Testing the testers

Psychometric tests have become one of HR’s favourite tools for recruitment and development. But what if the tables were turned and the profession had to sit the tests themselves? Jane Lewis reports

Psychometric testing has established itself as a useful tool in the armoury of many organisations, both as an aid to recruitment and as a means of developmental assessment. It has been estimated that some 70 per cent of UK organisations test their workforce either for personality or ability before making a job offer or conferring a promotion. And who’s in charge of all this activity? Who selects their relevant tests from the thousands on offer, interprets the results and judges the candidate’s overall aptitude for the role in question? Who is cracking the whip while others sweat? Why the HR department of course?

This is not to imply that personnel people do not themselves undergo psychometric tests. On the contrary, test publishers report that many are so sold on the idea of objective self-analysis that they willingly undergo tests before meting them out to others.

The only possible difficulty comes in choosing who will apply and interpret the test, but this is easily overcome. “As independent consultants we are often asked by HR departments to go in and test people in HR to avoid difficult situations”, says Helen Baron, deputy international r&d director at publisher SHL, the company behind the OPQ test. Indeed, many HR people are so honourable and scrupulous in this respect that they will often purposely choose a test with which they are not already familiar.

If there is a problem with the way companies use psychometric tests, argues Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London and widely credited as a leading expert on the subject, it is that they are not doing enough ability testing.

On the whole organisations have tended to focus more on assessing personality rather than intelligence or IQ. “The use of ability testing is rather weak in this country. This hasn’t been driven by any sensible thought process – it’s just been fashionable to focus on personality,” he says.

“When companies do test [for ability] it’s mainly to ascertain if scores are problematically low.”

Intensive tests

Furnham believes that managers across the board would benefit from a little more of this kind of examination – and HR is no exception to the rule. But he sees no reason why the profession should be leant upon to undertake a more intensive battery of tests, specific to its own remit in organisations. And most testers are inclined to agree.

“It’s hard to think of any particular skills areas which would be HR-specific,” contends Baron at SHL. “A lot of the skills you’d look at, perhaps verbal reasoning or numerical reasoning, would overlap with those you’d test for general management. We do put tasks into very recognisable contexts so that people get a feeling about the type of job they might do. For example, if it were an HR person we might talk about the number of employees. But that doesn’t necessarily change what we’re actually measuring.”

Neither do most psychometric experts believe that HR merits its own personality test. Again the contention is that tried and tested generic tests more than fulfil this need. “There isn’t a personality test for marketing managers or financial managers, so why should there be one specifically for HR?” asks Betsy Kendall, managing director of OPP, which publishes the English version of the well-known Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test.

Moreover, as she points out, it is not the result of the test per se that determines a person’s suitability for a role, so much as how that role is itself defined. “MBTI is a development tool rather than an assessment tool. It doesn’t aim to predict how someone will behave in a particular situation, but it will tell you which parts of a role will suit an individual best.”

Extraordinary variety

Nonetheless, Kendall believes that even if there was a market demand to devise a personality test specifically for HR (which there emphatically is not), it would be difficult to tackle because of the extraordinary variety inherent in the job. “You have those who are focused on systems, procedures, remuneration and the legality of employing people. There are others whose role is about the development of individuals and teams. In smaller organisations HR people are having to do both, which from a personality point of view is very interesting.

“The point is that in one of those roles you would want someone logical and objective – a strategic thinker capable of making tough decisions, and in the other you would need someone responsive, and empathic, with a good ear for people. So coming up with one personality test that would somehow incorporate both would be quite tricky.”

Those on the ground agree. Anne Strudwick, a succession planning consultant in the Halifax’s group personnel division, counts herself lucky to be working for an organisation large enough to be able to divide these myriad HR roles among several different kinds of specialists. “There isn’t a generic personnel role in our organisation. There are people responsible for policy formulation and research whose job is to ask ‘what-if’ questions. There are operational people who are mainly reactive. There are those whose main skills lie in negotiation, others who take a counselling role, and others who might be needed to make objective judgements.”

Nonetheless, she is aware that in smaller companies individuals might well be called upon to fulfil all these functions, with the frequent result that the more proactive, strategic side of the remit is left to moulder on the sidelines. “If you could stereotype an HR generalist, you might see them as inwardly focused – not seeing further than their own policies, obsessed with record-keeping, and mainly reactive in attitude. In my previous company it was very much like that.”

But the real point, argues Paul Kearns, managing director of HR consultancy Personnel Works, is that most HR professionals in the UK continue to fall into this camp. “The vast majority of people in HR came into the profession precisely because they didn’t want to get involved at the sharp end of the business.”

Yet all the evidence would suggest that companies are crying out for a new type of practitioner, capable of working in partnership with the business and thinking strategically about people as a valuable corporate asset. Operating very much at the sharp end of the spectrum, in fact.

