A PROACTIVE APPROACH TO THE PSYCHOLOGICAL TEST

A PROACTIVE APPROACH TO THE PSYCHOLOGICAL TEST

BY CAPTAIN BOB

You have been testing for three, five, or seven years to get a firefighter job, or you are testing for a promotional position in another department. You are finally in the hiring process. You`ve made it through the background check. Then, you`re conditionally offered the job pending the medical, which includes a psychological test. You take the test, no big deal right? Then the phone stops ringing. You are out of the process. You are told that you didn`t meet the profile. What profile?

“What do you mean I didn`t meet the profile? I`ve got training; experience; education; every degree, certificate, and merit badge; and paramedic certification. I`ve been a volunteer, a paid member of another department for 10 years. I`ve lived and breathed this job. And I don`t meet the profile?”

The Personnel Department won`t talk to you. You`re told the psychologist passed judgment. The psychologist won`t talk to you. You can`t see the results of the test. You are devastated!

The psychological test is changing the fire service. Sure, some folks have a lot of baggage and shouldn`t be hired. But most of the red-hots, the backbone of the fire service, can`t make it through the process. Surprisingly, the evaluations are based on the performance of those already in the fire service.

PSYCHOLOGIST TESTS MORE PREVALENT

More and more agencies are using the psychological test in the hiring process. Psychologists are competing for this lucrative business, and agencies feel the fire service must hire the right candidates. In one large department, 44 percent of candidates were eliminated from the hiring process through the psychological tests. Fire administrators feel their hands are tied and get frustrated when they see a high percentage of their superior candidates eliminated by their psychological test scores and then being hired by other agencies.

“Psychologists are given more power then they should [have],” says Robert Thomas Flint, Ph.D., of Concord, California, who sometimes reevaluates potential peace officers and firefighters who have failed psychological tests. Although he says that 40 to 50 percent of the original decisions were valid, he has found that about 30 to 50 percent of the rejected candidates are acceptable and can handle the job.

Dr. Flint feels that during the past 10 years, the Ph.D. has been “watered down” and that many of these new psychologists too often paint by the numbers and disqualify a person because he has an unusual background. These psychologists, he explains, do not have an adequate background in statistics and research to make them fully competent in using the tests with unusual populations. In other words, they are trained to identify problems in the general population but are less skilled in identifying the strengths in special groups such as firefighters. They also tend to have difficulty incorporating unusual backgrounds into their reports. But, doesn`t a higher percentage of candidates with a burning desire for this job fall into these categories?

DEPARTMENTS SHARE SOME OF THE BLAME

Many of the problems can be attributed to the agencies/cities themselves because they have no control over the guidelines the psychologists use. Left on their own, psychologists will use their own devices when deciding what to do. Their criteria may not always be best suited to the department`s needs. If the agency does not define the guidelines well, the psychologist might wash the candidate out for reasons not relevant to the job.

Fire administrators need to control the process by knowing which target they are trying to hit. They must determine the traits they are looking for and set those guidelines for the psychological test. Some obvious traits would be the ability to operate in a living environment, to resolve conflict, to follow instruction, and to function during emergencies. Also, if problems of discipline or any other current problems are occurring within the department, those areas of concern should be addressed in the psychological test.

LOOK BEYOND THE PAPER SCORE

According to Dr. Flint, too much emphasis is placed on the paper and pencil test. He feels strongly that unusual test scores should be evaluated in the light of the candidate`s history. Very young candidates (21 to 25 years old) often do not have enough history to refute problems suggested on the test. All candidates believe, of course, that they can handle the job, can meet any challenges, and will hold up well at emergencies. The psychologist`s job is to determine as closely as possible whether those beliefs are sound. To give someone the benefit of the doubt may be endangering them or others.

If a candidate can show that he has overcome the areas of conflict revealed in the written test and demonstrated in his early history, the test interpretation should reflect that fact. The paper score, not the candidate, should be thrown out.

Example:

A case in point was a candidate who had been a smoke jumper paramedic for the forest service. There is no doubt that this person could do the job. He scored high in the initiative category, but Dr. Flint wanted to make sure his score on the conformity scale was high enough to balance out his high initiative score. Otherwise, he might not be able to follow orders; he might want to do it his way.

This type of situation became apparent when problems were created when ambulance paramedics, who were not aware that they were burning out on ambulance duty, were switching to the fire service. There were serious problems, because the seasoned medics became discipline problems when they wanted to do things their way.

