Science Plays a Key Role in High-Risk Job Hiring
by Clif Boutelle, SIOP Public Relations
When it comes to hiring personnel in high-risk jobs like public safety, agencies, often under heavy scrutiny, have to be accountable in employing people who can perform up to high expectations.
When a police officer arrives at an accident scene, a lot of decisions must be quickly made. The situation has to be rapidly assessed, the victim or victims have to be evaluated, medical help may have to be called, other officers called in, traffic has to be cleared so as not to impair an investigation, traffic may have to be rerouted and those involved have to be interviewed for a report of the incident.
The officer must act quickly and decisively and the margin of error is often small.
These are all decisions that are common to high-risk occupations that demand workers who have the ability to function efficiently and handle the stress associated with these kinds of jobs.
“Not everyone is well-suited to work in a high risk job,” says Kelley Krokos of the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. and an authority on personnel selection, especially for jobs considered high risk.
She and Lycia Carter of Aon Consulting, will be taking part in a presentation assessing the state of personnel selection for high-risk occupations at the annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology April 10-12 in San Francisco.
“We consider high-risk occupations to include any job for which the possibility of error is significant and for which the consequence of error is likely to result in harm, physical injury or death to not only the individual performing the job but for others as well,” said Krokos.
She lists law enforcement, fire, military and aviation jobs as among the most visible high-risk occupations. Also, certain jobs at nuclear facilities and in the medical profession, such as trauma center work, can potentially result in harm to others.
Considering that public safety is often at the heart of these occupations, hiring people who have the right mix of physical and mental abilities to perform these jobs is extremely important, says Carter, who previously played a key role in hiring police officers for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington D.C.
But how can the right hiring decisions be made for these occupations?
In fact, selecting, evaluating and predicting the best performers among job candidates involves a great deal of science; something that industrial and organizational psychologists are particularly well trained to accomplish.
The first thing that needs to be done, says Krokos, is a comprehensive evaluation to determine the key attributes needed to properly perform a particular job. While high-risk occupations can be diverse, there are some common traits that workers in these jobs possess.
Sound decision making and stress tolerance are important attributes, according to Carter. “Sometimes a person doesn’t have a lot of time to think about what must be done and he or she must be able to tolerate high amounts of stress,” she said.
It is important to select someone who can deal with situations demanding urgency. “That’s the value of a thorough job analysis: to identify the attributes that will allow the employee to manage the technical aspects as well as the environmental or situational demands of the job. Then testing can determine the candidates best suited to handle those factors,” said Krokos.
I-O psychologists have a lot of tools to help managers make good hiring decisions, including developing and implementing recruiting plans, pre-employment tests, situational judgment exercises, post-employment testing and developing training and performance management processes.
Law enforcement and fire departments, for example, often use internal or external I-O consultants to help them with the critical task of hiring employees who can handle the high-risk requirements of those professions.
There are two kinds of tests that have proven validity and reliability that I-O psychologists may employ: cognitive and personality. Cognitive tests measure a candidate’s ability to learn all aspects of the job and its procedures, whereas personality tests can predict a person’s fit for the position.
“Personality includes a wide range of characteristics that people possess; many of them have an impact upon the ways people behave in the workplace,” according to Deniz Ones of the University of Minnesota, who has been involved in numerous studies on personality tests.
Job-related characteristics can be isolated and measured with the results providing data that are useful in selecting people to hire, she points out.
What about the employee whose actions bring discredit to their organizations? These are the people who often get media attention, not those who are performing their positions at a high level.
No process can eliminate every poor hiring decision, Krokos and Carter concede. But, they point out, the rate of hiring suitable employees who will perform at expected levels is far higher by using these procedures than not using them.
“People change over time and what may have been a good hire could turn into a bad one,” admits Carter.
“That’s why it is important to monitor employees and develop a tracking system that can lead to an early warning that something is happening to an employee. When an individual’s behavior seems troublesome, then management will have the opportunity to implement some kind of intervention, be it remedial training, a referral to an employee assistance program or closer supervision.
“Selection doesn’t occur in a vacuum. If there is a performance problem you have to look at all the potential causes, not just the selection process. There are training and performance management considerations as well,“ Carter said.
All organizations, especially those in the public sector, employing people in high-risk positions have a large investment in personnel and it is important to hire the right people and use every tool available to ensure success.
Krokos and Carter will be participating in a panel discussion at 8:30 a.m., Saturday, April 12 on “Personnel Selection for High Risk Occupations” at the annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) April 10-12 at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco. More than 600 presentations research and trends on a variety of workplace topics and issues will be offered during the three-day conference. For more information about the conference, including the program of presentations, go to www.siop.org and click on San Francisco Conference 2008.