Why Organizations Should Test Employees

I met Joe a dozen years ago when I was working at ASTD and he was on the ASTD Board and a frequent ASTD contributer/presenter.  We collaborated on ASTD’s venture into the world of HPI when as the staff person responsible for developing the HPI Certificate Program I asked Joe to work with me on the capstone course and become one of our facilitators.  Over the years we have touched base a couple of times a year and I have always enjoyed talking with him about performance improvement stuff.  I am sure Joe will tell you that I enjoy pushing the envelope – I have even gone as far as to tell students involved in my old ISD graduate program that they are wasting their time if all they want to do is learn how to develop a better training course.  So when Joe asked me if I would be interested in writing for his blog my first question was “are you sure you really want to give me a venue for expressing my ideas?”  He said he was…so here we go.

I am going to start this blog entry off with what I hope is a thought provoking story.

Think About This.

Terry is an EMT (emergency medical technician) and is assigned to one of the busier fire stations in a fairly large city. Terry earned his EMT certification in 2005.  Terry has been lucky. While he goes on several calls a week and has attended to a lot of people with minor injuries, he has never had to resuscitate someone using a defibrillator.  Due to budget cuts Terry’s fire station stopped their monthly testing program a few years back so Terry has not been required to demonstrate his defibrillator skills in a quite a while.

Chris is also an EMT and is assigned to a fairly busy fire station in a city about 25 miles away from Terry.  Much like Terry, Chris has never had to resuscitate someone using a defibrillator.  However, on a quarterly basis Chris is required to demonstrate to her Fire Chief how to use the defibrillator properly. If she is unable to do so she is not allowed to go on any emergency calls.  Since this places a tremendous burden on the station’s staff she knows that she will be let go if she isn’t able quickly get up to speed within 2 weeks of her initial failed demonstration.

By chance you, Chris, and Terry all happen to be together at a high school football game when you have a heart attack.  Who do you want trying to save your life (assuming that the school has a defibrillator on hand)?

Over the past 5 years I have shared this story with thousands of people and for the most part they all want Chris trying to save their life.  When I ask why, they tell me it is because Chris has demonstrated the ability to use the defibrillator and that gives them confidence in her ability to do it right.  I talk to them about the fact that Terry is a really nice person, works really hard, is always willing to help around the fire station, and often volunteers for an extra shift when others have a scheduling conflict.  I tell them that on the other hand Chris, well let’s just say Chris isn’t a very nice person.  Even knowing this they still tell me they want the defibrillator in Chris’s hands.  When I ask why they again talk about how she is required to demonstrated her ability to properly use the machine and that if she can’t she isn’t allowed to go out on emergency calls.

Whether they realize it or not they are advocating for performance testing in the workplace.

The problem is when I mention performance testing they immediately push back saying testing in the workplace is unfair, demeaning, and just plain wrong.

I TOTALLY disagree!

Testing, if done correctly is a perfect way to measure an employee’s ability to do their job correctly.  I’m not talking about using Kirkpatrick’s Level 3 at the end of a training class.  I am talking about randomly scheduled performance tests that are designed to determine if an employee can do their job the way they are suppose to do their job.  This is not the same as observing them actually doing their job and I’m not talking about asking others (customers or peers) about how well they do their job.  I am talking about putting them in a controlled environment and putting them through a series of exercises designed to determined how well they can perform they job.  I am not advocating that this be done to identify their training needs.  I am advocating that this be done as part of their performance evaluation.

Before you tell me that that will never work, let me tell you that I work for an organization with 50,000 frontline workers that are tested throughout the year.  Employees that fail the tests are subject to termination and employees that pass the tests are eligible for an annual bonus and/or pay raise.

I will freely admit that not all organizations should implement a testing program.  I don’t say that because I think there are some jobs that can’t be tested.  I say that because I think some organizations aren’t willing to work hard enough to implement a solid program.  Such a program requires that jobs have clearly defined operating procedures or processes and that people know what it is they are suppose to be doing and what successfully doing that looks like.


Phil Anderson has worked in the field of performance improvement and organization/employee development for 25 years.  He has worked in wide range of government, private, and not for profit sector organizations and is currently the Branch Chief for the Transportation Security Administration, Office of Security Operations’ Resolution Team.