Hiring question?

Subject: Hiring question?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, David Loveless <daveloveless -at- gmail -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 10 Dec 2005 17:09:39 -0500

David Loveless asked for opinions on the value of writing and editing tests in hiring decisions::

<<do tests have value and what value? Are there problems?>>

Ah, one of the most bitter and vituperative arguments in the entire field of education. I don't suppose that I'll resolve that debate in 15 minutes <g>, but a few thoughts that hopefully won't add too much more fuel to the flames.

The short version: A well-designed test, which measures what you actually think you're measuring, clearly has value. The problem is that few tests are nearly so well-designed as one might hope, witness the fact that typical students can, with a little training in how to take the SAT exams rather than actually studying, increase their scores by ca. 20%. That suggests to me, a recovering scientist and thus a hopeless quant boy <g>, that the test itself is probably only 80% effective despite the efforts of a large group of educators to do better. Similarly criticisms have been leveled for years against IQ tests.

Writing and editing "tests" are a bit more objective because if you pick activities that focus on real problems that the candidate will face in your workplace, the tests at least focus on the skills you really want to test. But what if the person is just having a bad day? What if you can't provide truly realistic conditions for them to work under?

Even these tests miss the point somewhat because they focus on the ability to take your test rather than purely on the ability to write or edit. The test environment is generally highly artificial: it requires you to to use someone else's computer rather than your own customized version, to work in a foreign and often physically uncomfortable environment, to work on artificial problems designed to test someone's theory of what you'll be doing rather than what you'll actually be doing, and to work without access to your usual resources (a high-speed Internet connection, shelf of reference books, etc.).

<<I have been subjected to tests that are so insanely long and complex that I feel like I should have been paid for my time.>>

And why not pay someone to take these tests? In my limited experience hiring subcontractors, I've found that I could get the best results by actually hiring the person and putting them to work on a short-term contract. That gave me enough time to find out how the person would work out after they got over the initial shock, and let me compensate them fairly for their time. If they worked out well, I could offer them a job; if not, not. Plus, there's the whole ethical issue of compensating people for their time. I'm in favor of that.

<<The tests I administer to my candidates are timed, short, simple, and (most importantly) done in the comfort of the candidates home instead of in an unfamiliar office with unfamiliar equipment.>>

I wish everyone were that humane. Good on you, mate!

<<One recent test... would probably have taken me well over 5 hours. Fortunately, I had the brains to walk out...>>

Also worth doing to make a point. I will no longer "audition" for editing or translation work because I've been doing the work long enough that I don't have to. I've got plenty of work, almost entirely from word of mouth advertising, and can afford to do this. I recognize how much of a luxury my situation is, but I nonetheless feel that it's important to stick up for our rights as professionals to whatever extent we can.

<<On a further note, I find editing tests irrelevant since most, if not all, editors/writers will not turn in their work blind. They will have access to spell checkers, dictionaries, and hopefully other editors/writers.>>

See above. We agree fully on this one. In editing particularly, the work is an ongoing collaboration with the author until we reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion. It's never a one-time "edit and move on" task.

<<would you ever test specific types of software? The answer is an obvious "duh" for many people, but as one of the wisest men I know once said, "You can teach anyone to use RoboHelp, DreamWeaver, whatever. But you can't teach anyone how to write." That being said, we require DreamWeaver at my current employer...>>

Ah, the dread "should we hire based on tool skills?" debate. <g> Clearly, the reason why people hire us is because we can write, edit, translate, or whatever. Any hairless house ape can learn to use software, but people who are good with words are increasingly rare. So clearly we should be hiring first and foremost based on writing skills, right?

Not so fast. Sarcasm aside, I've met my share of hairless house apes who really have trouble working a computer or mastering the basics of software. It's not that they're stupid, but rather that their brilliance (often quite overt) lies in other areas. If you're in a high-pressure environment where you don't have time to bring someone up to speed on software, you may not have time to waste on their learning curve, particularly if there are many equally skilled candidates out there _who can also use the software_.

But if you have to choose between writing skills and software skills? Choose the writer every time. If you can find someone who writes high-quality content at twice the speed of the best writer in your current group, but does it on a pad of lined legal paper, maybe you can afford to hire a typist to retype their writing using your preferred software. <g>

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
www.geoff-hart.com
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References:
Hiring Question: From: David Loveless

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