are missing.  Checking references is insufficient and can be misleading, especially if a previous employer terminated the so-called hot candidate.  Often in these situations, the previous employer is reluctant to give the full story for fear of being found liable for hindering someone’s future employment.  A professional assessment in a hot economy can provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision.  If the candidate is really good, the assessment results should verify it.

Often in a robust economy, a company may be disappointed to find that the industrial psychologist in assessing candidates recommends not to hire, again and again.  After five or six such recommendations, the client begins to suspect that the psychologist’s standards are too high and is tempted to skip assessing the next seemingly perfect candidate altogether.  A company in this situation is typically doing two things wrong.  First, they are not likely adhering to their own standards of candidate screening, having unwittingly lowered them in hopes of circumventing the psychologist’s seemingly unreasonable standards.  Sometimes, the company is not even aware of its own deteriorating hiring standards as they become more desperate to find a qualified candidate.  A mindset of “we need to have this candidate yesterday” and doing everything as quickly as possible are positively correlated with mistakes made in hiring.  Slowing down, looking at more candidates, and not stopping the search just because one possible candidate is initially identified is called for.  It is far better to leave a position unfilled than to re-hire for the same position several times over the next couple of years.  Typically, the worst hires are candidates who are simply mediocre, able to do the job, but only just so, and lack the capacity to add nothing more than to fulfill the basic requirements of the role.  These candidates will become the future ‘deadwood’ of the company.  We find that most of the deadwood in the woodshed is gathered during a hot economy.

Another mistake commonly made in a hot economy is to conduct a full search, find several qualified candidates, but then to only progress with the seemingly most promising candidate.  Typically, reference checks are hurriedly conducted and an expedited assessment requested, only to find that the candidate is far from ideal.  In the interim (which may be only a week), the other short-listed candidates may have moved on.  In a robust economy, you will need to spend more time recruiting and screening more candidates to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.  If your search comes up with three or four possible candidates, assess them all.  Do not risk losing any possible qualified candidate.  You may find that once you received feedback from the psychologist the candidate rated as number three or four by your team moves up to the number one position.  Occasionally, your reward for assessing all is to have two qualified candidates.  We have seen companies hire both candidates knowing that the company will be well served by this redundancy of excellence.

Be aware of luring the superstar performer from the competitor.  Often, success is very situation-dependent, thus making it difficult for high performers who move to a new organization, a different social and political environment, to perform as well as before.  A strong team, market timing, and support from a superior may be the underlying factors of the superstar’s success, not inherent abilities of the individual.  Superstars often cost big money and also have a tendency to come with enormous egos.  The latter is not going to wear well with the rank and file of your organization, which often leads to undermining to ensure the superstar fails.  Our general advice is to avoid the competitor’s superstars.  Instead, seek someone who has the potential to become a superstar in your organization. 

Recruiting in a recession

Recruiting during a recession is no different than recruiting in a hot economy, except that more qualified candidates are typically available.  The temptation in recession recruiting, especially when a company’s bottom-line is thin or negative, is not to assess in a shortsighted attempt to save money.  During a recession, every new employee is a critical hire, and the company cannot afford the luxury of making a mistake.  Hiring mistakes are costly at any time, but for key company roles in a difficult economic climate, they can be catastrophic, especially for CEO and CFO positions.  Although market and economic conditions place different pressures on recruitment, sound hiring practices should never be abandoned or compromised.

Succession planning

Succession planning can be a complicated affair, especially in a large organization.  The task of sorting out scores of employees and how to evaluate their potential can be time consuming and costly in terms of managerial time.  Typically, a steering committee is struck, detailed competencies are developed, and examples of low and high performance for each position developed in an attempt to benchmark various roles.  Tensions can rise as managers disagree on how success in the organization should be defined and especially how their subordinates should be measured.  As the weeks and months accumulate, employees come and go, and with the absence of career feedback, underperforming managers struggle on and strong performers begin to consider outside opportunities.  In our experience, succession planning needs to be simplified and expedited.  The essence of the process is to identify and develop future talent in a timely manner.  Identifying the personal characteristics and skills needed to be a competent manager is something industrial psychologists have been doing for over half a century.  In addition to injecting sound science into the process of getting the right person into the right job, an assessment can also serve to develop an employee and add long-term value to the organization.

