Putting staff applicants - from school leavers to boardroom contenders - through arcane personality tests is now a familiar part of recruitment. Is this the best tool for the job, or is psychometrics about as useful as phrenology?
Do you think conflict is generally a bad thing? Does it disturb your concentration if there's someone talking behind you? Dog is to puppy as kitten is to cat - true or false? What's the next number in the sequence 5, 8, 13, 16, 21? And if you take this shape away from a square, which shape are you left with - A, B or C?
Questions like this, ranging from the simplistic to the decidedly tricky, will be familiar to many of us who've applied for a job in the past 10 years or so. Psychometric assessment first got under way in 400BC, when Hippocrates posited four basic personality types, but modern psychologists have developed it into a bewildering range of mental gymnastics that more and more companies are using in recruitment and career development.
Just reciting the names is enough to make you feel that a man in a white coat and thick glasses is bearing down on you: there's the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, the Hogan Personality Inventory, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Occupational Personality Questionnaire, the Sixteen PF, the Fundamental Interpersonal Orientations-Behaviour Instrument, or FIRO-B... Are your palms starting to sweat?
There's no getting away from it, though. Even James Murdoch, son of Rupert, had to jump through psychometric hoops for a whole day before being appointed chief executive of BSkyB, and one major company that devises and sells the tests, OPP, reckons that 70% of large blue-chip organisations use them for recruitment at all levels. The annual survey of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed last year that personality ques- tionnaires, general ability tests and literacy and numeracy tests were used by 45% of 560 companies that responded - up by about 10% on the previous year.
Companies that develop and market the tests are producing increasingly persuasive evidence that using psychometric assessment can make the whole recruiting process cheaper, as well as minimising the risk of hiring the wrong person, with all the grief and extra expense that this can bring.
SHL Group, one of the market leaders, says firms that don't use psychometrics are wasting millions and that psychological assessment should be mandatory in the selection of board-level executives.
Well, it would say that, wouldn't it? From Caracas to Kazakhstan, there's a multi-billion pound industry riding on the ever-stronger assertion that you get better people and boost your bottom line by hiring firms like theirs to screen your sales staff applications, streamline your graduate recruitment process or scrutinise your boardroom candidates.
A recent article in American Psychologist said the correlation between psychometric testing and job performance 'parallels the effectiveness of Viagra on improved male sexual functioning'.
There seems little doubt that psychometric assessment can save you money when you're dealing with large numbers of applicants, and that the extra cost involved in the detailed investigation of small numbers of senior candidates is usually relatively small. Adrian Atkinson, managing director of Human Factors International, says his firm was able to save 70% of one company's cost of graduate recruitment by substituting the traditional sifting of CVs, followed by phone interviews, with five 15-minute tests done online.
'At the end of the process, instead of running 12 assessment centres with eight people in each, they needed only two assessment centres with 16 in each, and everyone agreed the quality was higher,' he says. 'No CVs, no phone interviews - highly efficient, highly effective. It's possible that good people are screened out, but that can happen with any method, and people are given the opportunity to do their best.'
Kevin Kerrigan, managing director of SHL, tells a similar story of saving 'many millions annually' for a high street retailer and improving the quality of its sales staff by conducting initial screening with online tests instead of CVs. For executive recruitment, the cost would probably be between £300 and £500 per head, he says, which would be a fraction of a headhunter's fee and 'would pay off in spades' in the long run.
'The argument has really been won over psychometric testing,' he asserts. 'There will always be those who think it's akin to graphology or bottle-spinning, but when you take the doubting Thomases and show them the data, especially on how much money can be saved, their perceptions are rapidly overturned.'
John Hackston, managing consultant for research and development at OPP, says testing doesn't have hidden costs like interviewing, forms about 4% of the expense of recruiting and costs as little as £4 per person. But how demonstrable in objective terms is the other part of the claim made by his and other companies: that psychometric assessment brings you a better recruit?
Hackston refers to an article in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology in which Ivan Robertson and Mike Smith of the Manchester School of Management reviewed more than 120 articles and pieces of research and devised a scale that scored various methods of recruitment on a scale of 0 to 1, where 1 would be a perfect fit between candidate and job. Psychometric assessment comes out of it pretty well - but that's not the whole story.
It's clear from this research that the poorest determinants of good future job performance are your handwriting, your leisure activities and even your years of experience. References and biographical data, susceptible as they are to distortion and exaggeration, score higher, and personality tests higher still. But results of over 0.5 are achieved by cognitive ability tests, work sample tests and structured interviews, and the best results of all by combinations of these.
What's interesting is that two of the three best techniques - structured interviews and work samples - are not psychometric assessments, although psychological principles might be used in their design. If you put plenty of thought and effort into structuring your interviews correctly, or ask candidates for an example of what they'll do on the job, it seems you're likely to get results just as good as those achieved by psychometrics.
In any case, no-one claims that psychometric tests should be used by themselves, unless they are comparatively simple screening tests, as in the examples cited by Atkinson and Kerrigan. Companies selling psychometric tools insist that everyone who takes them should have a follow-up session with someone who has been trained in their interpretation. And everyone says that the final decision about an appointment should be influenced by interview as well as psychometrics.
The weight to be given to the interview depends on who you speak to.
Atkinson says psychometrics should be 60% of the decision, while Phil Langstaff, in charge of executive assessment and development at HBOS, says he'd give psychometrics between 20% and 30%. 'Nobody should be selected or deselected purely on the basis of psychometrics,' he insists. 'At the end of the day, the quality of the interview is the most important thing.'
