Shonky psychometric tests kill potential careers

What’s the efficacy of using personality profiles and psychometric tests in recruitment? Malcolm King is not convinced of their merit - he outlines why it's time for a re-think.

What’s the efficacy of using personality profiles and psychometric tests in recruitment? Malcolm King is not convinced of their merit - he outlines why it's time for a re-think.

There is no more compelling evidence than the use of psychometric tests in recruitment, that parts of modern organisational life are drifting back in to the dark ages.

Recruiters are making unsubstantiated promises to businesses by using unreliable, invalid and inappropriate psychological tests on often bewildered job seekers and staff.

In Australia about 40% of recruiters and employers ask job applicants or their staff to sit psychometric tests. The tests are insulting, invalid, unreliable, unethical and a waste of time and money.

Applicants are made to perform a ‘Dadaesque’ dance of ticking boxes and manipulating three dimensional objects in space, to divine their ability to perform X, Y or Z or to assert their ‘cultural fit’ within an organisation.

Myer Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

My favourite piece of HR voodoo is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). In 1921, Jung published Psychological Types, in which he laid out all the same concepts found in the MBTI, but he had them organized very differently.

An American woman, Katherine Briggs, was fascinated by Jung’s book and she and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, got hooked on the idea of psychological metrics. They reasoned that just about every personality type could be described by a combination of four measures cross referenced against themselves.

According to the MBTI, with Attitude, you're either an E for Extravert or an I for Introvert. With Perceiving, you're either S for Sensing or N for Intuition. The third dichotomy is the Judging function, and you're either a T for Thinking or an F for Feeling. The final classification is Lifestyle, and you're either a J for Judgment or a P for Perception. Binary madness.

The MBTI's is so overwhelmingly unscientific, it has no practical use at all. Neither Myers or Briggs employed research to develop or test these concepts, relying instead on their own observations, anecdotes, and intuitions. So your MBTI score is hardly more meaningful than your star sign.

Aptitude and reasoning tests

Recruiters promise much with tests that involve verbal reasoning, numerical skills, comprehension and grammar, spatial reasoning, information processing, problem solving and IQ. You might have sat these for public servant exams. They involve problem solving.

Of the 5,000 aptitude and ability tests, only a handful have been shown to have any internal validity. That is, the questions are logically framed so they elicit the right sort of information. They ask three questions which are roughly the same but with minor differences to obtain a ‘valid’ response.

There are myriad problems with the aptitude and reasoning tests but one of the most serious is the tenuous link between the test and the competency being assessed. It’s like going to a supermarket and asking for a specific aptitude test in ‘clerical administration’ and being given the ‘one size fits all’ supervisors test. You’ll get some sort of test result but it won’t measure what you want.

In many cases, the tests are marked by the recruiters themselves, who have little or no training in the assessment of psychological tests. It’s like sitting a university exam and having the administration officer grade your paper, rather than a professor. God help you if you want a copy of the test. Transparent and accountable? You’ve got to be kidding.

If you were raised in another culture where English wasn’t the primary language, you’re under the gun. Ninety-five per cent of all psychometric tests are created and tested on Anglo-Saxon people. So the tests drip with specific cultural assumptions.

It’s true that some psychometric tests are the products of repeated samples overseas in places like Minnesota and Baltimore. But of course, the normative and cultural assumptions of work are different in Australia. But still, they use them here.

Psychometric tests homogenise a business’ workforce. HR people insist on ‘cultural fit’ – whatever that is – because they want people who will stick to the company line. They don’t want employees asking awkward questions such as, what’s the efficacy of using personality profiles and psychometric tests in recruitment? Organisations that use these tests are bland and lack innovation.

Consider this, if psychometric tests were ‘kosher’ then why would organisations such as the Institute of Psychometric Coaching in Australia, offer applicants coaching to improve their aptitude, personality and psychometric test results?

For a fee, the Institute will tell you how to prepare for a personality test, diagrammatic reasoning tests, numerical reasoning tests, inductive reasoning tests and more. The Institute also has the tacit support of Ericsson, Rio Tinto, Telstra, Ernst & Young and NAB. One hour’s personal coaching by an organizational psychologist will set you back $489.90.

But hang on a second. Aren’t these tests meant to be windows in to our consciousness, in to our deepest and darkest nooks and crannies? How can I cheat on something that is supposed to be evolved and structured, like a spider’s web or the slow accretion of water dripping down a stalactite?

My ‘favourite’ psychometric test is offered by RightPeople (Australia). RightPeople has a “range of psychometric tests designed to identify people who are most and least likely to engage in unethical and illegal behaviour within organisations.” That’s a quote from their website.

“The Risk Management Profile (RMP) identifies integrity, honesty, poor impulse control, stress tolerance and conscientiousness. Used in combination with our personality inventory it can be an invaluable tool for safeguarding your workplace against fraud and misconduct.”

If these tests were so effective, one would have thought that people rolling up to work with a machine gun and killing their work mates wholesale, would be a thing of the past. It’s a brave or foolish company that says its product protects against employee criminality.

At its most basic HR should monitor and maintain the social contract between employer and employee. It’s the notion that if we work hard and well, the company will notice and respond in kind and we, in turn, will help the company achieve its aims. One wonders just how low HR can stoop in its managerialist pursuit of psychobabble before employers call their bluff.

About the author 

Malcolm King is the director, Republic - [email protected]

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