An important aspect that an external psychologist adds to succession planning is the absence of favouritism or bias in the process.  Internally conducted succession planning can be quite political, and using a credible outside expert can significantly lessen this while providing focus and structure to the succession planning.

Identifying high-potential employees

If an organization does not have a pipeline of new talent being developed for senior roles, it will quickly lose competitiveness in the marketplace.  Moreover, when it does start such a program, it may be surprised to find few high-potential individuals exist mainly because they have already left for greener pastures.  Typically, high-potential employees, even quiet junior ones, have a sense of their own worth and seek opportunities to grow within an organization.  With no program to provide opportunity and development for such individuals, they start to view their superiors as overly traditional and more interested in protecting the status quo than being able to develop and mentor talent.  

Identifying high potential employees is not straightforward.  Although such individuals may have a sense of their own worth, they may lack the confidence and skills to put themselves forward.  The culture of the organization may place a strong emphasis on compliance, cooperation, and length of service rather than competitiveness and advancement based on merit.  A process of identifying high potentials can easily be introduced in an organization.  Even a ‘one-off’ or single assessment on a given employee can be conducted without seeming to play favouritism under the legitimate explanation of wanting to identify potential, current skills, and developmental needs.  However, we recommend that all employees be assessed at career transition points such as moving into a new role and/or taking on greater responsibilities.  Ideally, we suggest that these assessments occur before the career transition occurs.  Having such a program in place may influence how best to manage the career transition, including delaying it until the employee develops in certain areas.  More importantly, an organizational culture that routinely and consistently assesses junior managers will have critical information about which ones have potential and how best to develop talent.  

The plateaued employee

Almost all employees reach a plateau in their careers, typically sometime in their 40’s.  When an employee is overlooked for a promotion and suspects the reason is that he/she has reached his/her potential to move upward in an organization, a range of behaviours can expected.  Some will be surprised, angry, and threaten to leave, or actually leave because they believe that the company is unappreciative of their years of effort and blind to their talents.  Others may seek reassurance and support and ask for feedback so that any perceived shortcomings can be thoroughly addressed.  Hardly any employees who are passed over for promotion initially accept the implicit message that they may have reached a plateau.

Plateaued employees may not be the future leaders of the organization, but they are often a storehouse of expertise and skills needed for it to run successfully and efficiently.  To lose such employees is to lose key pieces of knowledge and experience about the organization that may take years to replace.  Retaining plateaued employees and developing a program where they can continue to add value and feel valued is the challenge.  In assessing potentially plateaued employees, we typically look for opportunities for them to mentor and develop individuals junior to them.  Most individuals find this to be a rewarding experience and soon take pride in developing subordinates, even those who go on to exceed them in the organization.  Occasionally, we find employees who have reached a plateau, but only in their current position in the organization and the assessment findings suggest strong reasons for moving them into a new area to re-launch their career.

The incompetent employee

A significant percentage of our professional assessment work deals with employees who are not meeting the expectations of their superiors.  They are often sent to us by the company with the expectation that we will be able to fix them so they become a productive member of the organization.  Some incompetent employees have been in their position for years, and finally some manager decides to do something about it.  If a particular employee has been repeatedly given below average performance ratings, you do not need a professional assessment to confirm that they are incompetent.  Save your money and move to termination.  The time to assess potentially incompetent employees is early in their career with the organization, usually after their second ‘incident’, e.g., a second low performance review or a second relatively costly mistake.  Instead of trying other positions and/or passing the problem employee to other departments, consider conducting a professional assessment.  The small price of doing so can potentially save the organization thousands of dollars in long-term costs and lost productivity.   

