Selection by Design: Biodata and Its Uses

Those involved in the hiring process generally agree: the more you know about each candidate, the more likely you are to make good hiring decisions. To that end, successful selection systems — i.e., valid and reliable — for police and corrections officers typically do not rely on just one type of test. As the term “systems” suggests, selection specialists develop a battery of tests and methods to increase the accuracy of their agency’s hiring decisions.

Job analyses plays a critical part in the development of effective public safety selection systems by successfully identifying the tasks involved in the job, as well as the knowledge, skills, abilities and personal characteristics (KSAPs) necessary to perform them. While test instruments are developed to measure the degree to which candidates possess the prerequisite KSAPs, not all KSAPs identified in the job analyses are measured.

Deciding which KSAPs would be left out was primarily a matter of how easy it was to measure. If it could be measured by traditional test instruments, such as multiple-choice written tests and structured interviews, then it was included. As a result, exam and selection plan outlines focused on dividing the KSAPs based on the availability and ability of test instruments: if a KSAP could not be measured or if measuring it was too expensive or time-consuming, it was added to the “no” column.

With test batteries that included written and oral exams, it was believed that the critical prerequisites for doing the job were being measured, and that other tests — such as background investigations and psychological testing — would address factors the selection experts were not attempting to measure.

While utilizing batteries of tests increased selection accuracy, end-users of the instruments were not completely satisfied with the results. In statistical terms, test development specialists recognized that even with the use of good selection instruments, all of the human factors that contributed to job performance and career success were not being measured. And so, test development specialists continued to work with those involved in the hiring and training of public safety personnel in the pursuit of still better selection methods — methods that created a more comprehensive picture of candidates.

Another crucial step in the test development process is having a draft test reviewed by subject matter experts (SMEs). What test developers consistently heard from supervisory personnel (i.e., the SMEs) across jurisdictional lines was that they’d like to “clone” specific officers. Responsible for training new officers, the SMEs often had a different focus in regard to what they wanted selection procedures to accomplish.

The SMEs often expressed their concerns about officers being able to read and write reports and learn the material taught in their training academy. Farsighted selection experts, taking into account the concerns of those involved in the hiring and selection process, worked to develop selection instruments that would specifically address their concerns.

At the time, there were many good methods for developing valid and reliable selection procedures being used. But those on both sides of the issue acknowledged that cognitive tests were not accounting for enough of the factors necessary to a successful career in public safety — including longevity and work ethic. Put another way: just because individuals did well on written exams and oral boards didn’t mean that they were motivated to perform the type of work for which they were applying.

In their effort to cover as many performance variables as possible, the question for selection specialists became: how can we help agencies select candidates like their top performers? Enter the use of biographical data.

The theory was, if selection experts could isolate the individual traits that contributed to top-performers’ success, then they could develop questionnaires that would identify candidates possessed those same traits. The hypothesis being that if candidates held similar traits to those of to top performers, then their job performance would be similar too.

The concept of using biodata stirred a great deal of discussion in the test development community. While the hypothesis is relatively simple, selling the concept was not. Researchers had their work cut out for them. They had to:

  • Identify who the top performers were
  • Identify the common characteristics and traits that contributed to their success
  • Develop instruments to measure those traits
  • Determine how to score testing results
  • Demonstrate the validity of test results
  • Evaluate the instruments for adverse impact

In addition to its ability to enhance the effectiveness of public safety selection systems, because the use of biodata was a relatively new concept, proving its validity and reliability was critical to its acceptance.

Biodata, as a proposed selection methodology for public safety positions, shifted the focus from what is required to do the job to what is essential to being a good public safety officer. This opened the door for a myriad of questions. First of all, researchers had to determine what a good public safety officer looked like, which was accomplished by collecting data from performance evaluations.

Next, researchers had to determine what traits contribute to top performance as a public safety officer. They looked at personal values, individual perceptions of the job, morals, family, personal history, high school and college grades, social activities, extracurricular activities in school, college education, degree field — and many more. Researchers then had to categorize the responses into a logical framework of personal traits and experiences and determine the commonalities.

If instruments developed from the information were going to be used for ranking, then weights had to be assigned. In other words: how much each characteristic would contribute to individual scores, and how much the biodata instrument would contribute to the overall selection process.

In addition to its selection implications, biodata can be used to guide recruiting efforts. For example, if the results show that participation in high school athletics correlates with high job performance, then recruiters would want to talk to local high school coaches and scope out athletic events at area high schools.

Finally, biodata is not a replacement for background investigations. Biodata questionnaires are an additional selection method in your arsenal to help ensure your agency is making the best hiring decisions possible.

In Part II of Selection by Design: Biodata and Its Uses, the details of the study done by Bruce Davey & Associates/IPMA-HR to develop the CO-BDQ (Correctional Officer Biodata Questionnaire) will be reviewed to illustrate how biodata instruments are created

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About Robert Burd

Robert is an HR professional with over thirty years of experience in public sector human resources specializing in selection including: test development and validation, designing and conducting oral boards, assessment centers and physical fitness testing.

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