short answer Sunday — 7 short answers to 7 short questions

It’s short answer Sunday — seven short answers to seven short questions. Here we go…

1. Discrimination in health care benefits?

I recently applied for a job, and received a tentative offer after several rounds of interviews. During a discussion with the head of human resources, I asked for a copy of the company’s benefits. I was very surprised to see a huge discrepancy between the premiums for a single employee versus an employee with a family. The premium for an employee wishing to gain coverage for herself and her family was slightly more than 18 times time higher than for a single employee.

I am wondering if this policy would be considered discriminatory, or if this is a common practice.

Well, family coverage does cost significantly more than single coverage. It sounds like there’s a good chance that the explanation here is that the employer is covering the same dollar amount of the premium regardless of which plans employees have. For instance, let’s say that the total cost of the premium (combining the employer and employee’s contribution) is $410 for single people and $1400 for families. If the employer pays $350 toward whatever plan you get, that leaves person with single coverage paying $60 and people with family coverage paying $1050 … about 18 times more than people on the single plan. That’s a big difference, but is it discriminatory? The employer is paying the exact same amount for each, so I’d say no, it’s actually pretty fair.

2. When an employers asks for a letter of introduction rather than a cover letter

I just came across a term in a job application with which I am completely unfamiliar. This application is asking me to upload a “Letter of Introduction” but says nothing about a cover letter. A quick Google search later, and I found a questionable forum post that describes letters of introduction as follows:

“A letter of Introduction is a letter written by a person of standing that introduces you to the future employer. It can be written by a person in any profession, For example you can have a professor, a teacher, a doctor, an office worker to write a letter of introduction for you, all they really have to write is that they know you are a person of upstanding character and that they are willing to recommend you to the employer.”

Is this true, and is it thus necessary for me to ask a reference for a letter of introduction? Or are cover letters and letters of introduction actually the same thing?

The page you found is describing something different than what’s intended here. The employer you’re applying to almost certainly means a normal cover letter (in which you introduce yourself to them, so hence their weird term).

3. Did this recruiter lie to me?

A recruiter reached out to me about a job at a major brand. I was interested and thought it wouldn’t hurt to go on the interview. I thought she would screen me, but once i arrived, they had me fill out paperwork and sent me off to their client (the aforementioned major brand) for the position that she reached out to me about before. The only thing is, when I got there, the name of the woman who I spoke with wanted to interview me for another position, which has me thinking that the recruiter didn’t disclose the actual information because she didn’t want me to find the position myself online. I am very much turned off by the lie, and am worried that if I were to like this place (which I think I will), then the agency wouldn’t want me to get hired full-time. I have already accepted the job offer from the client, but am really starting to get cold feet about the agency. I guess my question is–is it worth staying on with a dishonest agency and sticking it out to work for an amazing company? Should I reach out to my future employer at the company and tell her I’m concerned about the agency and its practices?

I don’t think you have reason to conclude that the recruiter lied to you. It’s completely feasible that the client simply decided to interview you for a position that they thought you’d be a better fit for. Absent some further evidence that the recruiter was lying, I’d just move forward and assume this was all above-board.

4. Can I ask for an interview that I previously turned down?

I’m so mad at myself for turning down an interview after my husband talked me out of it. Now i regret it. Does it look bad to tell them i would like to interview? Will i look unstable or flaky? I really would love this job. I had told them I couldn’t do the job because of my husband’s traveling and the kids’ activities, but i think i could work something out with carpools, etc.

You don’t have anything to lose by reaching back out to them, but unfortunately you’ll need to be prepared for them to pass — or to have a lot of questions about your ability to reliably do the job, given the concerns that you raised initially. Basically, if you share with an interviewer that you have concerns about your ability to reliably show up for a job, and then you later change your mind, assume that those concerns are going to remain very much on their mind … so while it can’t hurt to reach back out to them, realize that some damage might have been done here. (But more importantly, it sounds like you and your husband might need to get on the same page about these issues before you’re talking with employers.)

5. Why don’t employers do more skills testing?

Why don’t companies do more skill testing as part of the hiring process? I have come across this only rarely in my current job search. Implementing something like an timed skill test (either online or in person) would seem to be a cheap and effective way to separate the wheat from the chaff. As it stands my gut feeling is that the job search is too subjective on both ends. In interviews I feel like I have to persuade hiring managers that I truly do possess a given skill. Wouldn’t it be more effective if applicants could simply prove it to them before they get to that point? Maybe there is something I’m overlooking.

Yes, employers should absolutely do more testing and job simulations before hiring people. It’s crazy to hire someone without actually seeing them do the work they’d be doing on the job. My co-author is fond of pointing out that a football coach holding try-outs wouldn’t ask players if they could tackle; he’d ask to see them do it. It’s the same thing here: You need to find ways to see people do the work if you want to minimize bad hires. For instance, if you’re hiring a communications director, you should see them write a press release and do a mock interview. If you’re hiring an admin who will be managing busy calendars, you should give them a timed calendaring exercise. If you’re hiring a financial person, you should have them look at financial statements and explain them to you in layperson’s terms. And so forth — whatever the work would be, see the person in action.

