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Hiring by computer

By Adam Gellar
Associated Press

The Pathmark supermarket in Edgewater, N.J., is hiring. But walk-in applicants need not bother asking for a manager.

First, they have to get past the computer.

"Join the Pathmark Team!" welcomes a screen built into a black and gray kiosk, tucked between the store's customer service counter and a display rack full of beach balls. "Right now, we're looking for people who think big and dream big -- people a lot like you."

New approach

The automated greeting, and screen after screen of multiple-choice questions that follow, are part of a new approach by some employers to filling their ranks of hourly workers.

A growing number of retail chains and similar businesses frustrated by near-constant employee turnover are entrusting the first step of the hiring process to computers, designed to zero in on applicants likely to do a job well -- and stay a while.
A growing number of employers with high turnover are ceding the first step of their hiring process to computers.

To do that, the computers gather not just names and Social Security numbers, but also work to size up an applicant's personality, and provide hiring managers with a list of questions for follow-up interviews.

Online screening systems used by companies like Pathmark issue reports on applicants almost immediately, grading them as green, yellow or red -- the last a warning of a potentially problematic hire.

One retailer, Houston-based crafts chain Garden Ridge, even has its screening system set to page store managers so they can catch choice applicants before they walk out the door and apply at a competitor.

Companies including The Sports Authority Inc., Blockbuster Inc. and the Golden Corral Corp. steakhouse chain have also adopted the online screening systems. Many companies using the systems have installed in-store terminals or telephones equipped with screens and keyboards especially for the purpose, while others direct people to apply on company websites.

"I think it's really going to take off because the technology for how people are screened is changing so quickly," said Donald M. Truxillo, a professor of industrial psychology at Oregon's Portland State University who studies the online systems.

"Our philosophy is to let the technology do the heavy lifting," said Richard Harding, director of research for Kenexa Corp., a Wayne, Pa., firm that designs and administers online assessment systems.

Online screening incorporates personality tests similar to the paper-and-pencil versions used by some employers as far back as the 1940s. But computers use the results much more systematically, letting managers instantly rank candidates or dip into the pool of applicants who have sought jobs at other stores in the same chain.

"You're able to prequalify people and focus really only on the people who look like they have the best chance of success," said Charles Handler, an industrial psychologist whose firm, Rocket-Hire, is a consultant to employers in choosing the systems.
Employers using computers to screen job applicants usually include multiple-choice personality tests designed to match a candidate's temperament to a position. Below are samples of questions included in some tests authored by Unicru Inc., which runs hiring systems for merchants including The Sports Authority and Blockbuster Inc.

Question: You'd rather blend into a crowd than stand out:
A. Strongly disagree
B. Disagree
C. Agree
D. Strongly agree

Question: Realistically, some of your projects will never be finished:
A. Strongly disagree
B. Disagree
C. Agree
D. Strongly agree

Answers: "There are actually no right or wrong answers to these questions," Unicru spokeswoman Kim Beasley said. The most desirable answer varies depending on the job the employer is looking to fill -- answers showing a person is outgoing and expressive, for example, might show they are highly qualified for a customer service position, but poorly suited for work in a stockroom.
-- AP

That's only the start for some employers. Some continue to use the systems after making a hire, feeding worker performance data -- like a clerk's sales commissions or the amount of time it takes for a waiter to "turn" a table -- into the computer. That data is then used to help fine tune questions and desired answers that can be used to screen future hires.

That helps employers "close the loop," said Kim Beasley, a spokeswoman for Unicru Inc., a Beaverton, Ore., firm that makes the screening systems used at more than 50 retail and restaurant chains including Pathmark Stores Inc. and Sports Authority.

"We partner with companies throughout the employee life cycle," Beasley said.

Online assessment could prove particularly valuable at big retailers and restaurant chains whose employee turnover rate runs as high as 200 per cent a year, experts say.

Such employers, almost constantly hiring, are looking for ways to predict which job candidates are less likely to leave once they're hired, and help them cut down on the cost of finding and training replacements.

"They just lose people about as fast as they can get them in the door," Harding said. "What it really comes down to is are you (the job applicant) going to stay there longer and produce more?"

Some employers say the system not only helps them settle on the right workers, but also reduce the time -- and money -- needed to find them.

Since Rock Bottom Restaurants Inc. began using a Unicru system in late 2002, turnover in its brewpubs has tailed off from about 110 per cent annually to 91 per cent.

The change may be partly due to the soft labour market, which has kept people from changing jobs, but some of it almost certainly due to hiring choices aided by the computer, said Ted Williams, senior vice-president of the brewery division at the Louisville, Colo. company.


Lowering turnover has an immediate impact on profits. Restaurants spend an average of $500 to $600 to hire and train a new employee. But the actual cost of a new worker is closer to $2,000 because they are less productive while they learn the business, Williams said.

The system has also saved managers time that takes them away from running their restaurants, he said. "If you can screen out at least the ones (candidates) you shouldn't be talking to, that is a huge get-ahead."

Finish Line Inc., an Indianapolis-based athletic footwear chain, has found online screening particularly useful because the computer spots gaps in work history and helps managers, many of them young and with little experience in hiring, structure their interviews.

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