The Psychological Test Behind the Salad Bar

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Hiring and keeping new workers may be on many small companies' 2007 to-do list, but they may find that it's easier said than done. About 8 in 10 business owners said they couldn't even find qualified applicants to fill open jobs, according to a December survey by the National Federation of Independent Business.

It's a problem that Salad Creations founder Jeff Levine knew he needed to fix if he was going to quickly spread his restaurant franchise throughout the country. Turnover is especially acute in industries like fast food and retail, but for companies working with limited staff and minimal training budgets, it hits especially hard. So Levine decided to hire a psychologist to figure out how to retain employees who would keep customers coming back.

Levine started the company in 2003. The idea is this: Chefs toss together ingredients that customers pick out. It is a Subway-meets-salad concept, requiring more human contact than a salad bar but less than a sit-down restaurant. After opening a handful of stores and testing the concept in Florida, Levine decided to get bigger by franchising. And he brought on board psychologist David Glowatzke, who came up with a two-part behavioral test that potential hires have to get through before an interview. The first part of the test is a straightforward 30-part questionnaire that asks things such as "What would you do if the customer asks for a brand that the company doesn't sell?"

About two thirds of applicants survive that part and move on to the second exercise, a simulation, says Glowatzke. In that timed test, prospective employees use a toy set to string multicolored, oddly shaped items onto long wooden pegs. They are supposed to match five patterns given to them while answering math questions about things like sales tax. Glowatzke says two thirds of that group moves on to the interview. The test has proved to be a good indicator, he says, of how well the salad chefs actually do working a high-pressure lunch rush.

Salad Creations has since sold about 55 franchises, 11 of which will have opened by year-end. Franchise owners who take a two-week training in Florida have to take the test themselves, then run it on Glowatzke for practice. While there's no scientific evidence that the test works, the company says its annual turnover is about 82 percent, compared with 102 percent for the restaurant industry as a whole. Plus, says Glowatzke, the test has sometimes induced introspection, making it a perk for some employees. One hire said that it helped him figure out how to better relate to his dad, while another said it helped her get along with her boyfriend.