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Stressed for Success

Fair assessment practices necessary to gauge ability of prospective employees to handle risks and challenges

(Troy Harwood Jones/Barbara Bowes)

Apparently, the Bank of Montreal is changing its mortgage stress test rules as it eyes some moderation in the current hot real estate market. I didn’t realize it but stress test analysis is common practice in the banking industry. Frankly, it’s a wise risk management tactic particularly since change is the name of the game these days. I wondered how it could apply to human resources?

Being prepared for adverse change in the banking industry includes assessing the risk of potential issues such as the effect of a pandemic, an increase in unemployment rates, a rise in interest rates, or a downturn in various economic sectors and then determining how to overcome these challenges.

This is good risk management practice for any organization and any industry sector. The whole point is to prevent leaders from being caught off guard. Sometimes situations can’t be fully predicted which results in leaders scrambling to quickly pivot. Amid the pandemic, the issue is further complicated by the fact that public health directives add complexity to business decisions. The result? Stress, stress, stress.

So, how could this apply to the recruitment and selection? This is one of the areas of significant risk that could confront an organization. Legislation is always changing and it would be wise to examine the entire recruitment process. The assessment should determine if the recruitment process is compliant with all legislation related to employment law. Do job advertisements meet the human rights standards so that discrimination is avoided? Are interview questions prepared and regularly reviewed to ensure discrimination does not occur? Are all candidates given the same interview questions and treated the same throughout the process?

Are interview panels balanced in terms of its participants? Are candidates asked for permission to contact references, and to conduct background checks? Do candidates sign their authorization for participation in personality, communication style and stress assessments? Finally, just what care and attention is paid to behind-the-scenes social media reviews so that recruiters are not encroaching on privacy issues?

Then again, why don’t organizations start applying a special stress test for their senior executive candidates in addition to the psychometric assessments they typically use? This could help identify whether or not the candidate could handle the variety of risks and challenges that our changing world brings.

Troy Harwood-Jones, a partner with PKF Lawyers, says while asking a prospective employee to take a “stress test” might provide valuable information to an employer, he says it also raises legal and practical concerns. Employers should be asking themselves a number of questions such, he says, whether the test is necessary. Do the questions require disclosure of protected information? Has the reason for the test and the use of the candidate’s personal information been explained? Can the candidate refuse?

Harwood-Jones agrees that a candidate’s ability to handle stress could be a critical success factor and if a decision is made to apply this type of assessment, he suggests employers need to ensure their stress assessment tool is validated and reliable. In other words, developing your own unique stress test based on work related scenarios could actually end up being discriminatory and could tread on legally protected grounds especially if it causes personal and private medical information to be disclosed.

One of the common recruitment strategies, the so-called “stress interview” might just be a case in point. Here, a recruiter deliberately creates a situation where the candidate is forced to handle some sort of pressure or adverse situation. In other words, the recruiter tries to destabilize the candidate. One method is for the recruiter to ask intimidating “off-putting” questions such as “If you were an animal, which animal would you be?” or “How do you like me so far?” These types of unexpected questions throw people off balance and are frankly unfair since they have nothing to do with the job in question.

As well, some recruiters require candidates to engage in a time-based task that puts the candidate under a lot of pressure with no forewarning. Typically, these types of tactics include a work-related case study where there is no right or wrong answer and where the task is timed. Often, the candidate is not informed as to how the assignment would be judged. Knowing how he or she would be assessed would have been helpful as the candidate plans their approach to the assignment. Typically, the final review of the product includes things like assessing proper spelling and sentence structure, determining the apparent skill at analysis and an evaluation of problem-solving skills. Still, not very scientific or reliable.

Another means of stress testing is the popular use of behavioural interviewing. This well-researched approach requires a candidate to give real life examples of their work experience. Fortunately, research has shown this type of questioning is very accurate with respect to assessing candidates and avoids the risk of treading on legally protected grounds. This style of interviewing is well received in today’s human resource world but it does put stress on candidates to recall experiences and defend their skill sets through examples.

Thankfully, as recommended by Harwood-Jones, there are numerous, validated assessment tools that can be used to discover how a candidate will deal with stress. Most incorporate the issue of stress in amongst other issues such as emotional intelligence, personality traits, intelligence, aptitude, motives and motivation, skills, habits and instincts. There are also numerous psychometric assessment tools that are specifically tailored to different types of businesses and which can quickly assess candidate stress issues.

As Harwood-Jones stated earlier, validated assessment tools are the better tools to help understand a candidate’s ability to handle stress and prevent employers from stepping into a risky, discriminatory situation. Combining these tools with behavioural style interviews will provide the best results.

In summary, the issue of assessing candidate “stress” is twofold. First, employers need to carefully review the tools used to assess candidate stress to ensure they are reliable and validated and secondly, they need to apply their own “stress test” to assess their recruitment processes. This will ensure assessment tools and an effective process will protect the organization from risk and at the same time ensure agility in responding to changing environmental circumstances.

Source: New Stress test may moderate housing, push buyers to seek more affordable homes, BMO, Tara Deschamps, the Canadian Press, May 26, 2021. Reprinted from Winnipeg Free Press, June 5, 2021.