Mettle Testing

Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - 08:56

Finding the best person for a job today often involves psychometric testing, but is that all that's required? Sarah Marinos reports.

Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances?

These questions are part of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI) 'personality inventory' used by organisations globally to identify the different personality types, strengths and weaknesses of employees and potential job applicants.

Globally, about 2.5 million job seekers are asked to complete the MBTI each year.

Psychometric testing aims to measure a candidate's suitability for certain roles within an organisation. Such tests focus on aptitude or cognitive abilities and on personality or behavioural styles.

Aptitude and cognitive tests will test abstract and verbal reasoning skills, numerical and spatial skills, and how well a person can identify how others are feeling in a certain situation.

Personality tests measure teamwork, leadership qualities, decision-making styles, how well a candidate copes with stress, and how innovative they are in their thinking.

Making better decisions

Mark McCutcheon, National Practice Leader for Assessment at Chandler McLeod in Sydney, says a cross-section of industries and organisations are increasingly using psychometric testing to make better recruitment decisions. More than three-quarters of companies listed in the US Fortune 500 and UK Times Top 100 use them, with figures estimated to be similar in Australia.

"These tests are used by organisations that have concluded that people make a significant difference to the success of a business," says McCutcheon.

"They know it's the quality of the person in a role that makes a difference, rather than the technology and process."

McCutcheon says psychometric tests can be useful for employers recruiting juniors or graduates with no proven work history. But how does psychometric testing help recruit senior employees with a strong, demonstrable track record? McCutcheon says psychometric testing is most effective when it is used as part of a battery of recruitment techniques.

Strengths and weaknesses

McCutcheon confirms that traditional interviews and reference checks are important and that psychometric testing can identify areas of interest for employers to pursue in more depth during interviews with candidates. He also warns that you must be careful in being over-reliant on them.

"Psychometric testing is one of a number of ways to gather information on job candidates," says McCutcheon. "[But] if a candidate is in their late forties or fifties, they may not be quite as fast when testing your numerical and verbal skills under time pressure.

"There is a strong risk that an employer or manager could miss out on good-quality candidates if they rely too heavily on test results in that instance."

There are no right or wrong answers in personality or behavioural style tests but results can highlight areas where employees may benefit from further training to strengthen their professional capabilities.

"You can hire a person knowing there is a potential issue and build development plans for that individual," says McCutcheon.

"So if you are hiring a general manager and the assessment process suggests he is not particularly good at coaching people, you can cover that off in the first six months of his tenure. Tests can help employers identify what they need to do to get employees up to speed more quickly."

Fact or fortune telling?

While psychometric testing has become standard practice for small to large businesses and government departments, not everyone is convinced of its value.

Professor Robert Spillane, Professor in Management at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney, says about 85 per cent of students completing an MBA in Australia will undergo psychometric testing by employers.

"Some legal opinions see these tests as an invasion of privacy," says Spillane. "I also believe they simply don't predict performance at work, so they are on a par with hiring a fortune teller."

Spillane says Australian workplaces, unlike those in America and Germany for example, have become "mildly obsessed" with judging people's performance and personality traits: are they an introvert or extrovert; are they highly anxious or not; are they friendly; are they jealous?

"We are more humanistic than Americans. We don't believe in winning at all costs. We believe it's important at the workplace to get on with each other and this has given rise to a compromising of performance with the notion of personality," says Spillane.

"So people are now judged on their hard skills - actual results - but we also put attention on to soft skills such as getting on with each other, not being aggressive, not arguing and trying to create a barbecue environment at work.

"The argument is that these tests are used to promote a harmonious working environment. But what constitutes the 'right' personality for this harmonious environment?

"The tests fall back on to stereotypes, such as extroverts will be better than introverts and people with low anxiety are better than people with high anxiety, although there is no evidence for this. I did a study years ago of Australian entrepreneurs and they are nearly all high anxiety people; but they call it creative energy!".

In the right hands

Mark McCutcheon says psychometric testing is not as effective if it is used by those not qualified to interpret the tests.

"Automated reports are also a current trend; where a person does an assessment and a computer generates a report of the results without any interpretation from a psychologist," he says.

"But, ultimately, psychometric testing is about managing risk. If a business populates its recruitment process with a range of as accurate-as-possible approaches and then integrates all that information, it will make an informed and better decision."