Employee Selection and Workforce Diversity: Are Current Tools Up To The Task?

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This article is designed to inform HR and OD professionals on the appropriate use of selection tools. More specifically, this article addresses some of the issues that can potentially reduce validity of selection tools used on non-Caucasian applicants. Key points are discussed to help HR and OD professionals become better consumers of current selection tools.

Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Native Americans now constitute more than one-third of the U.S. population. By 2042, they are projected to make up nearly one-half of all Americans. Given these rapidly changing demographics—and consequently, the rapidly changing U.S. marketplace—many organizations are recognizing that workplace diversity is a business necessity. Creating and promoting a diverse workforce is particularly essential for industries where a significant number of employees deal face-to-face with prospective customers, because the latter are more likely to buy from people like themselves. So retail, financial, legal, insurance, hospitality and consumer goods businesses may want and need staff diversity. Yet existing selection tools may not be up to the task. Here’s why:

1. Job tests based on outdated material

In the context of legal defensibility and employee selection tools, the concept of “validation” simply refers to accumulated “evidence” showing that a given selection is, indeed, a good (or valid) predictor of job performance. Selection specialists (or those who design selection tests) typically gather validation evidence by correlating job applicants’ scores on a given selection test (e.g., on intelligence, job knowledge, values, personality) with their future job performance (predictive validation) or using incumbents (concurrent validation). If the resulting correlation is relatively high, the test is considered to be a valid predictor of job performance. Employment tests and other employee selection tools are judged on their “validation” strength, or the degree to which they can accurately predict future job performance. If there is a high correlation between an applicant’s score on a given selection test (e.g., testing intelligence, job knowledge, values or personality) and his/her future performance, the test is considered to be a good predictor.

One critical issue with the above approach is that the majority of the tests used in the U.S. today were validated primarily on a Caucasian pool. This means that while a given test may work well in predicting job performance for Caucasian job applicants, it may be biased, at a minimum, and in the worst case, invalid, when used with non-Caucasian applicants. There are proven differences between Caucasians and non-Caucasians in terms of values, management and leadership styles, and general work-related preferences, and selection tests that fail to recognize them may be unhelpful for predicting job performance, retention, and engagement of non-Caucasians.

2. Differences between Western and non-Western cultures

Intercultural academics have been able to label what many of us have already known; that there are cultural variations that can differentially impact one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in the workplace. In addition to the more commonly known “individualistic” and “collectivistic” cultural differences, employees in Western countries (e.g., U.S., Europe, Australia, New Zealand) generally prefer a more equal power distribution in the workplace, while employees from Asian countries (e.g., South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan) tend to be more accustomed to autocratic or paternalistic power relationships – or top-down authority. They also differ in assertiveness, preferred levels of uncertainty and short-term vs. long-term orientations, all of which may impact one’s job performance, satisfaction, and promotion opportunities. For example, while assertiveness is generally a desired trait in Western societies, it is much less so and even frowned upon in countries such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. If a selection test assumes assertiveness as a desirable trait, a Taiwan-born applicant, who may have been a top salesman in his country, may be knocked out of the selection process here.


3. Difference Among Non-Caucasians And Acculturation

In addition to the Western vs. non-Western distinction, selection tools should further take into account differences among non-Western cultures – e.g., Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Native Americans, differences between foreign- and US-born, and differences among nationalities within a racial or ethnic group – which include customs, values, work ethics, body language, and communication styles. Ethiopians are very different from South Africans; Costa Ricans from Bolivians; Japanese from Koreans. The point here is that these sub-groups vary greatly with respect to normative values that guide their behavior in the workplace.

People also vary with respect to their degree of acculturation and assimilation to the mainstream. Naturally, attitudes and values of those individuals who have resided in the U.S. for longer periods of time are likely to be more similar to the general American population. However, more recent immigrants are less likely to be so. Hence, if an organization’s business and diversity strategy dictates the inclusion of more recent immigrants, it is critical to understand that current selection tools used in the U.S. would be least applicable to recent immigrants from non-Western countries.

It is important to make one thing clear: I’m not suggesting that all selection tests must identify and include all unique cultural attributes in order to be useful – that would be impractical. Rather, one should simply consider the fact that the majority of the selection tests in use today are likely to hold less value when used on non-Western and non-Caucasian applicants.

So, what’s the answer? There is no one simple solution. It depends on an organization’s industry, strategy, mission and priorities as well as its customer demographics. If the goal is to sell to new immigrants, one should select applicants whose views closely mirror that of one’s prospective customers. If the future American market place—in which the current minorities add up to almost a majority—is at all a consideration, our current employment selection tools need to be revised to reflect both the common as well as those unique cultural attributes that can play out in the work setting. For current and future generations of immigrant workers—whose primary identification is with a non-Western culture—a new measurement approach should lead to a more meaningful (and valid) performance prediction—one that addresses those attributes valued by their culture.

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