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Are personality tests worth doing?

For reasons he can’t explain, five years ago, Jose Cuevas’s waitstaff languished at JumBurrito in Midland, Texas. “Some stores were doing well and others just horrific,” says Cuevas, founder and president of the Mexican fast casual chain with six locations and $5.2 million in annual sales. Employees were unenthused, annual turnover stood at 200 percent and Cuevas says he felt helpless to change things. “I’d go into a store and say, ‘Where’s the energy?’”

That’s when he called in consultants who administered employee assessment tests to determine behavioral traits, personality characteristics and aptitudes of his staff. The idea was to find out if employees were indeed in the right positions, and, if not, to shuffle the deck to place staff in spots where they would be more likely to flourish.

The plan worked. So well, in fact, that turnover dropped to 100 percent the following year and 75 percent the year after that. Now, the Predictive Index, an employee assessment tool by PI Worldwide in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is given to each JumBurrito applicant.

Employment experts say more and more restaurants are administering such tests to job candidates as well as current employees to pick up on their behavioral and cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

But the practice has critics. “Human behavior is very complex,” says Alan Weiss, president of Summit Consulting Group Inc., in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. “It’s so complex it’s very difficult to predict. These tests are static.

They’re given with pencil and paper or a computer and an hour later they have a horoscope-like reading of you.”

Some, like the Profile XT, created by Profiles International Inc. in Waco, Texas, are intensive, hour-long tests that analyze both cognitive and behavioral traits. Others, such as the Predictive Index, a two-page personality indicator that takes 5 to 10 minutes to complete, look at the relationship of various personality attributes as they overlap.

Such assessments can be cursory and misleading, says Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist and professor at New York University. “You can over rely on those tests because they are ‘objective,’” Dattner says.

Putting an overwhelming amount of stock in a test where the answers are coming from the candidate, can become unreliably biased or manipulated, he cautions.

Still, Dattner and others say assessments have a place in restaurant hiring and staff management, but only as one of many application tools.

Salty’s on the Columbia, one of three locations in a chain of Pacific Northwest seafood restaurants, uses the Predictive Index to determine the best people from more than 100 résumés when they might have only 25 openings, says Linda Addy, a managing partner. But they also use the assessment to manage staff they’ve already hired—a common use for such tools in the restaurant business, experts say.

For tests that vary widely in scope—and can cost from $25 for a basic assessment of a person’s work ethic to $2,500 or more for tools that help determine if someone will make a good manager—determining what they’re really worth can be tricky. “For $12 you’re getting $12 worth of psychological research,” Weiss says. “A lot of these are not vetted in psychological journals.”

Marc Katz, a labor and employment attorney in Dallas, says that asking questions that may indicate someone’s mental health can violate provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits pre-employment medical examinations. Katz also says such tests are tricky because they can overstep privacy and confidentiality laws that vary from state to state. “There are confidentiality issues always with this kind of information,” admits Scott Lappin, president of Performance PI. “But we coach our clients that it is not to be shared with anyone in the company.”

The real question about these tests is their ability to discern a person’s skills and personality. “The problem,” Katz says, is that they’re either too unscientific and vague or too invasive “to justify.” Restaurant owners and managers who are sued may have a hard time proving the validity and justification for reviewing an applicant then not hiring him, Katz says.

“If you use the wrong assessment or use it in the wrong way you could create a problem,” says Mike Hopkins, senior vice president at Profiles International. To be sure, assessment companies admit that these tools can be misused, which is why, they say, restaurants should make sure the program they’re using meets Department of Labor standards or can be backed up by letters of approval from labor lawyers.


The Mind of the Manager: Profilers spell out the perfect hire

Fast casual chain

  • Highly goal oriented individuals are ideal where high quantities of food, highly varied menus and high volume sales are key. Goal-oriented managers can also keep short-time employees on track.
  • Managers need to be prepared for sudden absences, low morale or other issues that might require acting on the fly, filling in work gaps as they pop up and exhibiting extreme patience with a less mature work force.
  • A nurturing demeanor is also key for dealing with newbies.

Casual dinner-house chain

  • Before each shift with an enthusiastic personality, but one that is also empathetic to those who have been in the industry for straightforward, clear, confident communication style is necessary, as well as the ability to motivate staff awhile.
  • Managers who are persuasive are key in these roles to convince staff, who might tend to think they are experienced enough to call their own shots, that the restaurant’s protocol is crucial to a smooth operation.

Higher-end independent

  • Managers here need to be fast with numbers, more proficient in customer service, pay immense attention to detail and be more sophisticated in dealing with a skilled waitstaff.
  • Managers, therefore, should be highly educated in beverage and food service to help encourage and inspire servers.
  • In addition, they should be more comfortable delegating responsibilities to workers who are more experienced and capable than workers in lower-end restaurants.

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