The most common psychological test used consists of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and a clinical interview. The MMPI test compares the candidate`s response with those of other firefighters and applicants. One of the three creators of the MMPI test believes that this test is not the best choice for testing peace officers or firefighters. Many doctors overinterpret an indication of emotional instability, or they accept a person`s average ability as being adequate for the job. As an example, a doctor might evaluate the responses given in a category area as an “earthquake” the magnitude of seven, whereas that same “earthquake” is really only a 2.5 on the Richter scale, or vice versa.

COMMON CANDIDATE MISTAKES

Following are some common mistakes candidates make during the psychological test.

Trying to Psych the Psych Written Test

The written portion of the test is about 1,000 questions. Although the aim here is not to pass the test, you should be fully prepared. Put your pride and natural defensiveness aside. Never discuss any frustrations or challenge the content of the test with the doctor. A few questions are presented in several ways. Many candidates drive themselves crazy trying to psych the written test. You can`t. Just take the test as honestly as you can. Remember, no one item means anything. Your answers are being compared with those given by successful firefighters. The doctor can tell you how your personality makeup can enhance or undermine your performance as a firefighter. The test is designed to alert the testers if you are trying to psych the test.

Doctor Patient Confidentiality

The biggest error candidates make during the psychological test is thinking that patient-doctor confidentiality exists even when the doctor has them sign a release that it does not. This is not your family doctor. Guess who`s paying the bill? You should not say anything in confidence during this interview. Candidates also think that the doctor is looking for people who have never made a mistake or have never done anything wrong. They aren`t looking for perfect human beings. That error leads candidates to present themselves in such an unrealistic positive light that they are seen as excuse makers who will immaturely refuse to accept criticism or correction.

Example:

John was going to his first psychological test. His dad was a firefighter. His dad asked him how he would answer the question, Have you experimented with alcohol or drugs? John said, “I would say that that although I don`t use them now, I did experiment at one time. Hey, he`s a doctor and has to hold what I tell him in confidence.”

After a couple of heated arguments, John`s father convinced him that it would be suicide to respond in that way. (In fact, if a department refused to hire people who honestly admitted to having experimented with alcohol or marijuana, they would have few candidates from which to choose.) John took his father`s advice. Some of his fellow candidates admitted to experimenting with drugs. John passed. His friends did not. You be the judge. Prior minor use should not be counted against you. But, if you admit that you have experimented with drugs, it might. Extensive use does raise questions. If you`ve admitted to experimenting with marijuana 200 times, that will certainly raise a red flag. Experimenting with cocaine or methamphetamine is much more serious. Stating that you never used anything can raise questions. But if you never have experimented with drugs, don`t feel that you need to say anything.

Occasional drinking or getting drunk on your birthday is one thing. But if you`re getting hammered a couple of nights a week and on weekends, that will raise some questions. Please think before you answer if the doctor asks, “How many drinks would you have at a party and still drive home?” Anyone who answers two could send a message that he will drink and drive. No department wants its firefighters being nailed on drunk driving charges. Responsible people arrange for a designated driver.

Volunteering Information

If a candidate is open and honest and displays common sense in his responses, he probably will be judged satisfactory by the doctor/interviewer. But many candidates want the job so bad that they will do almost anything to get it. When I was told of some of the things candidates said during their interviews, I asked, “How did you get these people to say that?” The answer was, “We just asked them, and they volunteered the information.” Think before you volunteer information. Present your ideas clearly. Don`t ramble or chat. Be articulate. This is how you`re going to be in the field. Believe it or not, this is part of the job interview. You are creating the impression of you as a firefighter.

A doctor might say, “Everyone has skeletons in his closet” or “You don`t want to be too squeaky clean, or we will be suspicious.” Maybe not, but you`d better take a good look at your record before you answer. Some candidates feel that they have to come up with something. That`s a big, big error. Although there are no halos over fire engines, you had better be squeaky clean.

Example:

One of my candidates, Tom, was under consideration for hiring by a large county department. I told him to contact me for coaching before he took the psychological test. He didn`t. He then called me, devastated, and asked, “What do I do now? I`m out of the process.” I asked him if he had thought out his questions before he volunteered information. He said he had not. I asked him why he didn`t call me before the test. He said, “Things were going so great I didn`t think I needed your help.” “What do you think now?” I asked. “They let me shoot myself in the foot,” he responded. “No Tom,” I said, “you shot yourself in the foot.” Even golf professionals get lessons to keep their game sharp.

Being Open and Honest

When I asked people what they did to pass the interview portion of the psychological test, most said they answered only the question being asked. They focused on their presentation instead of tossing something out that may not be clear, could be interpreted as being cocky, or might create partial impressions. They answered the questions appropriately.