The disengaged employee

Occasionally, we assess employees whom the organization believes have high potential, but they appear disengaged, even lazy, and are putting in only a minimal effort and not performing at their true potential.  These are typically challenging cases.  Sometimes such individuals are on the wrong career path; other times they may feel that their duties are so boring and beneath their abilities that putting in a minimal effort is all that should be required of them.  On occasion we find an individual whose core personality and general temperament can best be described as “laid back and unhurried.”  Although these individuals may be bright and interested in their career, they generally do things very slowly and seem to lack fire and passion.  Conducting an assessment that involves a 3600-feedback component can have a significant impact on these individuals.  They learn how they are perceived by others and that they need to take responsibility for managing their image in the organization.  Some of them may have such an engrained laid-back temperament that they need to find work in an organization where the pace is slower and their behaviour is not out of place.  Individuals are more likely to perform at their best when their behaviour in the workplace is aligned with their core personality traits.  Determining what these are through an assessment can be very important for managing a disengaged employee.

The emotionally labile employee

Some individuals are very sensitive and tend to have emotional reactions to trying events in the workplace that are way beyond those of their fellow workers.  The range of emotions can be from being too aggressive to being neurotic and tearful.  Strong displays of emotions in the workplace can be unsettling for others and present a real challenge to the superior.  Typically, employees who have a pattern of emotionality typically have something else going on.  The emotion displayed can be an important clue to underlying personality traits or issues.  For example, it is not unusual to find an overly aggressive individual whose main source of aggression is actually a lack of assertiveness skills.  Directing this individual to assertiveness training may initially seem to the organization like throwing fuel on the fire, so to speak, but once the individual learns how to be more appropriately assertive earlier in an interpersonal exchange, the need to become aggressive disappears.  A dangerous emotional combination is if the person is aggressive and has a tendency to be impulsive and disorganized.  In a production environment, these individuals are at high risk for accidents.  Learning how to control their emotions and behaviour can prevent serious injury to themselves and others. 

Our clinical colleagues estimate that up to 20 percent of the workforce is over stressed in their work and that a fairly large percentage of this group is depressed.  We find that middle-aged males typically have a difficult time identifying when they are depressed.  Depending on their personality, these individuals can withdraw from social interactions at work and/or become aggressive and argumentative with others.  Typically, they blame their superior or the company in general for being upset and flail away at their environment.  Because this is such a common problem in workplace, industrial psychologists typically administer tests that are sensitive to clinical conditions.  When there is evidence in the findings that someone may be highly stressed and/or depressed, we can begin a process of counseling and directing the employee to appropriate long-care assistance. 

Team development

Assessing an intact team can be very useful.  There are many norm-based team instruments for studying the roles individuals perform on a team and how the team operates as a whole, that is, as a separate entity from the sum of its members.  An effective team is typically diverse.  To the surprise of some, a team of highly cooperative members who greatly enjoy working with each other can sometimes be a very weak team in terms of performance.  Effective teams usually have a certain amount of tension stemming from the different personalities and approaches of individual members.  However, this is where its strength lies.  Diversity in a team enables a group of individuals to be more flexible and to respond appropriately to changing circumstances.  Team members that all think alike are a liability and often cannot respond quickly enough to changing events.  Such a team is typically no stronger than any member of it, and in any economy that can be a significant disadvantage.  

A high functioning team typically has several main features.  Usually, there is someone on the team who is good at coordinating its collective skills and resources.  In addition, there is often a specialist on the team who is very skilled at the main function of the business and can monitor things closely, and another person who is good at creating harmony and encouraging members to work cooperatively.  However, even with the above bare minimum functions of a team, the group may be unproductive and low in performance if another key person does not exist.  This person is the driver, the one who instills a sense of purpose and urgency for getting things done in a timely manner.  Team roles can be easily identified and enable a team to understand itself, how it functions as a whole, and how its individual members contribute to it.  Occasionally, a team will be lacking one of the key roles described above.  A critical decision will then be necessary, one that requires one of the team members to quickly develop such skills to take on such a role or, as often is the case, to recruit a new member to compensate for the team’s shortcomings.