6. What to expect from a second interview

I finally have my first second interview (all thinks to your wonderful blog and my newly acquired awesome cover letter writing and interviewing skills). I’m a recent grad and have had several unsuccessful phone interviews, and have finally nailed my first second interview. I’ve never had a second interview before and I really have no idea what to expect. On my phone interview, we went over the basics: why I want to work for the organization, why I want the position, my background and how it would help me in the position, my skills, and my experiences abroad (it’s an international organization). I pretty much went through all of the questions I had prepared answers for already (except for my weaknesses). Other than meeting the rest of the department (it’s small, only 4 people), and going over with them about my skills and background, I have no idea what to expect and am totally at a loss on how I should prepare myself. It’s an administrative type of position, so doing a lot of data entry, mailings, contacting people and coordinating projects with other coworkers across the country. Any advice would me much appreciated!

Second interviews are generally just more in-depth conversations. More probing into your background and past experiences, more discussion of the job, etc. I’d plan for lots of behavioral questions (“tell me about a time when…”), since whether or not you end up getting them, the preparation will have helped you a lot), and I’d do all the stuff I recommend in my job interview preparation guide.

7. Is this a bad sign?

I recently applied for a position at a large company. I had a phone screen with somene, then a phone interview with a Team Leader, and then an in-person interview with a panel of managers. For the panel interview, I had to prepare a presentation about myself and why I would be a good fit for the firm. That part went very well, but the questions that came after were tough. I left feeling that I did not do well.

However, the next morning they asked me to come in for another round of interviews. I was pleasantly surprised. So I scheduled it.

But then the morning after that, they said they are making the interview a phone interview instead, with someone from HR. What does that mean? Is that a bad sign? Why would they backtrack? I’m concerned at what’s going on.

You can’t really read anything into it. It could be as simple as that they realized that they stuff they wanted to cover with you could be covered by the HR person, so they’re having her handle it. Or who knows — there are tons of other possible explanations too, including some that we’d never be able to guess. As with everything involving job searching, try not to try to interpret things that you don’t have enough information to interpret and just take it at face value. You’ll know soon enough how it plays out. Good luck!

{ 78 comments… read them below }

  1. Chocolate Teapot

    Question 3 – I once had a recruiter send me for an interview to a company which sounded like a good position for me, and a job which would be a good progression role. I turned up for the interview, questions at the ready and instead was interviewed for a completely different position because “from your CV, we thought that you would be better for the role of Chocolate Teapot Administrator rather than that of Chocolate Coffee Pot Operative”.

    I asked for a new job description and was told one would be forthcoming. The recruiter was equally confused when I reported back since they had no idea about the Chocolate Coffee Pot role.

    When following up with the interviewing company, they told me that there would be no job description, since I seemed surprised during the interview that I wasn’t being interviewed for the Chocolate Teapot Administrator position, so therefore I was unsuitable for the job.

    In this case, it wasn’t the recruiter lying, but rather the client being unclear.

    1. Victoria HR

      Yes, most of the time I’d say it’s the client misrepresenting the position to the agency, not the agency being sneaky.

      Probably in your case, Chocolate Teapot, the client was trying to get away with having the agency do the recruiting for 2 of their positions, but only paying for 1. I.e. “please recruit for a project manager for us,” and then taking half of the applicants and interviewing them for an admin role, getting their contact info off the record, and hiring them off-book so that the agency doesn’t get their fee.

  2. Construction HR

    #1 YMMV but in order to be considered a “Company Plan” the employer has to cover at least 50% of the employee only cost. There is no requirement for the company to defray any of the upgraded costs (+spouse, +children, Family, dental, vision, etc.). So yes, the difference can be substantial.

    1. Michelle

      Hi #6,
      I once had a great interview for a job I really wanted. The interviewer told me I’d need to come for a second interview and that she’d pass on what she’d learned about me to the other interviewer. I had no clue what to do in a second interview, so just dressed appropriately and showed up on my best behavivior, thinking the focus would be on final details/decisions.

      The 2nd interviewer didn’t know a thing about me and it really threw me that she was asking for all the beginning info again. The whole tone of the interview was awkward and I didn’t do well.

      Now if I get a 2nd interview for any type of job, I prepare as thoroughly as possible and treat it as though it was my *only* interview (until I get there and find out the facts).

      Good luck OP.

      1. Victoria HR

        Yep, always treat any interview like it’s your first time having anything to do with the company. Bring fresh copies of your resume/references and so on.

  3. MW

    Re. #2–That’s often a public sector K-12 education term. Every ed job I’ve seen in that category has called for “letter of introduction,” not “cover letter.” So it may also be industry- or field-specific.

    1. A teacher

      Sometimes. I’m a high school teacher in a K-12 district and all of our job postings ask for a cover letter not the letter of introduction.

  4. books

    Re #1 most companies are like this with benefits for families/partners. Occasionally you’ll see comparable costs, but to the employer it’s a pretty raw deal to provide benefits so good you will accrue everyone”s spouses.

    1. class factotum

      I always thought that single employees got the raw end of the deal at a company that paid 100% of all the premiums. Not that it’s bad to have your premiums covered, but those who took dependent coverage essentially got paid more than those with single coverage. I thought it would be more fair to allow the same amount for benefits per employee and let the employee decide how it’s spent.