Example:

Phil was in the hiring process for a big department. At the psychological interview, he was asked if he had ever taken drugs. Phil said, “Like a lot of kids in high school, I had tried some stuff.” He later said he believed that answer was the reason he was eliminated from the process. Now when asked that question, Phil answers “No.” In his mind, he is saying I will never do it again. He is 29 years old and hasn`t touched the stuff since high school.

Example:

Dan was going through his first psychological interview. He was asked about his family. He told the psychologist that his parents probably drank a little too much and that his current live-in had been through drug treatment. He was shocked when he found out that he was out of the process. No one would tell him why.

Dan was able to obtain a copy of his written psychological evaluation from someone in the system. He was stunned to read that the psychologist felt that because of the stresses of a family history of alcohol and drug use and the stressful nature of the firefighter`s job, Dan would be a candidate for alcohol and drug abuse. This was probably tied in with other things relating to the interview. The main point here should have been whether there was a pattern in his life. Dan is 33 years old now. His life history has never demonstrated this type of behavior before or since that evaluation five years ago. Where do you think Dan would have been had he not revealed the information about his family? The point to remember is, use common sense.

Dan continued to test. He was assigned to take a psychological test with this same firm four more times. You would expect that these psychologists would take a fresh look at Dan.

Interestingly enough, Dan took his fourth test with this firm and then another test with another firm the following week. He didn`t make it through the one with the original testing firm again, but he passed the test with the second firm. I`ve been told that there is a margin of error of up to 20 percent with these tests. No one seems to want to talk about that. The second psychologist saw a high number in one of the test areas that placed Dan in the margin-of-error category. He took the time to give Dan another test to verify the error. Dan passed and got the badge.

Has Anyone Here Taken a Test Like This Before?

It is not uncommon for the psychologist to ask if you have taken a test like this before. If you say Yes, you could be asked about the outcome. It is unlikely that a psychologist is going to contact another doctor to obtain your result, because no one will rely on a test older than six months and a psychologist who would reveal your information to another doctor could be setting himself up for a lawsuit.

What do you think your chances would be of making it through a test if you had had problems passing a test with another agency?

Example:

Scott was taking his fifth psychological test. It had been a few years since his first test. He was more mature now and knew the mistakes that had kept him from passing the first one. He had been haunted ever since. Every time he told a new psychologist where he had taken a previous test, he did not make it through. When he was asked whether he had “taken a test like this before” on the fifth testing, however, he remained silent. There is no data bank or secret list that will show where you have taken previous tests. Scott passed the fifth test and now has the job of his dreams.

The Interview

The written test is designed to show a profile of you that will indicate where any possible psychological problems and potential job difficulties might exist. There are three general areas:

Psychological problems or conflicts.

Manifestations of how you express your personality. Are you a quitter? A follower? A leader? Independent? Outgoing and friendly without being obtrusive?

Assessment. How well do you think on your feet? What is your ability to maintain focus when stressed–will you, for example, be able to exercise good judgment and retain short-term memory? If your profile rates you in the severe category in any of the areas, your interviewer would concentrate on these areas to verify these findings.

Psychologists use rating scales that range from three to seven, which are similar to school grades of A, B, C, or marginal and so on. A doctor generally will not disqualify you but may turn your evaluation back to the administration with the opinion that you are poorly suited for the position. The testing agency will let the prospective employer make the final decision.

As Dr. Flint views it, the psychologists aren`t the bad guys trying to set something up with artificial barriers to do candidates in. Their first responsibility is to the community and to the prospective employee`s coworkers. The tester`s job is to make sure that the individual who gets on the fire rig will not be a “hot dog”; will not go where he shouldn`t go and get hurt; will not be careless; and will not panic, causing someone else to get hurt or killed. The interviewer is looking for maturity, which, unfortunately, is not always found in abundance in 22-year-olds.

The psychologist should be part of a team with administrators, background investigators, and test writers to give input on standards. Someone then has to come up with the final word.

Some people think that not passing the test means that there is something greatly wrong with them. Most who make it to the psychological test are solid. It is not that they have serious shortcomings but just that they aren`t scoring high enough to meet the attributes sought. Dr. Flint compares the situation to that of being invited to the Olympics or training camp for professional athletes. The fact that you get that far is a sign that you are pretty darn terrific, he explains, but not everybody makes the team.