Working with the Results

After an assessment is completed, the findings and any recommendations are provided both verbally and in a detailed written report to the employer and typically shared with the employee.  Then the responsibility for the employee is passed back to the manager.  Now what?  It is important to see that the assessment is only the first phase of a multi-phase process that often takes months to complete.  Along the way, the professional assessment can provide much guidance by helping both the employee and the superior focus on what is important and what steps to follow for optimizing development.  Below, we provide some lessons and direction on how best to use the assessment results.

Do not shelf the assessment

When an employee’s assessment report points to a number of shortcomings and developmental needs, there may be a temptation to put it in a drawer and forget about it.  This is typically done by a superior who does not want to upset or de-motivate the employee, which in turn may simply mean that the superior lacks the skills for giving feedback.  Yet, one of the fundamental duties of being a manager is giving feedback to subordinates.  A manager may be considered a good leader, but not for long if he/she is unable to give feedback to staff.  Moreover, shelving the report will only delay or exacerbate poor performance and handicap an employee from developing.  If you are a manager and are hesitant about discussing the contents of an assessment report with a subordinate, then ask for assistance from HR and/or the psychologist who wrote the report.  Not only will you assist the subordinate in developing, you will gain important skills for providing feedback in general, which are critical to be effective at managing others. 

Sometimes an assessment report is shelved by the employee who appears to ignore its content and tries to go on as if nothing has happened.  If a manager has a subordinate who is discounting a report, he/she needs to take firm action.  The manager needs to set an appointment with the individual to review and discuss the report.  In addition, the subordinate should be encouraged to share the report with at least two other people whom they respect and trust to give honest feedback.  When reviewing the report with the subordinate, the manager should highlight and openly discuss the areas on which they think the subordinate need to focus.  Goals and targets should be set, and personal and/or company support should be offered to assist with any development plan (see below).  Importantly, a date should be set to review progress, a process that will require even more focused and effective feedback from the manager.

If the reviewers are fairly consistent in their perceptions of the employee and, more or less, agree with the report, but the employee is still resistant to accepting the main findings believes that s/he behaves in a different manner, then it is important to convey to the individual that perceptions are reality.  Yes, it is true that the observations of others are merely their perceptions, whether wrong or right.  However, those perceptions are how others will treat and interact with the individual.  Failure to understand how others perceive you is to deny reality.  If the person wants to be perceived differently, then simply arguing that others’ perceptions are wrong is woefully inadequate.  The only way to change the perception of others is to change the behaviours that give rise to these perceptions in the first place. 

Another reason a manager may not want to share an assessment report with a subordinate or provide detailed feedback is that the manager is concerned that subordinate may have an emotional reaction to its content.  Hardly anyone enjoys dealing with an emotional person, and most people lack skills for doing so.  However, this is a prime opportunity for the manager to take a leadership role and assist an emotional employee in processing his/her emotions more quickly and focusing on constructive activities.  Although there are no hard rules for dealing with such an employee, there are some heuristics that can be quite helpful.  A key one is to let the employee be emotional and not try to circumvent the process.  In fact, the manager may even need to facilitate the process.  Sometimes an employee will get caught in a repetitive pattern that involves the same thoughts and emotions.  The manager’s role here is to be emotionally neutral but supportive and an active listener.  The manager should ask the person to talk more about why he/she is upset, what in particular is upsetting in the report, and which findings are viewed as valid and not-so-valid.  The manager should not try to deny or contradict the emotions of the employee.  They are not his/hers to take, only to witness.  The manager will find that once the employee expresses some emotions, the person typically starts to calm down and think rationally about the report.  However, this may take two or three days, and it would be a mistake to try reviewing the specifics of the report with the person during this time.  

