Do psychometric tests help sort cheats from staff? asks James Russell
She seemed such a capable, pleasant, head-screwed-on type in the interview. She turned out to be a total bitch incapable of performing a simple task without first having a meeting about it.
They're everywhere. Colleagues, middle managers - heck, sometimes even CEOs - who are so astonishingly bad at their roles - or perhaps just simply borderline psychopathic - you wonder how they were ever hired for the job in the first place.
Hiring the wrong person is a big mistake for an employer, and one not easily rectified. Human resource consultants OPRA say that a conservative estimate of a recruitment error costs 30 per cent of the hired person's salary.
Like it or loathe it, the 90-day trial period introduced by the National government has gone some way to mitigate the cost of a poor choice of candidate but, nevertheless, the strength of New Zealand labour laws has ensured a thriving industry eager to help employers get it right first time.
So, what is the best method for finding out what a potential job candidate is really like - the true person beneath the polished, glossy exterior? Watching for the telltale body language signs of lying during the hard questions of an interview? The testimony of a referee? Or is it psychometric testing?
Disclosure of bias: I have always been skeptical of psychometric testing. Which is why, when taking part in a psychometric test conducted by recruitment company Randstad, in which I answered honestly, I asked to perform a second test, to see if I could successfully lie and improve my standing. But more of that later.
The first psychometric tests were conducted in the late 1800s by Sir Francis Galton, who would later come to be known as the "Father of Psychometrics".
A child prodigy, and cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton was, by all accounts, a genius. Not only was he the first to apply statistical methods from questionnaires designed to test human intelligence and mental ability - psychometrics - he also was the initiator of scientific meteorology, devising the first weather map and proposing the theory of anticyclones, invented the "Galton Whistle" for testing differential hearing ability, and made important contributions to the fields of criminology, eugenics and, in his spare time, photography.
Here, in New Zealand, psychometric testing gained popularity through the 80s and 90s, with significant industry growth in the mid to late 1990s. Nowadays, more than 100,000 tests are conducted in NZ every year. All of this adds up to big business. No one knows exactly how much money is involved, as the cost of an external test varies from $300 to $1500 (as opposed to in-house testing undertaken by companies, which is significantly cheaper), but it is certainly in the multimillions of dollars.
At Randstad's recent showcase of their psychometric testing procedures, New Zealand director Paul Robinson was hedging his bets on my questions as to how foolproof the tests are.
"It's important to remember that the results of a psychometric test shouldn't be an absolute decision-maker - a green or a red flag. It should just be one part of the decision-making process and, if used with robust interviewing, is a valuable tool."
He said that psychometric testing is particularly useful in screening candidates applying for jobs in which social skills are important, for example, the police or sales jobs.
But the company holds its testing in high enough regard to employ a full-time registered psychologist, Adrianna Loveday, both to help clients assess the core competencies needed for the jobs they are advertising, and to help assess the candidates applying.
Loveday said that testing has changed in the last decade.
Whereas candidates 10 years ago might have taken part in a psychometric test and the next thing they knew they were reading a rejection letter, nowadays recruiters and prospective employers are legally obliged to give candidates feedback on their tests.
"In the past, feedback on psychometric testing was poorly managed. Most people, if they didn't get the job, attributed it to testing. That's naturally what people think. Candidates should be entitled to the results of the testing.
"Feedback normally takes the form of verbal feedback, either by a psychologist or someone trained to do so. The answers we get are a direct measure of workplace potential. They will show how you behave under stress; the behaviour patterns you will revert to when the pressure is on.
"A smart employer will use psychometric testing for more than just screening out unsuitable candidates. It can be used with successful candidates. It recognises candidates' strengths and shows employers what to capitalise on. It also shows where they may benefit from some extra support.
"It is very difficult to 'cheat' on these tests," added Loveday. "They have in-built validity scales - lie measures - that show when you have tried to respond in a socially desirable way."
Which, of course, was where I got the idea to do a second, dishonest test.
BLUFF AND BLUSTER
So, is it possible to cheat successfully - psychometric speak: to engage in "impression management" - on the tests?
Well, yes. And no.
The tests I took were the Saville Wave Test, an internationally recognised psychometric assessment test. On the first test I answered honestly, and results, as expected, portrayed me as I expected they would.
On the second test, I decided I was going to be brilliant at making presentations and loved being the centre of attention (both of which I dread). I also raised my game across the board, although not enough to appear a complete narcissist.
The results were analysed by Christian Frederiksen, manager of psychology services at Ranstad, who said my impression management scores "were not at a level where I would put a question mark against them".
However, there were two areas of the questionnaire which didn't quite tally, and Frederiksen said that would make him concentrate on those discrepancies in a follow-up interview. "You have to be sure that the impression you get from a psych profile matches the impression you get from the interview."