John-Paul Flintoff

Are you the right man for the job?

Taking the psychometric test

It’s Wednesday afternoon. I’m sitting at my PC, furtively completing an online questionnaire. Every so often, somebody walks up behind me, so I tab between windows to hide what I’m doing. When they’ve gone, I tab back and continue to answer “true” or “false” to a series of boldly personal assertions: Sometimes I feel as if I’m falling apart. It upsets me to hurt people’s feelings. I would like to be a racing driver.

Altogether, there are 206 statements on the questionnaire. To answer them all takes about half an hour. When I’ve finished, I press a button which sends the completed questionnaire electronically to a firm of occupational psychologists. By the time you read this, I should find out if I’m suited to my job.

Psychological assessment, a huge business in the US, has grown solidly here since the 1970s, when it first became readily available to employers. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people submit to it as part of their applications for employment. The organisations which have embraced it include most high street banks; non-commercial agencies such as Voluntary Services Overseas; and multinational corporations such as BA, Shell and Pearson, which owns the Financial Times.

Not all of them use the same techniques – indeed, the techniques are often regarded as commercially valuable secrets. But between them, these organisations provide an enormous and lucrative market for occupational psychologists. In 1997, when the British consultancy Saville & Holdsworth went public, the market was valued at more than £30m. And there’s every reason to suppose it is growing. So if you haven’t been tested already, you soon will be.

The point of the exercise is not to weed out the mentally ill but to establish a person’s qualities relative to particular job. Take lorry drivers: they must be prudent – observing regulations – and also not particularly sociable. (If they are sociable, they’ll probably stop at a lot of transport cafes and maybe pick up hitch-hikers, which they shouldn’t.) So haulage firms, when they hire staff, tend to look for prudence and low sociability. Air traffic controllers, ideally, manifest a different set of characteristics – and foreign-exchange dealers yet another. There is no right or wrong, it depends entirely on the job. It’s like being short or tall: you can’t be both.

Until recently, solicitors only gave partnerships to lawyers from their own firm. Nowadays they hire specialist outsiders – and if done without sufficient care, this can have a dire effect on the corporate ethos. Ian Terry, managing partner at Freshfields, says his firm turned to a psychologist for help last year. “We needed to look a bit deeper. We can say for ourselves, ‘OK, so this guy is a leading Dutch tax lawyer’ – but is he also a psychopath?”

The particular assessment used at Freshfields, Terry explains, produces reports which tend to read positively. “You think, ‘Christ, this guy must have written this himself!’” But in one instance a lawyer’s report confirmed unattractive features which had been noticed in interviews beforehand. “He didn’t look like a team player,” says Terry. “The report said, ‘This person is very focused and ambitious and will achieve goals…’ [When] you read between the lines, you could see he was a bit of a shit. A bit high-maintenance.” Consequently, that lawyer did not become a partner at Freshfields.

One who did is Richard Lister, an e-commerce specialist who consulted the assessors’ website before taking the test. “It’s based on Adlerian theory. I went to Books Etc and sat there reading every every idiot’s guide to Adlerian theory I could find.”

After submitting some written material, Lister spent several hours with a psychologist, Dr Nick Isbister. “You go through what you have written. Nick asks what you were feeling – what went though your mind – when, for example, you beat someone in the piano competition at Manchester Grammar School. His questions are designed to expose the specific drives within you.”

When Isbister’s report came through, Lister was amused to find he was just the sort of person who would go into a bookshop to research the test. “I’m a data-hoover. It’s something I’ve noticed in myself – something people have taken the piss out of me for.”

Which is indeed interesting, but you hear much the same subjective endorsement from astrology fanatics. Is psychological assessment any more scientific than star signs? It’s hard to say, because the people best placed to judge the work of occupational psychologists are… occupational psychologists.

Respectable assessors, to be fair, offer employers the reassurance of extensive statistical validation. The test I am taking, for instance was developed by an American, Professor Robert Hogan, in 1972. And he based it on a pre-existing test, the California Psychological Inventory, so there’s plenty of statistical research.

The company which operates Hogan’s tests outside the US is Psychological Consultancy Ltd, established in 1992 by a psychologist, Dr Geoff Trickey. The Hogan tests are not the best known in the UK, but in recent months Trickey has received 15 requests for it from overseas – most recently from Turkey. Over coffee in St Martin’s Lane – followed immediately, at 6pm, by a beer – he attempts to explain the attraction of his product.

Despite his sober suit, wire-framed specs and grey hair, Trickey is an amusing character – unduly inclinded to flippancy, according to his own personality profile. He’s particularly excitable today because he’s been talking to potential clients about his new online testing service.