      As far as picking up everyone’s spouses – my husband’s company requires a $100 a month penalty to add a spouse who is eligible for insurance from her own employer. If the spouse is unemployed, there is no penalty.

      I think it’s a fair system and I wish my local county and city government would impose the same penalty so my taxes wouldn’t be paying for a bunch of spouses to have $100 deductibles on the government plan when they could have insurance through their own jobs.

      1. Adam V

        My wife’s company had a line in their benefits section that basically stated “employed spouses who are eligible for insurance coverage through their employer are ineligible for our insurance coverage”. There was an “Employee + Children” (excluding spouse) coverage level for employees whose spouse was employed elsewhere.

    2. Josh S

      There’s also the consideration that Employee + Family covers spouses and kids, who, statistically speaking, cost more than single people. (Yes, this is generalizing, but so is insurance. Neither I nor the insurance company know if Employee A will incur $xx in cost for a year, but given 100 people who are similar to Employee A, 5 of them will incur at least $xx in cost.)

      Having a spouse gives a higher probability that someone will get pregnant, which is an expensive proposition between prenatal care/screenings and labor/delivery/newborn care. All of which raises the costs that the insurance company is insuring against.

      Having kids on the medical plan is expensive. Kids are more likely to need regular checkups/vaccinations/sick visits; young drivers are more likely to need emergency care, etc. There’s a LOT of medical expense in that demographic.

      So as far as the insurance company is concerned, it might cost (on average) about 18x more to cover Employee + Family.

      My guess is that it is probably a combination of higher costs associated with people who have Employee + Family coverage, along with a company that is covering less of the premium for the non-employee insureds.

      Not discriminatory. At least not illegally discriminatory. It’s just discrimination based on actuarial tables and group risk rates. (Hooray math!)

      1. fposte

        Yes, I think it’s useful to remember that discrimination is perfectly legal, except in a few specific instances. This isn’t one of them.

  5. Sascha

    #1 – That has been the norm at every place I have worked, as well as my friends and family. I consider it normal across the board. Some of my friends who have two or more children, and where both parents work, will split the kids across the plans so it will be less out-of-pocket.

    1. Anonymous

      My workplace has three prices: single, couple, family. A family with one kid will pay the same as a family with five kids.

      1. Andrea

        I think it’s pretty fair, as long as there is an option for couple, instead of just “single” and “family.” My husband’s plan is through his employer and covers me, too, but we shouldn’t have to lay as much as families with kids.

      2. Sam

        My company’s health plan is similar – single, couple, family of any size. One of my co-workers is a single mother with one child and she often complains about paying the same rate as another co-worker who is married with six kids.

        1. Jamie

          But everyone is still paying less than their full premium though.

          So while people with larger families ‘get a better deal’ so to speak then a single person or couple – everyone is still paying less than if the employer didn’t pick up the lion’s share.

          It would be like the employer selling everyone a brand new car for $20. The people who bought a new Ford for $20 are going to be pissed they didn’t get the new BMW for $20 and that it’s not fair…but in reality the employer was saving everyone loads of money – just some more than others.

          Just like people who have or are covering those who have chronic health problems are getting a better deal out of the insurance coverage than someone like me who goes maybe once every few years for a flu shot. They are saving more money, but that’s the point of spreading out the costs over a pool of people.

          Although yes, I understand human nature and would be pissy if I were in the Ford group if there were X5s being given away for the same price.

          1. Sam

            “But everyone is still paying less than their full premium though.”

            Yep, that’s the consolation. Though it can be a bitter pill to swallow when the company decides to cut COLA to avoid raising any healthcare premiums. Employees with large families are overjoyed, while those who decline the health plan or are single get the short stick. (For me, the lower health premiums are a better value than the COLA would have been. Not everyone is in my position, however, and I can see why some think this whole thing is unfair.)

            1. Jamie

              I see what they are saying, too.

              I used to think that since I don’t need benefits from my company (I have them through my husband) that more money in lieu of benefits would be fair. Less than what they’d pay to cover me – win/win.

              Now that I’m older and more cynical (I mean wiser) I do understand. I could apply for benefits at any enrollment and pay cuts in these kinds of instances are sticky. Even if people agree to them upfront they can get weird.

              So I get why businesses don’t do them – but I understanding wishing there would be a “thank you for not making your healthcare our problem” stipend.

      3. AgilePhalanges

        My workplace pays the entire premium for employee-only coverage, which is obviously very nice of them, and they also pay a decent amount on dependent coverage, but of course if you compare, it’s infinitely higher than zero. :-)

        I have always thought it strange that family plans don’t discriminate (there’s that word again!) based on number of kids. Surely one child is cheaper to the insurance company than a dozen, yet the coverage costs the same. As the parent of only one child, I am a little miffed, but oh well. I’ve solved that problem in my own life–my kiddo is added to my ex’s wife’s plan at no extra expense beyond having their other child insured, and I have employee-only coverage. Win-win.

        1. Jamie

          Yes, but your poor colleagues with a dozen kids will never again see disposable income or a decent night’s sleep again…so let them have their lower rates. :)

          J/k – I’m sure plenty of people with dozens of children have lots of money and are well rested. Stereotype was merely meant to be illustrative and a lame attempt at humor.

