The sorcerer’s apprentices

Anyone who applies for a job in one of B&Q’s DIY stores is in for a
shock. Not for B&Q the terse little letter, asking promising candidates to
come in for interview, or informing the unsuccessful of their doom. Instead,
candidates will receive a document with a graph on it plotting their
personality against population norms on such factors as conscientiousness,
cleanliness and integrity, and a commentary explaining why they may or may not
be cut out for a life in customer service.

Thanks to an ‘Automated Telephone Screening Interview’ – a telephone-based
psychometric questionnaire – the store claims to be able to tell which of the
200,000 applicants each year might be suitable for one of 15,000 jobs. By
pressing numbers on a phone, B&Q tests personalities to see if applicants
fit with the kind of ‘culture’ it wants in its shops. "I prefer to have my
closest relationships outside work rather than with a colleague," the
system asks, or "I believe most people will steal if they can get away with
it." You press five for ‘very like me’ or numbers down to one for ‘nothing
like me at all’.

Brave new techniques

Following the ‘interview’, the system works out a score and generates the
document. The successful go on to a database so managers at one of the 320
stores can pick from a shortlist. Only then will candidates be asked about
drill bits, paint finishes and pyracanthas.

There is always a section of the HR community who become incontinent with
excitement about go-ahead psychological sorcery like this. Imagine, they say to
themselves, a whole shop of people sharing personality traits – everybody
yes-siring and can-doing and going the extra mile – but not swiping stock or
impregnating their colleagues. Fantastic!

But isn’t it all a bit too Brave New World? Recruitment is becoming a
tool for breeding social stability in the workplace, a kind of
pseudo-scientific caste system. The next step might be hatching employees in
incubators. It is with a certain cheek, that the company has ‘respect for
people’ as one of its five ‘values’ adorning wall plaques in stores across the

Prospective scoffers should not be too quick, though. B&Q has been
outspokenly progressive on HR. It is in the vanguard of employers who have
taken up the cause of older workers (they know more about DIY), has very
generous profit-share policies and has pioneered flexible working and e
learning. Moreover, its automated recruitment scheme has the advantage of
consistency and does not discriminate on race or gender. Store managers
whittling down a pile of applications by the time-honoured method of caprice
and prejudice is not exactly ideal.

The psychometric commentary is part of an effort to provide feedback to
applicants (part of psychometric best practice). Yet the most powerful argument
in its favour is a simple one: since the psychometric system was adopted in
1999, staff turnover has fallen, from 35 per cent a year to 29 per cent.

Psychometric tests, of course, remain controversial. To some they are wicked
because they are darkly accurate, boiling down personalities to their
alchemical essence. To others they are wicked because they are inaccurate, with
as much predictive veracity for employment as sorting by birth weight.

But assuming the technical bona fides of B&Q’s test, it seems to me
there are two good grounds for questioning if this sifting mechanism is, well,
quite up to the job.

Dubious wisdom

First, it is very intrusive. Prying into the quirks and ticks of human
individuality for the sake of an entry-level job does not seem proportionate,
let alone wise. How would you like it if you went for a job selling paint, were
quizzed about your relationships, and received an analysis of your personality?

Second, it is dubious how this system fits with the guidelines of the British
Psychological Society (BPS), the body that supposedly promotes responsible test

The BPS code of good practice says test users should "use tests only in
conjunction with other assessment methods and only when their use can be
supported by the available technical information".

In B&Q’s system, more than 150,000 applicants are being rejected on the
basis of a psychometric instrument alone.

Fortunately for B&Q, the BPS is not clear what its own guideline means.
Does it mean psychometric tests should not be the only tool used to accept or
reject someone? Or does it mean a company should use interviews and references
in addition to psychometrics in its overall recruitment armoury?

David Bartram, chairman of the BPS steering committee on test standards and
research director of SHL, says the latter: it’s a question of overall
recruitment and B&Q is safe. Yet Colin Selby, a member of the division of
occupational psychology at the BPS and a consultant with Penna, says the
former: no-one should be rejected solely because of a psychometric test score.

To have such a confused message is a fudge of real psychological genius on
the part of the BPS, leaving organisations to invent their own rules – ably
assisted by suppliers with an interest in marketing psychometric applications.
The truth is neither efficient nor modern: there are significant ethical
downsides to relying on psychometrics as an initial filter that never existed
with old-fashioned manual short-listing.

Comments are closed.