To take the Hogan tests online costs around £80 per person (for large jobs PCL offers discounts). This is how it works. After receiving the completed questionnaire electronically, PCL’s computers interpret the answers – and allocate scores, across a predetermined set of character traits – within moments. Further algorithmic analysis assesses the candidate’s potential for, say, clerical work, sales or management. And finally candidates are appraised against a predetermined statistical ideal for the specific job they’re after. The whole process takes moments, and a summary report can be emailed to applicants in less than five minutes. (In-depth feedback is also available.)

But – rapid or slow – do employers really need psychometric testing? Yes, says Trickey: “Unless you hire everyone, you are into selection. And that can have dire results. Ask any employer if they’ve ever had the employee from hell. They all have! Whenever you open a newspaper you find an instance of something that has gone wrong because of a bad assessment of a person’s character. For example, someone who’s been let out of prison and kills again. We all have to sum up other people, but the fact is that our ability to sum up another person’s character is not good.”

Psychometric testing has an actuarial basis. “We compare the results and work out a pattern – showing, say, which kinds of people will stay with a call centre and which ones will soon leave. It’s like trying to bottle what is good about the most effective people.”

Applicants hoping to cheat can do so only if they know the personality profile required for the particular job. In practice, few bother. Roger Holdsworth, co-founder of a leading consultancy, the publicly owned Saville & Holdsworth, has suggested that people are sometimes too honest: “It is not unknown for people applying for customer service jobs to say they don’t like working with clients. Either they can’t be bothered to lie – or they can’t work out what is required.”

And a recent study, of 10,000 applicants for the US army – adds Trickey – showed that only 5 per cent were faking. They know this because each test has some kind of in-built validity scale, triggered by candidates’ responses to certain questions. For example, I have never knowingly told a lie. If candidates agree with that statement, employers might reasonably be suspicious of all their other answers.

On training courses, human resources personnel are encouraged to fake the Hogan test, skewing their answers in response to two job ads: one for a sales director, the other for a community librarian. The results, Trickey says, are usually grotesque. “When people abandon their own frame of reference, they’re lost.”

That’s what he says. I’d like to see it for myself. So I try faking. Half-way through, I’m interrupted by a call from Trickey: he’s got the result of my own, real test. To my surprise, he says he likes it – “I was chuffed when I read it” – because it confirms what he knows about me. That’s not a great deal, after just a couple of quick drinks – and anyway his response is deeply paradoxical. Trickey’s company depends on individuals being bad judges of other people – while personally he displays the human impulse to “get” somebody’s character. He wonders if I’d like him to fax through my report, but I put him off because I want to finish faking. This pleases him even more: “Ah, yes,” he says, “that’s because you’re less impetuous than me.”

Having faked the theoretical salesman and librarian, I try faking again in the character of a couple of real people, close friends who have agreed to take the test themselves to see how close I get. Having shared a flat with them both, I’m extremely confident.

But it’s not that easy. I make myself dizzy considering, say, Q142: I have a lot of friends. Do Will and Martin have a lot of friends? If so, would they put it that way? Would Will? Would Martin?

Other questions strike me as a waste of time because, the way I see it, everybody must answer them the same way. For instance any reasonable person could only honestly disagree with the statement: I never resent not getting my own way. Granted, my idea of a reasonable person may not be the same as yours – but could anyone answer “true” to the assertions Nothing good ever happens to me, or I can’t do anything well? Surely not, because to do so would certainly impair job prospects – and job prospects are what psychometric testing is all about.

In the event, though, I’m obliged to revise my opinions. To collect my results, I visit Trickey at his office in Tunbridge Wells, on the top floor of a stucco house behind the shopping centre. We talk in the bizarre meeting room – where the wall features gothic masks, one horned, the other with snakes in her hair. Today, Trickey wears no tie. His light-grey socks are decorated with some cartoon character – possibly Snowy from the Tintin books. As gravely as these circumstances allow, he says: “This is you,” and slips a report across the table.

On the second page, a bar graph breaks down my personality into seven categories. My strongest suit is scholarship, closely followed by agreeability. Good news? Not necessarily, because too much agreeability, in managers, can be problematic: “It means you don’t like to be unpleasant to people,” says Trickey.

“You give yourself three out of six on leadership qualities,” he adds. “At interview, someone can pick up on these details: ‘You don’t see yourself as having leadership characteristics, would you say that’s realistic?’”

To show how the test can be applied to specific jobs, Trickey has analysed my result against an ideal for retail management. Since I am not interested in a career change, my low-to-average score is neither surprising nor upsetting. On the contrary, its barmy specifics make me laugh. With me in charge, “the management, control, and security of stock may be no more than reasonable, and the same may be true of store cleanliness and general care.”