  6. Not So NewReader

    OP#5. I saw what happened to one Major Company. They had a skills test for technicians. Sounds reasonable, right? The test centered on X which had nothing to do with Y that the techs were actually doing in the field. The company forgot to check to see if the test was relevant to the work. It might have been relevant when testing was first implemented but the technology changes very fast.

    Time passed. Major Company got taken to court for discriminatory testing procedures. Somehow, the company lost the case in court and had to pay fines, get rid of the testing and so on.

    Punchline. These tests can be very spendy. First, creating the test that will stand up in a court of law involves an army of people. Then you need to implement the program- this means getting tools and procedures in order so the test is standardized and every applicant takes the very same test. You also need someone to over see the testing. And lastly, you need an accurate reporting system so that you can demonstrate fairness and show you remained compliant with the law.

    Some employers would rather just make their best guess.

    Retailers have integrity tests. It reminds me of the honesty tests back in the 80s. I am not sure how these tests help the employer.

    1. K

      At least in the U.S., there may be some very specific circumstances where a company could get into trouble for a discriminatory test, but those are going to be very specific (e.g, a test for police officers ends up favoring all the white applicants over black ones). By and large, companies are under no legal obligation to be “fair” in their hiring practices, including testing current skills. It’s not really any different than asking irrelevant interview questions, which we all know happens all the time and also doesn’t expose employers to legal liability except under specific circumstances (e.g, asking women if they’re about to get pregnant).

      1. Sara

        There are actually fairly stringent professional standards for creating employment tests supported by a myriad of case law through the US Supreme Court level. Not So New Reader is correct in that it takes an army to create an exam because it is necessary to validate the exam with respect to the job opening and ensure there will either be no adverse impact against a protected class or, if there is adverse impact, provide evidence that the exam is job-related and there is no other way to assess the knowledge, skill, or ability that is free from adverse impact or at least has less adverse impact. Additionally, creating exams takes considerable work to ensure they appropriately discriminate between people who would be competent in the job and those who wouldn’t, and a fair amount of analysis is necessary to determine how the scores should be interpreted. There are many companies that sell off the shelf tests, but even they require validation studies prior to implementation. In large companies, it is typically cost-effective to use tests in the hiring process, but the several thousand dollars and more that they can cost tends to be prohibitive for small ones.

        1. Jamie

          Aside from formalized testing you can still test for certain positions. When I was last hired DBA and SQL was a big element so I was asked to run queries and write various select statements off a dummy database. Easy – I was happy to show them – I can’t imagine for the life of me how asking me to show proficiency at a required task could be construed by any court as discriminatory. It would only discriminate against people who couldn’t do it.

          The same for basic Word, Excel, etc. for admin jobs. Too many people think expert at Excel means being able to sum a column. Basic means once seen it and summing would be challenging – to some people. There are tons of proficiency tests out of the box for Office.

          So are you all talking about testing beyond that? Which delves into psychological things or something?

          1. twentymilehike

            Jamie … spot on. I was happy to show them

            I recently phone interviewed (cross your fingers … my in-person is this afternoon!), and I was asked how well I knew Excel, and if I have worked with Macros. I wasn’t “tested” so to speak, but we had enough of a converstion that I think it was pretty clear that I knew what I was doing. Sometimes, “testing” and “replicating work” can be much simpler and informal than a testing procedure that often people often think of when this comes up. Sometimes you can really guage what a person knows just by having an in-depth discussion, and IMO, I would expect it may vary person-to-person, and of course depending on the job. And sometimes, people just don’t jive well with each other … and even if they pass the “test” you might just not want to work with that person because you don’t get along, or find them annoying, or whatever …

            1. Jamie

              Good luck – I’ll keep all my fingers crossed for you – my favorite fraudulent Canadian! Just make sure to keep pretending you’re American and you’ll do just fine.

              I agree – if both people know the subject well it’s easier to tell if someone is the real deal – but for some tech things I guarantee you I could (but wouldn’t) BS non tech people by knowing something in theory.

              In my world practice is a million miles from theory…if theory was all you needed to know something I’d be working like a magician. It’s the darn real life application that throw reality in the path so I trip all over it.

              What is kind of ironic is that some of the hardest things to test for are the most important things you should hire for because they can’t be taught.

              I can teach an application – but I can’t teach you the soft skills to navigate the political side of things…but that’s harder to test for. Hey – go into this room with these three proven PITAs and if you don’t smack anyone you get the job.

              Hey – that would be a good test.

              But back to Office – I’ve spent too much time training people who claimed proficiency with Excel how to expand a column (because the numbers disappear! (hash marks – sigh), copy formatting, even printing labels by people who claim to be experts in Word to not sit them in front of a computer for some show in addition to the tell.

              And to whomever mentioned upthread about the official tests docking if you use keyboard navigation and not the mouse or menu – YES! I hate that!! There is more than one way to get things done and it seems they reward the menu option which is the longest way around.

              Rant over – good luck today!

              1. AgilePhalanges

                Oh, I definitely hate the Excel (or other application) tests that only allow for one way to do things. I nearly flunked an Excel test once for that reason. I have an amalgam of methods. Some things I use the keyboard shortcuts, others I use the right-click menu, others I use the menu/ribbon at the top, and some things I’ll use a couple different ways, depending on what other tasks I’m doing along with them. I think that those sorts of tests need to focus only on whether you arrived at the end result they were looking for, instead of being locked into a certain method.