Kearns contends that even though most HR people recognise this, they are still not delivering the goods, perhaps because they do not possess the necessary mind-set. “When I ask HR people if they are linked into the business, the answer is always ‘yes’. But the reality is almost always ‘no’,” he says.

And in his forthcoming book, The Bottom Line HR Function, he elaborates on the point. “Would it be too harsh to describe the state of existing HRM as the wrong function with the wrong role, employing the wrong people, doing the wrong things, with the wrong systems, tools and processes? Possibly, but it is fair to say that the HR function has managed to earn itself an awful reputation.”

Thus the real value of a psychometric test, geared specifically towards what we might crudely term the “new” HR mind-set, is self-evident. Not only would it help companies focus on exactly what they do require from HR management in an ideal world, but Kearns believes “it would also send some interesting signals back to the profession, and it might help unravel the pretty unique relationship between HR and line management”.

That no such test exists doesn’t signify there is no need for it. Rather, it demonstrates that the test-setters themselves aren’t fully up to speed with the changes facing the profession. “The analysis of the role is much more problematic than most psychologists recognise,” Kearns says.

“The problem is that we’re in a transition phase as the profession moves on towards greater business awareness and strategic thinking.”

Neither does he agree with the argument that qualities such as strategic ability, when applied specifically to the management of people, can be tested for generically. “I don’t think HR strategy is generic. If someone came up with that test, they’d make a few bob, and at some stage in the future someone will.

“The sad thing is that most people that I know in HR would fail (although I know it’s impossible to ‘fail’ a psychometric test).”

Biting the strategic bullet

Geoff Officer, managing director of TMP Cepec, an organisation specialising in career transition management, agrees that compared to the progress made by their colleagues in the US and Australia, for example, British HR professionals “still haven’t bitten the strategic bullet. Is HR in the forefront of change management? I’d put a question mark after that”.

But he believes it would be difficult to formulate a generic HR test “because the emphasis on the HR role varies substantially between different companies and also changes given the needs of an organisation at any one time.” In other words, it’s too slippery a fish to pin down.

But other commentators take a more upbeat line on both points. While agreeing that the profession is certainly in a state of flux, Sean Keeley, director of test development at Psychometric Services Ltd (PSL) maintains that the stereotypically “historical” HR has already been usurped in many organisations. “There is a grittier focus about HR; an acknowledgement that there is a numerical value attached to ‘people’ and consequently more people are proactively wanting to join the profession, rather than slipping in either by default or because they’re ‘good with people’.”

There is no psychometric test specifically devoted to assessing the optimum twenty-first century HR skill-set, he confirms. “It surprises me. HR people spend so much time assessing every single other department except their own.

“It should be possible to find someone who is inherently right for the profession, not just someone who can be moulded to fit the role, and I think you can identify these characteristics and formulate a test for them.

“The only reason we haven’t developed one so far is that we’ve never been asked.”

Perhaps that just about says it all.

Devising a psychometric test for HR professionals – the traits the experts would focus on

Sean Keeley, director of test development at PSL:

Flexibility and adaptability

“Because the range of things HR people have to get involved with is extraordinary.”

• Tough-mindedness

“Traditionally, HR has been seen to be about interpersonal skills – that’s fine, but you need to be able to deal with people in a logical and practical way. Relating with people is important, but HR isn’t about being a nice chap anymore, it’s about being effective and that might mean taking decisions for the good of the organisation that could have a detrimental affect on individuals.”

• Drive

“Historically, HR has been seen as a cosy and laid-back area of the company. But the new function should be seen much more as a consulting role. HR people need to be able to maintain that relationship as internal consultants, and instill other departments with faith in their abilities.”

• Operational skills

“The downfall of many HR departments is that they’re so people-orientated that they tend get in a muddle over the paper.”

• Caution

The ability to forward-think and anticipate the consequences of action (or inaction) is critical. “Companies often get into trouble because they forget to do things. HR people have got to ask: have I covered all the bases?'”

Paul Kearns, Director, Personnel Works:

• Problem-solving

“HR needs to be fully acquainted with standard problem solving techniques such as cause and effect analysis – even the plan, do, check cycle. This might sound obvious, but I know HR people who wouldn’t have the first clue what these entail.”

• Assertiveness

“HR has to make its mark in organisations – there is no room for shrinking violets. HR people need to be able to go in and say ‘Here’s what I’ve got to bring to the party’.”

• Aptitude

“Verbal reasoning is obviously an important skill for HR, but I would also put numerical reasoning further up the priority list. If you want to talk turkey with line managers, you need to be able to match their numerical skills.”

• Strategic skills

The ability to relate people to corporate strategy, apply analysis and understand the impact of HR on the business.

• Proactivity

“As the role of HR shifts to become more strategic, the profession needs to attract the kind of people who’ve got the initiative to go out there and look for problems, rather than waiting for them to arrive.”

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