Psychometric tests: more about what employers don’t want than what they do

By Thea O’Connor

Hirers increasingly want people with a can-do, want-to-do attitude. Psychometric testing promises to deliver, but employers must choose wisely to get the best results.

A senior executive recalls the recruitment process as gruelling. It extended over two to three weeks, for several hours a day, and when the process finally came to an end, he felt battered and exhausted.

‘The board considered the previous man to be a psychopath … and they wanted to make sure I wasn’t one,’ he says. ‘They put me through the whole range, including timed numerical, verbal and spatial tests. The most terrifying part was a face-to-face with a psychologist who adopted an aggressive approach to see how I would react.’

Assessed as being of sound character, he was offered the job. ‘It was quite unsettling at the time, but in hindsight I can understand why they did it,’ he says.

The cost of poor recruitment is high. Estimates suggest that to replace someone in a skilled position, the bill can total 150 to 300 per cent of the employee’s annual salary. For executive roles, that can often be more than A$1 million.

The psychometric fix

Psychometric testing is just one set of tools that employers turn to for added rigour in their pursuit of the perfect match. And according to Hudson’s The Hiring Report: The State of Hiring in Australia 2015, their use is on the rise. Forty per cent of the 3228 Australian professionals they surveyed said they were seeing more psychometric testing compared with two years ago.

 ‘The greatest demand has typically been for recruitment at senior executive levels, or to cull large numbers of graduate applications, but we are now seeing organisations realising they can use psychometric assessments across their workforce to generate data about the organisation’s capability,’ says organisational psychologist Dr Crissa Sumner. ‘We are also seeing a shift away from hiring for know-how, which you can train later, toward hiring for can-do (capability), want-to (motivation) and cultural fit, which these tests can also assess,’ says Sumner.

The appeal of assessments that package the complexities of human nature into neat categories is self-evident. And given our age-old fascination with ourselves, it’s no wonder that these tests, which offer a selfie of our psyche, grab our attention.

Testing the tests

But are they ‘the ultimate guide to getting ahead’, as described in Hudson’s report? Psychometric tests have certainly come a long way from the more clinically oriented assessments found in workplaces 40 or so years ago.

Research indicates that when used well, relevant aptitude tests outperform resumes, educational qualifications and references by a factor of three to four.

‘An overwhelming body of research shows that mental ability tests and structured interviews based on a good job analysis are the most valid methods for predicting how somebody is likely to perform in the workplace,’ says organisational psychologist Scott Ruhfus.

‘They each have a correlation of around 0.5. Compare that to an unstructured interview with a correlation of 0.2, or years of education, 0.1. When you combine a structured interview with ability testing, it gets up to [a correlation of] 0.63,’ Ruhfus explains. ‘In the social sciences, 0.5 is regarded as a strong relationship.’ 

To get these kinds of results, you need to be crystal-clear on what you want to measure, then select a test that’s fit for purpose, advises Melbourne-based clinical psychologist and corporate consultant Simon Kinsella. That means, for example, not using the world’s most popular test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, for recruitment; it’s not designed for that purpose.

‘Ask to see the data that shows it’s a reliable test that will give the same result over time, and that it’s a valid test, truly measuring what it says it does,’ Kinsella advises. ‘Use multiple sources of information, not just the test results.’

Measuring personality

The assessments that seem to attract fiercest debate are the personality tests. And not just because they seem prone to ‘faking’ better scores – something psychologists insist is actually very hard to do with quality tests.

In her 2005 book The Cult of Personality, author Annie Murphy Paul contends that personality tests produce descriptions of people that are nothing like human beings as they actually are: complicated, contradictory and changeable across time and place.

Professor Robert Spillane of the Macquarie Graduate School of Management is also concerned that screening out ‘difficult’ personalities breeds mediocrity and conformity.

‘Some of our greatest leaders, such as Churchill or Apple’s late Steve Jobs, have been unusual characters who were certainly not ‘agreeable’,’ he points out.

Psychometric tests have been around for 100 years, are here to stay and will continue to evolve. The big challenge for test developers will be to keep up with the rapidly changing nature and requirements of the workforce. Faced with thousands of tests to select from – including gamified testing scenarios, and tools that create psychological profiles from your social media footprint – employers and HR practitioners will need to keep up-skilling to ensure ethical, best practice testing.

How to use psychometric tests for recruitment

  • Undertake a thorough job analysis to identify the capabilities and competencies required of the job.
  • Select valid and reliable tests that are fit for purpose. Don’t use a test for something it wasn’t designed for.
  • Develop skills in giving appropriate feedback, which should never involve a clinical diagnosis. Create the opportunity to explore any apparent inconsistencies in test results.
  • Complement test results with other sources of information about the candidate.

A longer version of this article first appeared in INTHEBLACK.