Theoretically, a test with 206 statements has an enormous number of outcomes. But in practice PCL’s reports are use a fairly small number of generic prose passages. Trickey considers this a good thing. “With a more complex narrative, you lose sight of the algorithms – the actual answers to the test. This version keeps those clear. It doesn’t give you the person’s deepest psychology – but that isn’t what it’s about.” So even if profiles don’t perfectly match the individual, the actuarial approach remains helpful to employers. Trickey draws an analogy from the world of insurance: “If you fill in a lifestyle questionnaire, you lie about how much you drink and smoke. Everyone does. But it still works, even using that dirty data. If it didn’t, the insurance companies would go bust.”

For my own test, as it happens, I aimed to be truthful. On the validity scale, I scored 14 out of 14. On the others, my faking showed through. “When you fake, you tend to caricature a person. You made your salesman a delinquent – high on sociability but low on adjustment and prudence. Zero out of five for impulse control. Your salesman is Arthur Daley.

“And I wouldn’t give you a job as a librarian. You scored so low on ambition, it’s unlikely your librarian would even bother to get up in the morning. And her sociable scale! She’d never come out of her mobile library – she’d just shout ‘Your books are here!’ and drive off.”

Impersonating my friends, I turn out to have underestimated Will in every category, and my version of Martin is entirely out of whack. Comparing the bar graphs is depressing, because it suggests I don’t know my friends so well after all. “It’s harder to do this than you think,” says Trickey.

Up till now, I’ve taken only one of the Hogan tests, the one which, for marketing purposes, Trickey calls the “Bright Side”. Another, the “Inside”, relates to a person’s interests and values. “The sorts of thing you say at parties: ‘I don’t eat meat because of Linda McCartney’, and so on.” Joyce McNeill, assessment adviser at the VSO, has used the Inside test to identify stark differences between volunteers for overseas service and the population at large: “Volunteers are more strongly motivated by altruism,” she says. “They’re less interested in money, and power, and professional standing.” By running the test before sending people abroad, it should be possible to weed out the ones who would otherwise give up and return home.

The third Hogan test – generally used only for top-end appointments, and never on its own – identifies qualities which, under great stress, can become extreme. Confidence, for example, becomes arrogance; shrewdness – usually an asset in managers – can become suspicion and paranoia. Officially entitled the Hogan Development Survey, this third test is marketed by PCL as the “Dark Side”. With its overtones of Darth Vader, the label is tremendous for grabbing attention. It might possibly scare off some clients, but not me. I can’t wait to try it. How does Trickey think I’ll score this time? “I suspect that, if you do have a dark side, there’s maybe only one. But I wouldn’t like to guess what that will be.”

A couple of days later, he phones with my results. In three of the 11 categories, I score below average: I’m not cautious, detached or arrogant. I’m averagely enthusiastic, shrewd and diligent, and I have elevated score for vivacious, imaginative and dutiful. In two categories, the report finds that I do have a dark side.

On the scale which runs from “focused” (good) to “passive aggressive” (bad), I figure in the 94th percentile of people who have taken the test. “On a positive note,” the report says, “John-Paul will be obliging and pleasant towards colleagues while able to remain focused… probably very good at maintaining a socially acceptable façade even when things are bothering him.” Less happily, it continues: “People with high scores on this scale may… ignore constructive criticism, as part of [a] tendency to be quietly, and defensively, self-indulgent.”

On the charming-to-manipulative scale, my test puts me into the 97th percentile. “Spontaneous, provocative, good fun, charming, persuasive, independent and self-assured”. Quite so, but honesty demands some account of the report’s gloomier analysis. Under pressure, it asserts, “high scorers may use their considerable social skill to manipulate or even to deceive others… taking extreme risks… prone to ignore past mistakes… apparently casual disregard for others…” That’s enough. You get the picture.

“This is very difficult stuff to feed back,” says Trickey, “because it’s so negative. Responses vary. Some people say: ‘That’s so me.’ Others deny it.” It’s important to remember, he adds, that this is what I am like only occasionally. “And the report plants a thought in the mind. From now on, you’ll recognise things when they occur.”

So there’s not only a benefit for employers but also – at least theoretically – for the people who actually undergo the assessment. That’s hugely reassuring, because outside the human resources business many people might consider it distasteful to sort human beings by algorithms, bar-graphs and boilerplate prose. Speaking for myself, I don’t mind it. I didn’t find the online test coldly impersonal. Nor would I deny the report’s findings, though they don’t exactly strike home painfully either. Perhaps I would have disliked the process a little more if I was applying for a real job.

Richard Lister, for one, prefers the Adlerian process that he went through. More than that, he positively enjoyed it. “I do think it was quite objective. This was not one of those tests where you compare people’s answers with some data set. It wasn’t just ’(a), (b), (c), (d). Thank you very much, we’ll now tell you if you are a cheeseburger, or whatever.’ For me,” he adds, “the assessment was very worthwhile. It made me feel like I was getting closer to my new employer. It was a positive sell.”

2905 words. First published 8 April 00. © FT Magazine

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