Psychometrics: trade secrets – going global with assessment

Dr Rob Feltham outlines the steps you should consider when looking to roll out a global assessment process and get your hands on that global talent management.

Clare Short, the former cabinet minister responsible for international development in the Blair government, once commented: “People have accused me of being in favour of globalisation. This is equivalent to accusing me of being in favour of the sun rising in the morning.”

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As Short illustrated, while there will always be those who dispute the merits of globalisation, it is a fact of life. Corporate brands such as the BBC, Microsoft and McDonald’s are recognised in all corners of the world, and it is common for major organisations to have operations in 50 countries or more.

Many of the traditional legislative barriers to international job mobility have been removed and individuals are increasingly willing to relocate to new countries as they go in search of international experience and career advancement. Add in to this mix the fact that skills shortages in developed economies such as the UK are causing employers to search for talent overseas, and it becomes clear that we are now living in an age when cross-border recruitment and flexible international deployment of staff is more prevalent than ever before.

Recognising the opportunities and challenges presented by the forces of globalisation, employers are increasingly seeking to roll out uniform international assessment and development programmes to ensure that they secure their share of the top talent available across the globe and utilise that talent optimally across their businesses.

However, there are inherent difficulties in measuring different nationalities against international benchmarks. Whether, you are involved in managing a complex, large-scale programme to find the next generation of leadership talent in your organisation, or simply seeking to identify suitable candidates for one or two international posts, it is important that you take care to accommodate cultural factors into your assessment processes. This will help you to take advantage of the increasingly diverse global talent pool.

Recognise that benchmarking can be problematic

It might be desirable to make sure that all employees meet the required benchmark for a particular role irrespective of location, but businesses must also recognise that national characteristics can influence how individuals respond to particular types of assessment.

For example, when measuring candidate ‘assertiveness’ through a personality questionnaire, it is important to know that in Asia superiors are often afforded significantly higher degrees of respect than their counterparts in Europe, and the tendency in these countries is often to avoid conflict and confrontation. It is, therefore, important to take these factors into account when viewing the responses of Asian managers to questions exploring these areas.

Make sure that things don’t get lost in translation

There is sometimes a tendency for employers to ask staff from different countries to complete assessments in English, rather than to source local language materials. This may disadvantage those who are not native English speakers because they will be required to process information in their second or possibly third language. The situation can become particularly acute where timed assessments are used. Therefore, it is far better to use materials that have been translated into the candidate’s mother tongue. This applies equally to assessments being conducted outside the UK and when assessing individuals from overseas in this country.

However, even in the UK, assessors must take care to ensure that the meaning of assessment content is not lost in translation.

For example, consider the statement: “I work hard”. Cubiks conducted a research project which showed that although this concept was understood by British managers, it was not meaningful to French managers. The reason seemed to be that ‘hard work’ in France is seen as ‘toiling’ and therefore regarded as lower level work. We then explored whether the notion of ‘effort’ might be more culturally acceptable to the French. When trialed, the new wording proved to be significantly more effective as an equivalent measure.

To cite another example, Finnish managers tended to reject statements that suggested a need for rules and direction much more than did the English. When Finns considered the statement: I like to have directions for doing things, it transpired that words such as ‘rules’ and ‘directions’ tend to be viewed by Finns as evidence of authoritarianism. By using the alternative terms ‘guidelines’ and ‘framework’, a similar effect to the British version was produced.

It makes sense that assessment measures are trialed on local groups and adapted wherever necessary before being used in ‘live’ situations with real participants.

Think global and local

It is important when using business case studies, role-plays or group exercises, to make sure that the scenarios covered in these exercises have been adapted to give all participants equal opportunity to perform. For example, a case study focusing on the European cheese market is unlikely to have great meaning for candidates from outside this region and the use of such an exercise could prove counter-productive from an employer branding perspective, as well as in an assessment sense. Therefore, exercises must be designed to include culturally-relevant or culturally-neutral content.

When looking for candidates to display behaviours that are valued and sought-after by the employer, assessors must ensure that they review the behavioural indicators they use for application within the local culture, and don’t simply take them from the company headquarters. For example, in the US, it is generally seen as positive if an individual is prepared to use their initiative and take calculated risks in order to capitalise on opportunities. However, in countries where the culture is less entrepreneurial, such as in some parts of South America and Asia, individuals will be less likely to demonstrate such behaviours. This needs to be taken into account both when designing assessment processes and when selecting and training assessors.

Look for opportunities to utilise online technology

The wide availability of assessment tools in online formats means it is now possible for organisations to streamline assessment operations significantly. For example, by asking candidates to complete a series of tests online at their base location prior to an assessment centre in a central office, organisations can save a great deal of test administration time and free up time for more observational activities during the assessment day.

