Saturday, May 10, 2014

WRIPAC's 35 Anniversary Meeting: Something old, something new, something borrowed, something to do

Over the last two days I had the pleasure of attending the Western Region Intergovernmental Personnel Assessment Council's (WRIPAC) 35th anniversary meeting in San Francisco.  I thought I would share with you some of my observations, as it's been a while, unfortunately, since I attended one of their events.

For the uninitiated, WRIPAC was founded in 1979 and is one of several regional associations in the United States devoted to personnel assessment and selection in the public sector.  Other examples include PTC-NC, PTC-SC, PTC/MW, and IPAC.  I have been involved with several of these organizations over the years and they provide a tremendous benefit to members and attendees, from networking to best practice to the latest research.

WRIPAC serves public agencies in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Oregon.  They have a somewhat unique membership model in that there is no membership fee and the meetings are free, but in order to become a member you have to attend two consecutive meetings.  They maintain their energy in large part through a commitment to their committees and providing excellent training opportunities.

So, about the 35th anniversary WRIPAC meeting, hosted by the City and County of San Francisco:

Something old:  One of my observations over the day-and-a-half meeting was the remarkable number of issues that seem to be the same, year after year.  For example:

* how to effectively screen large numbers of applicants
* how to handle increased workload with a reduced number of HR staff
* how to convince supervisors and managers to use valid assessment methods
* which assessment vendors provide the best products
* how to design selection systems that treat candidates fairly but don't unduly burden the agency

We also were treated to a retrospective by three previous WRIPAC presidents, which highlighted some really stark ways the workforce and the assessment environment has changed over the years.  This included everything from sexual harassment in the workplace being commonplace to agencies trying to figure out how to comply with the new (at the time) Uniform Guidelines.

Something new:  Dr. Scott Highhouse from Bowling Green State University presented results from several fascinating studies.

The first looked at "puzzle interview questions"--those bizarre questions like "Why are manhole covers round?" made famous by companies like Microsoft and Google.  Using a sample of participants from Amazon's Mechanical Turk (the first time I've heard this done for a psychological study), he was particularly interested in whether individual "dark side" traits such as machiavellianism and narcissism might explain why certain people prefer these types of questions.

Results?  First, men were more likely to endorse these types of items.  Why?  Well it may have to do with the second finding that respondents higher in narcissism and sadism were more likely to endorse these types of questions.  From what I can tell from my massive (ten minute) search of the internet, men are more likely to display both narcissism and sadism.  Maybe more importantly, the common denominator seemed to be callousness, as in being insensitive or cruel toward others.

So what does this mean?  Well I had two thoughts: one, if you like to ask these types of questions you might ask yourself WHY (because there's no evidence I know of to support using them).  Second, if you work with supervisors who show high levels of callousness, they might need additional support/nudging to use appropriate interview questions.  Looking forward to these results getting published.

The second study Dr. Highhouse described looked at worldviews and whether they impact beliefs about the usefulness of testing--in particular cognitive ability and personality tests.  This line of research basically is trying to discover why people refuse to entertain or use techniques that have proven to work (there's a separate line of study about doctors who refuse to use decision aids--it's all rather disturbing).

Anyway, in this study, also using participants from Mechanical Turk, the researchers found that individuals that had strong beliefs in free will (i.e., people have control of their choices and should take personal responsibility) were more open to using conscientiousness tests, and people with strong beliefs in scientific determinism (i.e., behavior stems from genetics and the environment) were more open to using cognitive ability tests.  This adds valuable insight to why certain supervisors may be resistant to using assessment methods that have a proven track record--they're not simply being illogical but it may be based on their fundamental beliefs about human behavior.

The last study he talked about looked at whether presenting people with evidence of test validity would change their related world views.  You wouldn't expect strong effects, but they did find a change.  Implication?  More support for educating test users about the strengths and weaknesses of various assessments--something we do routinely but for good reason!

Last but not least, Dr. Highhouse introduced a journal that will hopefully be coming out next year, titled Journal of Personnel Assessment and Decisions, that will be sponsored by IPAC and Bowling Green State University, that aside from the excellent subject matter, will have two key features: it will be free and open to everyone.  I'm very excited about this, and long-time readers will know I've railed for years about how difficult it is for people to access high-quality research.

Something borrowed:  one of the big benefits of being involved with professional organizations--particularly ones like WRIPAC that are practitioner-focused--is it gives you access to others facing similar challenges that have come up with great solutions.  There was a lot of information shared at the roundtable about a wide variety of topics, including:

- reasonable accommodation during the testing process (e.g., armless chairs for obese individuals)
- how to use automated pre-screening to narrow candidate pools
- how agencies will adjust to the new requirements in California related to criminal background information (i..e, "ban the box" and other similar legislation)
- how to efficiently assess out-of-state applicants (e.g., video interviewing, remote proctors)
- how and when to verify a drivers license if required for the job
- how to effectively use 360-degree evaluations
- how MQs (the subject of June's free PTC-NC meeting) should best be placed in the selection process
- cloud vs. on-premise IT solutions
- centralization vs. decentralization of HR functions
- use of item banks (e.g., WRIB, CODESP)

In addition, there was an excellent entire afternoon session devoted to succession and leadership planning that featured three speakers describing the outstanding programs they've managed to administer at their agencies.  I took a ton of information away from these and it came at exactly the right time as we're looking at implementing these exact same programs.

Something to do:  One of the main things I took away from this conference is how important it is to maintain your participation in professional associations.  It's so easy to get sucked into your daily fires and forgot how valuable it is, both personally and professionally, to meet with others and tackle our shared challenges.  I plan on sharing what I learned back in the office and upping my expectation that as HR professionals we need to be active in our professional community.  I encourage you to do the same!