                My other peeve is typing tests that if you miss or duplicate a character (which is easier to do on some keyboards), every character after that is counted as an error as well, and even worse when the typing test doesn’t allow you to backspace, so you have to spend a few seconds figuring out where you need to pick up again in order to reset to not be making mistakes, except that it doesn’t really matter because that last 50 characters you typed are EACH going to count as an error. Seriously, typing “The quick bron fox jumps over the lazy dog.” IS an error, but shouldn’t count as thirty errors.

                1. twentymilehike

                  Sorry for the late response, but …

                  my favorite fraudulent Canadian! Just make sure to keep pretending you’re American and you’ll do just fine.

                  1st .. Jamie, you may be amused to hear that I send off my application for naturalization at the beginning of the year :)

                  2nd … isn’t funny that you think you’re an expert in Office until you learn something new and then realize you’re not? Exactly why I hate those “rate your expertise in” number scales on job apps. Arg.

                  And 3rd … AgilePhalanges, OMG are you referring to SAM? Because ARG. I love me some short-cut keys .. ones that SAM doesn’t want you to use.

                2. AgilePhalanges

                  It was twelve years ago, so I don’t remember the exact test(s) I took, but I still remember the frustration. Sounds like more than a few of us in this thread felt the same way. :-)

                3. Jamie

                  If it were me I’d be biased in favor of the person who tanked the test because of short cut keys and was able to tell me that was why the test sucked than s0meone who aced it via menu only. You can do that without ever having used it.

                  Regarding expert level – I totally understand because once you realize how much these programs really can do you realize you will never be an expert. Like our brains we only use a small percentage of Office and if we could harness the whole shebang, look out…total. world. domination.

                  Again, this is just me but this is how I see it – expert means you can use the program to do what you have to do. IOW you won’t have the whole app mapped out in your head – however do you know all the basic and some advanced stuff and most importantly can you figure it out. If I ask you to make a pivot table and your answer is not “what’s a pivot table?” and if you didn’t your go to would be the help files or google for instructions you’d be way ahead of the game.

                  The thing about Office is there is SO much out there in terms of help, both the official help files and billions of really good instructional sites. So if you’re asked to do something you can’t do off the top of your head just be able to tell how you would get the information.

                4. twentymilehike

                  In response to Jamie just above …

                  So if you’re asked to do something you can’t do off the top of your head just be able to tell how you would get the information.

                  So. True. Just being able to figure things out without hand-holding is a valued skill!

                  BTW, my interview went very well, and I should hopefully hear one way or the other by the end of the week. Thank you guys for the well wishes :)

                5. Jamie

                  So. True. Just being able to figure things out without hand-holding is a valued skill!

                  I’d argue that for many jobs its the most valued skill.

              2. Chinook

                I have to add to that bit about being able to BS about a topic doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to use it. I have the opposite problem in both work and real life. For example, at the hardware store, when I ask for help looking for a particular tool. I often get strange looks from the older men behind the counter. Hey – just cuz I don’t know what to call that wrench-like contraption for plastic plumbing pipes, doesn’t mean I don’t know how to use it. That is what happens when you are self-taught.

        2. K

          This is true if you’re a large company using standardized tests but I don’t think that’s the kind of situation that Allyson means when she’s talking about skills testing, and I don’t think the case law involving those types of tests is particularly applicable to asking someone to simulate a job function. And something like asking someone to perform something on an out-of-date piece of software is unlikely to run afoul of that law despite being irrelevant (and stupid) for you to do.

          1. K

            (I tried to link to an EEOC fact sheet but that comment is in moderation. Basically – if you’re using tests that both aren’t relevant to job functions and have a disparate impact on a protected group, such as women or people of color, you’re in trouble. But the type of simulation things we’re talking about are unlikely to get anyone in trouble unless they’re both blatantly outside the job AND unfair. So, for instance, asking applicants to lift 70 pounds when the job only requires lifting 15 pounds, which is going to systematically exclude more women.)

          2. Sara

            Skills testing is covered by the same standards. It is necessary to show that the skills you’re testing are essential for satisfactory performance on the job. It’s usually not a problem to do some kind of informal testing that mimics the work performed on the job. However, in the example above, if the employee will never be required to sum a column in Excel, or could achieve the same result in a different manner, testing that particular skill could be found illegal if it discriminates against a protected class. Otherwise there would need to be evidence that summing a column implies competency in something else that is required on the job. Of course small companies are exempt from this as long as they have fewer employees than required for coverage under applicable laws (e.g., Title VII and ADA).

            1. K

              And realistically speaking, for any organization small enough that they’re not doing this all the time for a lot of applicants, it’s going to be extremely hard to demonstrate disparate impact on a facially neutral test.

              I mean, I’m not arguing that there’s no legal exposure; there’s always some legal risk to everything. Just that the legal risk that exists for most companies in most circumstances is often overstated (and the costs of making a bad hire because you didn’t do it understated). For whatever it’s worth, I feel the same about employers who insist on asking every interviewee precisely the same questions.

              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                Yes to everything K has said here. It does not take an army to create a legally sound test; it takes a manager who knows how to test for the work the person would be doing on the job.

