The Acid Test

The Acid Test

Companies always want to hire the best people. But in their quest to secure such competitive advantage, employers now travel way beyond the CV and into the dark recesses of that most complex of frontiers - the human mind.

Folklore says Henry Ford would not hire anybody who could "make it past Personnel". He was a gut feel kind of guy, an approach that makes most of today's recruiters cringe in horror. One can only wonder what Ford would think of their latest tactics: psychometric assessment, behavioural interviews, personality profiles, emotional intelligence scores, IQ measurement and vocational interest exams.

Can these human resources tools really sort the wannabes from the winners, or are they just hocus-pocus?

Here's an example of what you might be asked during your next waltz with the recruiters, lifted directly from a psychometric assessment being used right now in the UK and Australia: "When cornered, do you reveal only small parts of the truth?"

Or how about this one: "If you were an insect, which one would it be?"

All you butterflies take note: you've got problems - but not as many as the preying mantises. We're not joking. And neither are those who frame the tests, some of which take years to develop. Recruiters say candidates gain as much from psychometric assessment as their inquisitors do and therefore, they have nothing to fear. Better yet, there are no correct answers and in the case of a behavioural interview you're told beforehand what will be discussed.

The use of workplace psychoanalysis has exploded in the past 10 years, reaching a zenith in Silicon Valley circa 2000. Yet there are well-placed detractors who claim psychometric tests and their like will soon go the way of the dinosaurs because they do not predict job performance, and worse, they are discriminatory.

Recruitment consultancy Chandler & McLeod claims that of the more than 400,000 people it has tested in Australia in the past 20 years, not a single person has ever said their test results did not match their personality. This, say the boosters, is proof that the tests provide real insights.

Bunkum, says Professor Robert Spillane from the Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney. A psychologist and author who teaches philosophy and psychology and their application to management, Spillane says psychometric assessment has no role in the workplace for two reasons: it does not predict management performance, and it is unethical because people are asked to do tests against their will and the results are revealed to a third party. He says psychology can help people gain insights into themselves but it should not be used for purposes of manipulation and control.

"If these tests could predict workplace behaviour then I would have no objection other than the ethical issue, but the simple facts are they don't predict workplace performance and they smuggle in a whole series of assumptions about human behaviour that a lot of people do not accept. For example, that we carry around a personality with us in the same way we carry around our liver, and that it can be measured. I don't accept that. Secondly, intelligence: I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. The fact that some people can't pass a test in arithmetic or comprehension simply tells us something about how they were educated," Spillane says. "What I find surprising is that intelligence tests are required for people who already have two or three university degrees. There's something fundamentally wrong with this whole business."

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