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Candidate testing and what it really tells you – do psychometric tests work today?

For some time now psychometric testing has been splitting opinions with some regarding it as a valuable assessment resource and others labelling them as a pseudoscientific waste of time.  Nevertheless, it’s estimated that 70% of large companies use them as part of their recruitment procedure.

As a science, psychometrics began in Cambridge in the late 19th century and its aim was to test the differences in human intelligence levels. Over the years, it has begun to be integrated within employment procedures to gauge a candidate’s personality and cultural fit and today’s tests tend to have two objectives. The first category aims to reveal details about behaviour and personality and the second is designed to measure reasoning or cognitive ability.

Those who champion psychometric testing as a hiring tool claim that it reduces risks by revealing a candidate’s character and gives a snapshot of how they might work if offered the job. After all, during interviews it is harder to gauge a candidate’s personality and performance traits than it is to evaluate their education, experience and skillset. 

Despite a century of use, there is still no conclusive scientific evidence that psychometric testing works. Critics assert that it was founded on inaccurate theories about multiple intelligences, and the tests used today offer no certainty of validity. Additional points against them include the fact that people often lie in these tests and this means that they can often be unreliable and easy to influence.

Another criticism that has been levelled at psychometric testing is that it can over-ride the impression that was formed during the face to face interview when the instincts and experience of a seasoned recruiter could prove to be far more accurate than a pseudoscientific questionnaire.

Looking at it from a candidate’s point of view, it can be a barrier which can incorrectly eliminate people who may not test well but who would make a great employee. 

There’s also a real risk that psychometric testing puts candidates into pigeon-holes. By telling someone what ‘type’ of character they have, you label them and consequently limit them. 

Not so long ago there was a very high profile example of when psychometric testing gets it very wrong indeed. Paul Flowers was hired as chairman of the Co-op Bank after performing exceptionally well on his psychometric test even though he had very limited experience in the financial sector.  He was later forced to step down over a £1.5billion black hole in the Co-op’s balance sheet – causing psychologists to compare psychometric testing to little more than a Victorian superstition.

VIA – an American psychology organisation – recently admitted that their personality test is a failure and told a UK government agency to stop using it on jobseekers. After failing to achieve any level of scientific validation, the test was discredited and put out of use. 

The unreliability of the tests, and the liability of relying on them, was further underlined in the highly publicised case of a B&Q employee who was promoted only to be sacked because he subsequently failed a psychometric personality test. Examples like this are alarmingly commonplace, as even a quick Google search will testify.

So there is considerable momentum behind the theory that psychometric testing should no longer be given weight as a plausible recruitment procedure. In her 2006 book, The Cult of Personality, Annie Murphy Paul claims that personality tests are leading us to mismanage our companies and misunderstand ourselves. 

When used in recruitment, all reasonable logic would conclude that these tests also cause us to cloud rather than clarify our judgments.