Because every employee either contributes to moving a business forward or to holding it back, the acquisition of intellectual capital is becoming a primary competitive advantage. But hiring the best people and finding the best fit for a job isn’t always easy.

About 50,000 organizations in the United States use testing to help make decisions about hiring, placement and promotion, said David Solly, an industrial psychologist and president of Peak Organomics. More than 2 million people take pre-employment tests annually.

Solly said there are more than 5,000 pre-employment tests commercially available, but he only deems about 60 to be “good.” And there isn’t one test that serves all hiring situations.

Peak Organomics, which was founded in January 2001, is a business and organizational psychology consulting company with experience in assessing and developing the potential of people and organizations.

Solly meets with executives to determine the direction and culture of a company. He also helps develop short- and long-range staffing proposals and performs jobs analysis, which is a breakdown of the duties a position requires.

“I pull out the skills, abilities and personality characteristics that will fit best in the position,” Solly said. “This includes key behaviors involved in the job and the percentage of work time devoted to each of these.”

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He uses several tests for each position, assessing numerical and verbal skills, critical thinking ability and mental alertness.

The tests also can generate insights into “goodness-of-fit” issues. Some of those issues include:

n Work style – Energy, pace, approach to planning, need for recognition, need for freedom, attention to detail, work ethic and conscientiousness.

n Emotional style – Optimism, restraint over feelings, objectivity about feedback, handling stress, resilience and composure.

n Interpersonal factors – Sociability, assertiveness, perceptiveness, competitiveness, agreeableness and acceptance of diversity.

n Management and leadership style – Desire to persuade and influence, approach to persuasion, approach to managing relationships and conflict and communication styles.

Rex Blake, an industrial psychologist and owner of Blake Associates in Minneapolis, said that using tests to make such determinations “is a good substitute for following a potential job candidate around for a few weeks in his current position.”

Items he considers include motivation and personality traits. Through testing, Blake can determine what job candidates like or dislike doing, and if they think they will enjoy doing the work involved in a particular position. He also can determine if a candidate has any personality characteristics “that identify habits that will be hard to break.”

“Interviews are bad samples of behavior because for the hour or two an interview lasts, a person can portray someone entirely different than who they really are,” Blake said.

Blake presents job candidates with scenarios and case studies to determine how they will perform under certain circumstances. In one situation, a candidate is put in a position of having been on a business trip for four days. When he returns the office facing a slew of e-mails and memos that must be responded to before he leaves on another trip in a few hours.

Blake said the test determines how much horsepower a person brings to a job and shows how much time a candidate needs to process decisions. The test also can indicate whether a candidate could benefit from coaching.

Solly and Blake use five factors to formulate a personality profile.

n Extroversion or introversion – Reflects the quantity or intensity of the person’s social interactions. Is the candidate sociable, active and assertive, or is he reserved and quiet and avoids social contact?

n Adjustment – Does the person have a nervous disposition or is he resilient and resistant to stress?

n Self-control or conscientiousness – Shows whether a candidate is respectful of rules, orderly and systematic, or impulsive and disorganized.

n Agreeableness – Reflects either being cooperative and warm, or competitive and antagonistic.

n Independence and intelligence – Reflects the proactive seeking of experience for its own sake. Is the person creative, cultured and broad minded, or does he have narrow interests?

Other key personality traits are honesty and risk taking.

Solly said honesty shows a relatively strong relationship with emotional stability and agreeableness. Risk taking can show whether the candidate craves constant excitement on and off the job. People with higher degrees of this personality trait are sensation seekers who pursue novel, complex and intense situations. Others are willing to risk their possessions, well-being or their lives to achieve thrills – a characteristic that may reflect poorly on a company.

The tests and role-playing can determine impassioned strengths, Solly said. “It shows the things a person likes to do and the things he is best at doing. It is important for these to match. Good employees have the ability to do a job and the passion to do it.”