If there ever was a brand name like Kleenex, Dry Ice, Band-Aid, and Scotch Tape in pre-employment testing circles, the Wonderlic (test) might get the honor.

Thanks to the National Football League using this pre-hire assessment  to seek out the next Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, or Tom Brady, Wonderlic often graces not only the pages of human resource journals but sports pages as well. Unfortunately the story reported on the sports pages is more notoriety than praise. In fact, a recent article described the Wonderlic as the “least important, most overhyped and phonetically misleading word in sports.”   

That’s quite an indictment for a pre-employment test used by one of the biggest businesses in America. What’s the buzz about?  Maybe it has to do with 10 players the highlighted in the article that were recruited and played professional football but collectively have a combined score of 50. 

For those unfamiliar with the Wonderlic, the exam is supposedly a measuring stick of a person’s general intelligence. A 50 is the maximum score an individual can have.  In the case it took 10 players to score a 50!

While I’m just guessing at this, the talent gurus at the NFL must feel that general intelligence is a key to success and therefore a particular score above X on the Wonderlic would predict success on the field (or failure for those who fall below the threshold.)  I wonder what that score might be?

Well, it could be 16 if Vince Young is a reliable example of a potential superstar who has done nothing but disappoint.  But then how do you explain the success of NY Giant’s star receiver Hakeem Nicks who scored a measly 11 or the so far mediocre success of Buffalo Bills Quarterback and Harvard graduate who scored a 48? Or Washington Redskins quarterbacks John Beck and Rex Grossman, who scored 30 and 29 respectively?

A 2009 study of 762 players from three draft classes might have found the answer. The study found no correlation between intelligence, as measured by the Wonderlic test, and NFL performance except for tight ends and defensive backs — whose achievements increased withlower scores. Even at the quarterback position, where brains are generally believed to be critical, there was no significant relationship between high scores and high performance.

This poses three key questions which are coincidentally the same three questions every organization should be asking when evaluating the best tools to use when screening applicants:

  1. Is a minimum level of general intelligence a predictable indicator of success?
  2. If so, what is the minimum level?
  3. What is the best assessment to measure it?

The first two questions have to do with job relevance. The last question has to do with validity.  These same questions should be asked AND answered whether you are measuring IQ or personality.

The jury is apparently out on all three questions as it relates to football although I do suspect that with the complexity of the playbook on many teams, some form of mental ability testing might be predictive. But the verdict is in when it comes to screening applicants and employee during the hiring, succession, and promotion processes.

With the advancement of technology, the necessity to deal with more complex problems on a regular basis, and the constant state of change all employers face, testing applicants and employees for general mental abilities, or cognitive skills, will become more important.  But selecting a validated assessment is only one step in helping select employees who have the potential to do the job.  Understanding how much ability an employee requires is imperative, because if the bar is set too high, qualified applicants might be ignored.  Likewise, determining the minimum level is only part of the equation too.

It’s important to make sure the pre-employment test you use accurately assesses the abilities that are most critical to success on the job.  Unfortunately not all intelligence tests (as well as other types of pre-employment tests) measure the same abilities and many are not validated to current standards.