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Bill Bennett


Psychometric tests: How to succeed

Psychometric testing is controversial. That hasn’t stopped it being popular with human resource managers and recruiters. They see it as a quick, efficient way of sorting people.

From their point of view CVs, interviews and references only show a person’s skills and experience. Uncovering their personality – in particular their ability to mesh with a corporate culture – is harder. That’s the sales pitch.

In reality stressed recruiters use a barrage of tests, including psychometrics, to speed hiring. Some tests are automated. Candidates sit computerised psychometric tests – perhaps in a recruitment company’s offices. In other cases professionals supervise paper-based tests.

Psychometric testing a waste of time?

Without a qualified, experienced professional to interpret results, psychometric tests are a waste of time. The results are complex to interpret and sensible analysis is beyond a layperson. It might be fine to hire a cleaner on the basis of an automated test, sane people wouldn’t hire knowledge workers that way.

I met psychometric testing a decade ago. After a series of intense interviews for a senior position, I was asked to take a series of tests. The session lasted four hours, almost without a break. I warmed up with what looked like IQ tests and moved on to logical reasoning exercises. A long and vaguely baffling exercise followed where I had to choose from seemingly random pairs of job titles in order of preference.

For example, the test might pair ‘janitor’ and ‘rocket scientist’. Picking one isn’t hard. In fact, the test was obviously designed for an American audience and included some job descriptions that, while not incomprehensible, certainly were not familiar.

Not difficult

Finally the real psychometric tests – I suspect the job-ranking test might be a form of psychometric exercise too. Answering the questions isn’t difficult; indeed, the tester asked me not to think too hard but to go with my first response to any question.

By the end of the four-hour test session I was emotionally drained, physically exhausted, thirsty and hungry. After a 30-minute lunch break I returned for a task-specific question and answer session.

A few days later an industrial psychiatrist called me to discuss the tests. He discussed my longer-term career prospects and plans and made suggestions that I hadn’t otherwise considered. I worried the tests might show him that I was an employment basket case – or worse. In fact the news was largely positive and insightful. It turns out I’m far better at certain things that I previously thought. As it happens I got the job, but that’s another story.

Some merit

Going purely on my personal experience, I can see some merit in the ideas behind this kind of testing. Personality is the most important factor when hiring an executive, more important than skills and experience and as important as aptitude. It makes sense to establish objective benchmarks that go beyond the kind of human prejudices we can all be, even unwittingly, guilty of. I have two concerns. First, despite what the professionals say, it is possible for people to learn how to answer psychometric tests in a way that portrays them in a favourable light.

Years ago I interviewed John Wareham a New Zealand-born recruitment expert who helped develop these tests. He said the trick people quickly learn is to avoid the extremes.

Most tests ask you to rate things on a scale of 1 to 5 – if you want to get a good job make sure the bulk of your answers cluster around the centre of this range.

On the other hand minor alarm bells ring if you fail to tick any extreme answers. Wareham also said the tests quickly detect any dishonesty by cross-referencing; answer truthfully or you’ll be exposed as a phony.

My second fear is that managers often use it to offload decision-making responsibility. External objective measures are good, but they can’t make decisions. There’s a temptation to just look at printouts and test scores and not go beyond this to look at other, possibly more compelling, evidence.



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