Similarly, everyone accepts that personality assessments in particular can enter the sensitive territory where people keep their hopes, their dreams and their cherished image of themselves. Richard Brown, managing partner at the strategy consultancy firm Cognosis, says if tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are used insensitively they can do real damage.
'They should be used only by trained and accredited people in a context where the subject can gain insight,' he says. 'But sometimes they're used just to screen people out, and administered by staff with a superficial know- ledge of the tool, who use it in a potentially intrusive way. That could almost amount to interview rape - asking questions about people's lives that should be no concern of an employer.'
It's also the case that psychometric tests don't always yield the same results. If you're feeling upbeat and relaxed, you might get different results from a test taken when you're feeling down or rushed. They act as a snapshot rather than a definitive assessment.
Nigel Kenyon-Jones of headhunting agency Barton International believes the use of psychometric assessment in recruiting should come with a 'large health warning', partly because he thinks candidates are always tempted to modify the way they project themselves to fit with what they think the firm wants. 'There's a kind of double double-think going on.'
He also thinks psychometric data can be used to support the prejudices of the recruiter. 'They may have a view about what sort of person they want and seize on the data to back their prejudice,' he says. 'Prejudice isn't always a bad thing, of course, especially if your view is the right one to start with. The long and the short of it is that the process of recruitment is very fraught, and the use of psychometrics doesn't necessarily prevent it from going wrong more often than people like to admit.'
Some people will always dislike psychometric tests because they get exam nerves or dislike being reduced to a calibrated set of competencies and a personality profile. But there are many like David Bott, director of group technology at ICI, who went through the initial pain barrier and became what he calls 'a serial profiling junkie'.
'Eight or 10 years ago, it still wasn't the norm,' he says. 'But nowadays some people offer a basic psychological profile as part of their CV. The first time I did one I regarded it as a glorified horoscope. I took it home and showed my wife and she said: "Yes - why are you moaning? Others know what you're like. You might as well know too."'
Tom Woolgrove: 'It's more about what actions to take'
Tom Woolgrove had done psychometric evaluations many times, but the two-day executive assessment that HBOS put him through recently was the most comprehensive he has ever experienced. 'I was surprised at the range of tests,' he says. 'There were some things I'd never done before, such as the Hogan Personality Inventory, which looks at your inner psyche and your deep, dark secrets.
It was a pretty detailed workout.'
The results amused him with their confirmation of what earlier tests had revealed about his strengths and 'development areas' - the need to be more directive with his staff, to delegate and take them along with him, and to make a stronger impact when first meeting people. 'Most people said the results were 70% or 80% right. They force you to hold a mirror up to yourself and question the way you do things. If you're not open with yourself, it can have a powerful effect.'
But he thinks psychometric assessment should be used to plan future behaviour.
'If it was found you were low on anger, you could go into a psychological debate on why that was. But that's not why you do these tests, in my view.
It's more about what development actions you can take - for example, if you're very angry, what can you do to make your team more comfortable with you?
'The approach is to say: given this is what you're like, what are you going to do differently to make things better in the future?' he concludes.
Natalie Grazin: 'Endlessly fascinating, but painful'
The first thing Natalie Grazin had to confront after doing the 16-PF assessment as part of career development was that she might not be in the right job. 'It's endlessly fascinating to learn about yourself like this,' she says. 'But it's potentially painful too - warts and all.'
She's still in her senior job at Harrow Primary Care Trust, but the assessment has helped her adapt her style of work, playing more to her strengths of enthusing and inspiring reluctant colleagues, and trying to put more energy into project implementation, which interests her less.
Two and a half hours of ticking boxes was followed by a lengthy session with a psychologist. Grazin found the resulting picture of herself extraordinarily accurate. 'There were questions like "Is it important to keep your house tidy?", and in the end I had to answer no, even though I do keep it tidy for family reasons.
'The test measures what you would do if you were left on a desert island, and that's a level we don't get to in real life. In that sense, it's more of a core picture. But in the workplace, under pressure, it's going to be those things that come out. These tests look at what would happen if you didn't employ various learned strategies.'
Would she like her employer to see the report? 'You'd need a high level of trust for that, and the top level of the NHS is often very insecure.' And did she find it intrusive? 'No, but I'm an incredibly open and forthright person - I know that because the test told me so.'
Steven Round: 'Uncanny'
Before Steven Round was made commercial director of furniture firm MFI last year, he went through a day of psychometric assessments and interviews that left him 'very tired and not quite sure if I'd produced what they wanted'.
There were tests to measure his reasoning abilities, his problem-solving methods and his responses to stress. There was also a tachistoscope, which measures non-rational defence mechanisms by flashing up images and asking you to describe what you see. 'That was great fun,' says Round. 'From the results, they told me, quite correctly, that there'd been a period of my life when I'd gone into virtual hibernation - it was uncanny.
'Some things came up that I'd have preferred not to hear. When that happens, I don't think you should go into denial. It's better to go somewhere that suits you rather than struggle to do a job that's not right for you.'
HOW TO TAKE A PSYCHOMETRIC TEST
1 TAKE IT SERIOUSLY You could discover important and useful information about yourself.
2 BE METHODICAL and don't panic over ability tests or work samples. Skip the hard ones and return to them in spare time at the end.
3 DO PERSONALITY ASSESSMENTS HONESTLY There's no right and wrong, and trying to tailor yourself to the job usually doesn't work.
4 DON'T TAKE THE RESULTS AS THE FINAL WORD on your abilities and character. You should have the chance to discuss them with a psychologist or assessor afterwards.
5 GET A GOOD NIGHT'S SLEEP (as with exams), eat breakfast, read the instructions carefully and avoid overdosing on caffeine.