Testing the patience of a saint

The production of numerous codes of conduct have not reduced the risk of employers misusing the personality test

When you are alone, do you often find yourself pondering abstract questions of free will, evil etc? Are you fascinated by fire? Do you sometimes feel a delicious urge to injure someone – or perhaps yourself? Are you more of a colonel than a bishop? Are you afraid of catching a disease from a doorknob?

No-one forgets their first time with a personality test – in my case, the California Personality Inventory (CPI) some five years ago. I did my best to cheat its prying questions by attempting to massage one or two less agreeable traits (pyromania and self-harm, aside), but I must admit the results were truthful, insightful and accurate.

Of all the psychometric toys beloved by recruiters, personality tests have the most sulphurous reputation. It seems to endure as more and more people experience them. We don’t have statistics on how many employees have completed one in the course of their recruitment or development, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was somewhere near a sixth of the workforce.

According to research from IRS, 85 per cent of employers ‘sometimes’ use personality tests, while 9 per cent of private sector employers ‘always’ use them whenever they recruit. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is more cautious. It finds 44.7 per cent of employers use them – up 10 per cent on 2002 (intriguing that just 6.7 per cent rate them as ‘effective’). How many millions of workers, I wonder, have failed to get positions because of their ‘personalities’?

Occupational psychologists like to believe that if they could find a way to explain the science of population norms, competency frameworks, item banks and face validity in Ladybird book language, workers would welcome the late arrival of objectivity into recruitment.

They kid themselves. The issue is not the accuracy of the decent questionnaires (we’ll come on to the ropey ones in a minute); the problem rests with how employers use them, the potential for abuse of power, and the imbalance of information between employer and employee that they create. In this sense, psychometricians are as helpless as the composer whose jaunty overture becomes adopted as a fascist marching song.

For instance, I would hate to think of some dopey recruiter deciding whether or not I was cut out for a career in customer relations or forestry on the basis of my sociability, empathy and ‘togetherness’ scores. Body mass index would be a less intrusive criterion.

The bureaucratic way of confessing that something is possibly a bit dodgy, is to write a code of conduct governing its use. Witness the proliferation of codes on psychometrics. The test consumer can select rival codes and best practice guides from a gaggle of organisations – the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the International Test Commission, to name just three.

The codes are supposed to guarantee professionalism, the appropriateness of the test to the purpose, confidentiality of data, and so on. But all of them are virtually worthless, because none are proactively enforced.

For example, the CIPD is clear. “Personality tests should never be used for screening purposes,” it declares. Well, they are – and widely. Some of our biggest names in retail cope with volume recruitment by using online or telephone-based personality tests to whittle down a pile of applicants.

The BPS words its golden rule in a more muddled way. Users must “use tests only in conjunction with other assessment methods, and only when their use can be supported by the available technical information”. Again, personality tests are widely used on their own in selection procedures (names available, on request), an increasingly popular approach among graduate recruiters. The BPS has never received a complaint, and so will continue to turn a blind eye. The result is slack regulation when what is actually needed is public shaming of the malefactors.

Yet perhaps the greatest difficulty with personality tests in recruitment is that the applicant has no way of knowing if they are sitting a good test or a duff one. Theoretically, applicants should ask the test administrator for details about the validity of the test, their qualifications to interpret the results, and so on. In reality, though, how many people have enough background knowledge to be able to make informed decisions about such things?

In practice, they have to take the quality of the test on trust. When I sat the CPI, Robert McHenry, chairman of consultancy OPP, told me that he thought about six of the hundreds of tests on the market “met proper standards”. It is hard to believe that things have changed much since.

At least at an interview, there is a process of mutual assessment that goes on, with the applicant working out how the interviewer ticks as much as the other way round. Applicants can respond in their own words, deciding what to disclose and what rightly belongs in the private arena of personal individuality.

With personality tests, the employer holds all the cards. They (or their budget) decide on the test and assert its necessity, its non-discriminatory nature and its technical bona fides. They then probe total strangers on their attitudes to intimacy, theft, risk, spirituality and motivation. And then they use that material as they wield their power of appointment.

It is, as the Americans might say, an impressive case of ‘information asymmetry’. But on second thoughts, maybe that is why personality testing is becoming more popular.

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