                The attitude that anything that could possibly create legal risk requires vetting by an army of lawyers before it can proceed is incredibly problematic in the workplace, and not in the least helpful to managers trying to get their jobs done. The risks of this stuff are way overstated, and someone’s desire to mitigate all possible legal risk is usually trumped by the need to, you know, run the business effectively.

  7. FreeThinkerTX

    @AAM and readers, regarding #5, Skills Testing: How would a company go about doing this for high-level B2B Sales? I’ve been asked to give a 30-second “elevator pitch” about anything (previous products, hobby, whatever); been told to “sell” the interviewer on his pen; and been asked to “sell” the interviewer on the most recent book I’d read.

    *None* of those had anything to do with what my actual job would look like [researching prospects in a territory; cold-calling C-level execs; having detailed, complex conversations in which I try to determine if my product/service would be a good fit (i.e., solve a business issue); visiting a prospect’s company and interviewing the various stakeholders; working with my engineers to “tweak” the product to meet the prospect’s needs; crafting a proposal, etc.]

    What would be a good way for all of that to be tested/replicated in an interview setting?

    1. ME

      We seem to work in similar fields, or at least I also handle complicated products and work with engineers. I don’t have an answer. I can say that the last 2 times we hired, I made Excel tests and reading comprehension – of something technical and complicated you can’t really understand unless you live and breath the content – part of the interview. Those weeded out quite a few people. Some people got defensive or said “I don’t know” when I asked questions about the reading. The ones I wanted realized I wasn’t trying to trip them up, and were good at communicating what they did understand, and draw the boundaries at where their understanding lessened, or even better, questioned me on the reading when I walked back in the room.

  8. CAD girl

    #5 that works all the way down the line! We get temps that don’t even know how to read a tape measure… I agree with you, I work with autoCAD and while I have never seen a company I work with get burned by this, I have also never had my skills put to the test until training. It’s highly disappointing.

  9. moe

    #1: Discrimination is that there are still companies out there niggling over what sex their employees settle down with before deciding to give benefits at all. What you describe is simply recognition of the fact that families cost more to insure than one person.

  10. De Minimis

    #1—One thing I have seen that more companies should do [and I really wish my employer would do] is to have a “self and spouse” category that is separate from “self and family.” There is usually a big difference in cost between covering two adult people and an entire family, but a lot of employers will make couples without children pay the same rate as those with a passel o’kids.

    1. Construction HR

      Roughly, Employee+Spouse and Employee+children are twice employee only; Employee+family is ~3x employee only. Not sure I see any wisdom of not offering Employee+Spouse plan

    2. Rana

      Some insurers don’t break it down that far, unfortunately.

      We self-insure, so the situation’s different, but our only options were “individual” and “family.” (So the couple with five kids would be getting a deal relative to a childless couple.)

      1. the gold digger

        Actually, it’s the company’s decision, or it was when I was working for a health insurance company. The insurer doesn’t care. It’s just a matter of making the math adjustments to them.

  11. Janet

    In regards to #5, I’ve found that skill testing is common up to a certain experience level. I work in PR and for my first few jobs, I expected that I’d have a writing test, copy-editing test and would have to go through a few scenarios during the interview process. However, at this point in my career (15 years since graduation) I’d be kind of insulted if someone wanted me to write a press release. Especially for a Director position. I have a whole portfolio of writing samples they can view at this level of the game. Usually after a certain level, people have to do a presentation of some sort. So I guess I’m not opposed to skill testing but it certainly needs to match the level of the job.

  12. PuppyKat

    Regarding #5 Skills testing

    I joined a university about a year ago after having spent most of my career at other types of not-for-profits. I’m about to advertise for the first open position on my staff since I was hired. And was astonished to find out that I’m prohibited from having any candidates demonstrate their skills! Apparently the university is worried about liability claims.

    I’m going to be interviewing for a highly-skilled position. So I’m trying to come up with something that will comply with this policy while still getting the verification I need about candidates’ levels of expertise—but at this point I may have to make a decision based on their words.

    Considering what it takes to get someone terminated around here, I think the consequences of a bad hire far outweigh defending a possible liability claim. But apparently I’m not going to get any say in that matter. Very frustrating!

    1. Chriama

      That’s really unfortunate! I work part time in hr at my school and they include testing as part of the interview process. It really is a test, too. They put you in a room with a computer and no internet or network access and give you an assignment. Mind you it does seem hard to get people fired here too, but at least the risk of a bad hire is lower.

      1. PuppyKat

        Reply to ME:

        I used to feel the same way—but there are definitely trade-offs. Yes, the bureaucracy is mind-numbing and irrational, and the hierarchy is very stratified. (I come from not-for-profits that had flatter organizational set-ups.) Plus the university I work at is apparently so terrified of lawsuits, I’m told it can take up to two years to get a non-performing employee terminated.
        On the other hand, the campus is gorgeous, the intellectual life is stimulating, and the benefits in this day and age are above average. At this point in my career, it’s the right place. So I’m very happy here!

  13. Lsmith

    Re: #5. I completely agree with skills testing, as I just read that interviewing only predicts approximately 14% of job performance reliably. As long as the skills testing isn’t a crazy ordeal. I talked with someone who demanded a whole workday of skills testing, in addition to the two required half day interviews. That’s ridiculous, unless you’re interviewing for a six figures job (which they were not). I am hopeful that in the next few years, employers will not be able to rule the world and will find a “skills shortage (their words, not everyone elses’)” so desperate that they will actually need to invest in their workers.