Examples:

Dr. Flint adds that he rarely sees candidates who have something seriously wrong with them. He relates that once he evaluated a candidate who said he wanted the job to get over his shyness. Even though the candidate wasn`t a person who locked himself in his room, Dr. Flint felt that the candidate needed to overcome his shyness before he got the job.

Steve took a psychological test. He was turned down for the job. When he tried to find out why, he was told that his profile didn`t match the job. When he tried to find out more, he was denied any information. He obtained an attorney, and the case ended up in court. He discovered that there was a state law that protected cities from having to provide candidates with the results of their tests. On the stand, the psychologists testified that it could cause psychological problems for the candidate if they read their results. Also, if candidates saw the results of the assessment, they would learn how it was structured and be able to spread the word on how to pass the testing. Although Steve lost the suit, he was able to receive a copy of his evaluation because of an age discrimination issue.

To Steve`s shock, his profile evaluation showed that he was in the severe category for having interpersonal difficulty, being impulsive and defensive/evasive, and in the moderate category for antisocial behavior. Nothing in his life history demonstrates these problems. The written summary told a story of someone other than Steve. This could have very well been an example of overinterpretation of test data. Even though the psychologist told Steve that he did not pass judgment on whether the agency would hire him, right on the evaluation, which was marked confidential, was stamped the words “NOT RECOMMENDED.” The psychologist lied! Steve paid to have another psychologist retest him. The second psychologist said he was as straight as a nail. The only question here is, Was he being compared with the average person or another firefighter candidate?

Often, the ratings/classifications given in a psychological test are in relation to the average firefighter, not the general public. The objective is not to hire someone whose impulsiveness or aggression would jeopardize the compatibility of the department/agency in which he would work. A little resistance to authority in relation to the general population, for example, might be outright bullheadedness in a fire department. The candidate whose profile places him in the middle of the pack of the average individual would probably fare well.

Example:

Tony found out that he had been washed out on the psychological test because he was too confrontational. While he was explaining the situation to me on the phone, I said, “If you responded in the evaluation as you are talking to me, it is no wonder you were considered confrontational and were washed out.” Unfortunately, Tony never recognized that he was being confrontational.

IF YOU FAIL, TRY AGAIN

What do you do if you have not passed the psychological test? Most agencies are not aware that if a candidate is conditionally offered a position if he passes the medical examination, that means that the candidate must also obtain a satisfactory clinical assessment from a psychologist–this is considered part of the medical examination. Pre-employment medical examinations must comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and, in California, with the California Fair Employment Act. Section 7294.0(d) of title 2 of the California Code of Regulations states:

“(2) Where the results of such medical examination would result in disqualification, an applicant or employee may submit independent medical opinions for consideration before a final determination on disqualification is made.”

What this says is that if you did not pass a psychological test that was given as part of a medical examination, you should be given the chance to obtain a second opinion. According to Attorney Claudia A. Baldwin, of Oakland, California, who represents candidates who have failed psychological tests to get them reinstated, most cities and agencies might not be aware of this law. Most people are unaware that they can appeal the decision.

Some psychologists who do initial evaluations primarily sometimes reevaluate potential firefighters who initially failed the psychological test and find them suitable for hiring. Some candidates don`t want to pursue this option, because it might ruin any chance of the prospective employer`s calling them back in the future or may cause problems when applying to other agencies.

Although the law is written so that you can qualify for an agency`s list over and over again, understand that if you are eliminated from the process because of a psychological test, this agency will probably never consider you again. But if you take advantage of the law and have a qualified attorney represent you in obtaining a favorable second psychological opinion, you could be reinstated. Do not attempt this without an attorney. This is how this process can work.

Example:

Dr. Flint just reevaluated for an agency a candidate who did not pass his first psychological test. Dr. Flint found him suitable for the position. Not having made it through an evaluation the first time does not preclude you from passing at another time. Dr. Flint has had candidates come back after getting another job and additional life experiences. The tests look different then, and these candidates were able to bring to them their new experiences and maturity.

I know of several candidates who have been reinstated. If you were conditionally offered the position on passing the medical and your second opinion on the psychological testing fulfills that requirement, then you are entitled to the job.

All but one (he elected not to pursue the job) of the candidates mentioned in this article are now wearing a badge.

CAPTAIN BOB, a 27-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain in the Hayward (CA) Fire Department, a humorist, a coach, an author, and a recognized speaker and rater on job interviews. He has helped countless individuals in their pursuit of careers and promotions. He is the author of the audiocassette/video albums Conquer the Job Interview and his recently released book Fire Up Your Communications Skills (Code 3 Publishing, Pleasanton, California).

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