Occasionally, subordinates are very angry at their superior for not having told them before about their so-called shortcomings.  Sometimes, the superior is guilty as charged and, as mentioned before, likely needs to develop important skills for giving feedback.  In other cases, the superior may have given constructive feedback to a subordinate, but it appeared to be discounted or ignored.  Typically in the latter cases, the superior has not been specific enough in their feedback; i.e., speaking in generalities has resulted in little or no understanding or insight on the part of the subordinate.

How to review an assessment report with the employee

If the employee is unlikely to have an emotional reaction to discussing the findings in his/her assessment report, you should schedule a time to review it with him/her.  We suggest that this be done approximately one week after the subordinate has received the report and that amount of time set aside for the meeting be essentially open.  A review may only take half an hour but typically one and two hours are needed.  

The assessment report is not to be reviewed like some financial budget – line by line.  Instead, ask the subordinate what he/she sees as the main findings and recommendations for development.  Listen to how the subordinate frames the findings and views the main developmental recommendations.  Once the subordinate has had a chance to express their understanding of the assessment findings, then it is your turn.  Always start with the positive and take care in dealing with sensitive areas, but do not shy away from providing an honest opinion.  It is one of the best opportunities you will have to provide a subordinate with meaningful feedback and to address underperforming behaviour.  Do not take this as an opportunity to be vindictive or in any way gloat that a professional psychologist has agreed with your own assessment of the person’s shortcomings.  Little will be gained from this type of approach.  However, tell the subordinate what you think are the main findings, positive and negative and, where necessary, provide specific feedback on examples of past behaviour to reinforce your point.  

The feedback and insights provided in the report will be of little use if you and your subordinate do not agree on the main findings.  Take the time to listen and discuss the results, and only once you have both agreed upon the main findings should the discussion turn to how to address the developmental needs.  Although the assessment report usually contains clear recommendations about which developmental goals the person should focus on, a manager may stumble when executing them with the subordinate.  Some developmental needs are easily addressed through basic training.  Numerous workshops or short courses on various business-oriented skills exist in the marketplace.  However, some developmental needs seem to require a change in the core aspects of a person’s personality.  (Core personality characteristics are typically engrained and not easily amenable to change.)  A good assessment report will provide guidance in these areas and may recommend the use of an outside coach or even a clinical psychologist to start the process toward a specific behavioural change.  Occasionally, the person does not want or is unable to change, and then it becomes a question of whether the subordinate is appropriately suited for the job.  A competent psychologist will alert both the subordinate and the superior to such possibilities and may recommend that the subordinate consider another line of work.  This type of recommendation is rare, but if given, it should be given careful consideration.  We have seen many cases where the advice was not followed and people essentially wasted a couple of years attempting to be something they were not while their self-confidence and self-esteem eroded away.  The company does the employee no favour with continued employment.  It is better that the subordinate and the superior draw up a separation agreement and free the subordinate to pursue a more suitable line of work while relieving the superior of significant duties and frustration.

All reviews of an assessment report should end with the establishment of measurable short- and long-term performance targets.  The superior should make a commitment to provide regular feedback on developmental areas and to be specific and concrete in his/her feedback.  The subordinate should have a clear understanding of what is expected in terms of change and a path to follow to achieve it.

Re-Assess in the future

At some point in the future (six months to a couple of years), it may be very important to conduct a re-assessment or an update assessment that involves a scaled-down version of a full assessment and that focuses on the most important developmental issues a subordinate may have had.  The second assessment will provide both subordinate and the superior with information on how successful the individual (and the superior) were at improving performance.  Typically, both parties are pleased to see that progress has been made, and the subordinates will have a renewed sense of confidence and focus on contributing to their potential in the organization.  Occasionally, the desired performance is not forthcoming or new developmental needs have arisen.  The role of the second assessment then is to provide objective feedback on development progress, to assist in fine-tuning a performance change program, and to revisit the overall potential of the subordinate.

Summary

Professional assessments can add significant value to a company and development of an employee.  The real value of an assessment is achieved when the manager knows when to engage an outside professional and what to do with the results. 

An abstracted photo of a colouful rorschach

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