  14. ChristineH

    I agree that skills testing could cut down on bad hires, but I can also see the reasoning behind not doing them in certain instances. I don’t think it necessarily has to be anything formal; I like Alison’s examples of performing a specific task, as long as it’s based on something already completed so that there’s less chance a company will run with the end product and not credit the applicant if they’re not ultimately hired.

    Here’s a thought: I personally think that not only could skills testing reduce the chance of a bad hire, it could also benefit the applicant as well. When I interviewed for the last job I had, I felt fairly confident that I knew what I was doing. Not so much! Long story short, if they had perhaps tested me on a few dummy scenarios or quizzed me on the resources that I’d be providing callers, I’d seen that I wasn’t as well-versed as I’d thought, and I’d take steps to get up to speed for future, similar positions.

    1. Elizabeth West

      This. I’ve had tests where I didn’t do so well (mostly data entry–they value speed above all and I just can’t do it as fast as they would like). I’ve also had questions about skills like typing speed and then never ever had to type anything when actually on the job!

      But it’s nice to know what they are looking for because there are tons of ways to improve on skills, especially computer-based ones. Lots of free online tutorials and exercises at different levels.

      1. Jamie

        I can vouch for the official Microsoft training tutorials for Office.

        I used those before I went to the temp agency – many years ago – and tested in expert in everything except Access (which I got an advanced) and I had never used any of them before …but the tutorials are the basis for a lot of the tests agencies use.

        Oddly enough, I tested MUCH worse years later even though I was very proficient in real life since they dock you (at least the one I used) for using keyboard shortcuts and not the menu. Weird.

        But I really recommend those.

  15. Bryce

    To #5, one reason why skills testing is not as common is because of a Supreme Court Case Griggs v. Duke Power in which it was determined that pre-employment testing, particularly IQ and personality testing, could be construed as discriminatory. Therefore, employers need to be especially careful that any pre-employment tests be absolutely, positively related to the ability to do the job, and that minorities are not passing/failing in disproportionate numbers. So, to play it safe, many employers don’t even go there.

    That said, if you have gotten the appropriate clearances from the appropriate HR and legal people, it makes a lot of sense to include skills testing in interviews.

    As a matter of fact, I think that job interviews should have a lot of emphasis on skills testing and simulation, even much more so than the “typical” job interview questions, such as “tell me about yourself and your greatest strengths and weaknesses.” That’s because first, it’s a lot harder to “game” skills testing and simulation; second, because it gives you an idea of how candidates would perform under pressure, and finally because lots of people who would be great employees are not the best at traditional interviewing per se.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, I’m not recommending personality or IQ testing. I’m talking about finding ways to have the person simulate the actual work they’d be doing on the job.

  16. Nyxalinth

    #5 I was sent by a temp agency for a job that had seemed really easy on paper and that I seemed suited for, by both our assessments. apparently not though: the woman showing me the ropes decided that I was a slow learner and awkward on the phone. Um, you didn’t really give me more than two calls to try?

    I think the agency should have done more thorough testing and the potential employer needed to say “We need someone who can pick this up and be perfect in five minutes.” or at the very least “Hit the ground running.” I am not stupid and I learn quickly, but it wasn’t fast enough to suit. I had less than an hour to show what I could do.

    I know you can’t really test for “hit the ground running” or whatever, but I think they could have tested for the skillsets the employer wanted.

  17. Cassie

    #5: Given the amount of controversy over standardized testing in schools, I’m not surprised about there being controversy over skills testing for jobs (although it wasn’t something that had occurred to me).

    I know they have computerized Word and Excel tests that if you don’t use a specific method (let’s say using the mouse to click File, New), it counts as a wrong answer. And that would drive me crazy because when I want to start new documents, I use Ctrl-N. So it is important to really look at the skills test and check what they are testing and how they are doing so.

    I see nothing wrong with implementing some way to assess a candidate’s ability OR potential for a given position. When I went to an interview for a public relations assistant position, they handed me an event flyer and asked me to write a mock invitation letter. When our office was hiring a new executive assistant, they asked the final candidates to email a mock powerpoint presentation (although they asked this after the interviews).

    I don’t think a skills test should necessarily be the end all, be all – but it could be very useful. Or maybe not a skills test, per se, but e.g. asking for writing samples (if applicable) would work.

  18. Spreadsheet Monkey

    Re: #1 – I’ve always found it unfair (but not necessarily discriminatory) for companies to pay even partial premiums for spouses and/or children, as this number is part of the total compensation package. At one of my previous jobs the company gave each employee a set amount of money to “buy” coverage from various packages they offered (medical, dental, vision). Any amount you spent *over* the set amount was taken from your paycheck; any amount *under* the set amount was either added to your paycheck or put in your 401k (your choice). The issue was that people with family coverage were automatically given more money to spend on the benefits. At the next company I worked for, the company paid 100% of the coverage for the employee; spouses and/or children could be added, but paid for entirely by the employee. As a perpetual single, I preferred the 2nd approach.

  19. Mike C.

    A letter of introduction? Oh my! I hope you haven’t sullied your family’s name through youthful adventures in the colonies!