Online assessment tools can also be particularly effective for handling large volumes of applicants, common in developing countries where employers are sometimes deluged with applications. In locations such as India, it is not uncommon for organisations to receive more than 20,000 applications for a handful of entry-level roles, which causes obvious logistical difficulties for recruiters. In these situations online screening tools can be particularly useful.

However, while online assessment tools can prove highly effective in terms of cost and efficiency, employers should work with the designers of the tools to ensure that they are valid and appropriate for the specific context. Also employers need to be careful not to make assumptions about things such as the levels of internet penetration in different countries. It is easy to make inaccurate judgements based on Western experience.

Data protection requirements also differ widely across the globe and international businesses must be aware of what information they are allowed to collect and hold on individuals, how this must be stored and managed, and what forms of employee/candidate consent are required.

Use a mixture of international and local assessors

On any international assessment project, it is important that good project management techniques are applied from the outset. Thorough education, training and briefing information must be given to all team members, particularly those at a local level, to ensure that they understand the project drivers, the goals, the desired business outcomes, and critically, the role that they will be expected to play in the project’s success.

Best results are usually achieved when organisations bring together individuals from all relevant territories for the design, evaluation and execution of the assessment project. As well as avoiding culturally sensitive issues in the design process, the combined use of global co-ordinators from the corporate HQ and local assessors with diverse backgrounds and experience, will enable the team to understand how to tackle each aspect of the assessment process.

For example, it is becoming increasingly important for employers to make sure that candidates receive feedback on how they have performed during an assessment, both to meet best practice requirements and to enhance candidate buy-in, thus helping to build and maintain a positive employer brand. However, the way that feedback is delivered to candidates needs to be adjusted according to the location. For example, while in some cultures it will be sufficient to explain how a candidate has performed in relation to the company’s benchmark requirements, in places such as Scandinavia candidates will be seeking more detailed development-based information that they can use to improve their performance the next time they are in a similar situation.

Local assessors will be aware of such issues and will help to ensure that they are not overlooked.

Recognise an international manager when you see one

When staff are appointed to international positions it tends to be based on their availability, skills, experience and track record in relation to the specific job requirement.

There is frequently little choice for the HR function, and the issue then becomes less one of selection and more one of helping the individual to make an effective transition, both into the new territory and, later, back to base. Nevertheless some individuals make the transition more effectively than others, particularly where roles are of a general managerial or more ambiguous nature. Although company-specific conditions make it difficult to make detailed assumptions about the types of individual that will succeed in an international management role, it is nevertheless possible to summarise characteristics broadly that are possessed by many effective international managers. These individuals often display:

  • Open-mindedness and an orientation towards learning new things
  • Desire to engage with the local culture
  • Good relationship management skills
  • Ability to regulate their behaviour to fit the situation
  • Tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity

Therefore, if you are a recruiter, assessor or line manager seeking to identify individuals who are likely to do well in a position that involves international management responsibility, these are qualities that may be particularly relevant.

As the pace of globalisation accelerates, and organisations seek to achieve successful market penetration in far more territories than ever before, it is essential that employers are able to put in place assessment tools and processes that will allow them to identify talented individuals wherever they do business. However, it is important that international companies are sensitive to local conditions and do not seek to impose rigid procedures and materials from the corporate centre as this will only serve to alienate both candidates and local staff. The most successful organisations will be flexible, considerate and use culturally adapted tools that give all employees and candidates equal opportunity to perform and show their potential.

Top tips

Get it right first time: At the start of the project, invest time identifying the abilities, competencies and behaviours that you will expect employees and candidates to possess. Check that these qualities are relevant and essential for all the countries/cultures in question. Once done, consider how these qualities can best be tested for in a way that gives everyone an equal opportunity to perform. If you lack experience in assessment, contact a specialist consultancy for advice.

For psychometric testing, use culturally adapted materials: The way that personality is expressed in thought and behaviour will be affected by linguistic and cultural differences. Therefore it is highly desirable that you use assessment materials that have been carefully translated, adapted and trialed by assessment experts.

Design assessment centres and interviews with multiple cultures in mind: Once you have established your core requirements, think about how your processes will need to be designed or adapted for robustness to local market conditions. If working in an international organisation, be sure to consult local staff.

Go online: If you are comfortable that all participants will be able to gain internet access, and you have culturally adapted tests, look for opportunities to introduce online assessments that can save time, money and significantly streamline the testing process.

Our experts

Dr Rob Feltham is executive director of innovation, products and technology at international HR consultancy Cubiks.

Dr Uwe Napiersky is a managing consultant for Cubiks based in Belgium. Both have extensive experience in international assessment and development.

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