    I mean, really? I thought it was 2013.

  20. Elizabeth West

    #5 Testing:
    I hate when the computerized test only wants you to do the task one way. Not everyone does stuff in Office the same way; some people use keyboard commands, others like the mouse. If you learned from a tutorial or a class that showed you one procedure, you may not be aware of the other. It doesn’t mean you can’t do the task, just that your method is different.

    The job I’m up for now gave me a test very specific to the job itself. My last employer gave shop prospects a little math test: read a measuring tape, etc. that were things they would do at work. Lucky for me I didn’t have to take it! But it’s easier to make a decision if the job is right for you when you know what you’ll be doing.

    1. Jamie

      Ha – we do the measuring/math test as part of our hiring procedures for all personnel who will have measuring duties which affect QC. We’re all lucky that doesn’t include me – micrometers scare me.

      Funny story though – when we were ramping up for ISO and testing all current employees we had one guy who could eyeball a part within 1/64″. Not a typo – he can tell you the measurements of a part within one sixty-fourth of an inch. The testing guy thought it was a fluke so kept testing him – nope – he could do it all day long.

      I cannot even read the 1/64 mark on tape measure with my glasses on. Eyeballing it? To me everything is either 200 or 1500 feet. Everything. I was born without a sense of direction and no spatial awareness whatsoever.

      Seriously – 1/64th. That’s a superower.

  21. HR Pufnstuf

    Last year while searching for an accounting assistant we found applicants that could easily say they were familiar with excel and had great attention to detail, but it was our testing that really told the tale. The manager of the dept wrote up a small example of the tasks and it maybe took 20 minutes to take. Made all the the difference in the world with hiring the right candidate.

  22. KLP

    Re: 5. Why don’t employers do more skills testing?

    I completely disagree with the OP. I have interviewed at companies that required you to get a certain score doing computer/IQ tests and will eliminate you based on just your score. So if someone got a score of 29 and they requirement is 30, they get eliminated?

    There are people are are very intelligent but just bad test takers or didn’t go to a school that prepared them for standardized tests well. I’m led to believe that the OP has better test taking skills than interviewing skills. Otherwise, these tests must be eliminated.

    1. Jamie

      I don’t think anyone here was arguing for IQ testing, or those other kind of “aptitude” tests.

      I agree that those can be useless at best – unless the job is for professional test taker knowing how well you take tests isn’t all that relevant.

      But skill tests are different. If 25% of your job is to run queries/reports for people in SQL then it’s smart to mock up a dummy data base and have them pull some queries and run some select statements for you.

      It’s more of an audition in a way – can you do it or not?

  23. KLP

    1. Discrimination in health care benefits?

    I work for a health insurance company and the employer must follow a set of rules from insurers. For example, they must contribute to at least 75% of employee’s premiums depending on how large or small the company is. There are also other factors like tier ratings that affect how how range difference from a single vs. family coverage.

    Also, it sounds like the single rate must be high to start off with probably due to high medical claims which is what makes it seem like the family rate is so much higher, but in my experience, it is almost impossible that the family rate is 18 times higher.

    1. another manager

      I was going to pop in and say the same thing – our current provider has a clause that says the employer has to pay a certain percentage of the single and family plans. And no, 80% of the single policy and 80% of the family policy aren’t the same number, but in both cases the employee covers the same percentage of the cost. Maybe this is a self-insured employer where they can make up their own rules? That may explain why the family policy is so much higher. Ours tend to be about twice as expensive for families, but maybe that’s because it’s spread across a much larger pool.

      We’ve changed providers over the years – some offer employee only, employee + 1, then family plans, some offer employee and family plans only. It really depends on the insurance company involved.

      As for getting “more compensation” for getting family plan coverage vs. single… yikes! When did we all get so jealous of each other?

  24. Pamela

    #5. I was glad with this last interview I had that I was given a skills test for the necessary skills for the job, which happen to be IT Support for Windows 7 and Office 2010. The tests were multiple choice. It gave me an idea on what a person in the position would be dealing with on a regular basis and also what I need to brush up my skills on.

    Also, I was glad I could prove that I have the skills I list on my resume. Hopefully, I scored higher than the other applicants…lol.

  25. Ann

    For #5, I’m an admin and for nearly every interview I’ve been on, I’ve done skills tests, notably typing speed tests, Microsoft Office tests, and Lotus Notes tests. While I have always passed the tests (usually with 100% right answers), I hate the tests. The problem I’ve run across is the tests only have one “right” answer to a question that could be answered in numerous ways, and clicking on the “wrong” thing (even if it will lead to the answer they’re looking for) is considered a wrong answer. Since I’ve done them for recruiters and interviews so often, over the years I’ve discovered all the right answers and can pass them with ease. Of all the tests I’ve done, the best judge of my skills I’ve ever had is an employer that brought be in, and for an hour gave me sample tasks to complete (write a formal letter, a short speech, schedule a meeting, access this database). Sure, it may take a little more monitoring than an online test, but it gave them a real idea of my work and gave me a real idea of the work they would expect from me.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Exactly — that’s what I’d recommend too: real work tasks. Doesn’t matter if someone can type if they’re not smart/quick-thinking/able to figure out how to do things.

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