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For more than a decade now the hottest spot in the knowledge worker job market is for people who combine strong technical skills with an underlying comprehension of how business works. At the high-end salaries in excess of $500,000 are achievable. Although to get this money you’d need to be highly experienced and at the top of your profession.

But there’s an important twist. Employers aren’t just willing to pay for paper qualifications; they want to see real evidence of solid experience.

Evidence of a strong track record is even more important in a downturn than in the good times because employers simply can’t afford to take a punt.

Right now an ability to deliver is critical. No one is going to pay anyone a cent unless they can deliver exactly what’s expected. And this comes back to the basic principle of interview and selection; past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.

Experience means you know what you’re doing

The logic goes like this: If you’ve done the job before, you can do it again. If you’ve done it before, did it well learning new things along the way then you’ll do it better next time.

In other words, knowledge workers should look for jobs giving them the right experience, not an immediate high salary. The strategy that pays off in the long-term and a wise move in a downturn.

During previous recessions (the early 1990s, just after the dotcom crash) the knowledge workers who had the most trouble finding work were those who had previously enjoyed puffed up salaries. Often they were puffed up themselves and didn’t have a track record of delivering.

Remember that the right kind of experience will almost always beat paper qualifications in an employer’s view. Faced with the choice between spending $30k on a masters’ degree and taking a $30k pay hit to work on a prestigious project, the latter is the better investment.

There was a time when bosses demanded loyalty. In return they’d give you a job for life – or at least a sizable chunk of it, along with steady progress through the ranks and pay rises.

At some point the social contract broke down. Employers no longer expect you to stay for ever. Or at least most don’t. If they want to keep your skills, talent and enthusiasm they’ll offer you equity, options or another incentive.

So you’re off then?

From a younger person’s point of view, moving on should not just be about earning better money. You should also build your curriculum vitae. You must balance the variety of skills and breadth of acquired experience against the need to show stability. Make sure you make a tidy, clean break and stay friends.

Your next employer may not care if you have only been in your current job for 10 months, but later employers will.

It’s important that you don’t appear to be a butterfly flitting casually from job to job. On the other hand, smart recruiters recognise five years at a single employer might not mean five years of experience, but the same year of experience repeated five times. It might also show an unambitious nature or even a lack of gumption.

No easy answers

There are no hard and fast rules. Details differ from discipline to discipline and from region to region, but after talking to recruiters and people who successfully manage their careers the following seems to be about the right recipe for today’s job market:

  • It’s OK to have a new job roughly every year up until around your 30th birthday.
    Assuming you graduate at 22, that means you can safely fit in seven employers before hitting your 30s. Less than three employers in this time means you probably haven’t learnt enough. Higher degrees, periods of self-employment and bar-keeping in London each count as a single employer.
  • When you hit 30, you need to slow down. Individual jobs should last between 18 months and three years with an average of over two years.
    Aim for four jobs between your 30th and 40th birthdays. Don’t worry if one lasts less than 18 months—but make sure you have a good explanation if there is more than one short-term job. Higher degrees and periods of self-employment are still cool. Indulgent goofing-off (i.e. bar-keeping in London) can look flaky to some employers, but accomplishing something (writing a book, sailing single-handed around the world or climbing Everest) is OK.
  • Above 40 it’s OK to stay a little longer with employers, but not too long and certainly not if you stay in the same role. The lower limit of 18 months still applies but you should be looking to clock up some extended periods of more than four or five years with a single employer.

You don’t succeed or fail a psychometric test.

There are no pass and fail marks. There are ways to get the best from a test.

If a boss asks you to take a psychometric test, the chances are they want to know if you are right for a job. If you don’t match their needs, they may find a suitable opening elsewhere.

Psychometrics make the best use of employees

Some bosses use the tests like the Hogwarts sorting hat to make the best use of employees.

Supporters think the tests reveal attitudes and beliefs as well as personality. They can put empathic workers with good communications skills in front of customers. They can keep miserable bastards in the back rooms where they won’t upset anyone.

This is controversial. Not everyone agrees psychometric tests have value. Reducing personalities to a handful of key terms is handy. But it oversimplifies. It can lead to wrong assumptions about how people react to various circumstances.

Also, people change. If you take the same test on two different days you may get different results.

 

Cheating pointless

While it is possible to game a psychometric test: to show the personality needed for a plum job, cheating is hard and pointless.

Well-designed psychometric tests have subtle cross-references to tease out inconsistencies and spot cheats. Testers know when replies are not genuine.

Showing up as flaky and dishonest is not good (unless perhaps you are seeking a career where these traits are an asset). Alternatively, you may just end up looking like you’re confused or crazy.

This aside, cheating a psychometric test is pointless because the purpose is to decide whether you are a good fit for a particular job.

Why would you want to trick your way into a role which, by definition, you are unsuitable? Not only will you make yourself unhappy, but you’ll almost certainly doom yourself to failure.

So, what can you do to get the best from a test?

Ten tips for getting a good psychometric test result:

  1. Have a good sleep before your test. You’ll think clearer.
  2. Relax. Calm those nerves. This isn’t going to hurt. You’ll give a more accurate picture of your personality if you’re in relaxed frame of mind.
  3. Read the instructions carefully. Read the questions carefully. Reread anything that’s unclear. If the tester says anything you don’t understand before the test starts ask for clarification.
  4. Make sure you are comfortable.
  5. Don’t hurry. Psychometric tests are rarely timed, so work through the questions carefully and consider each answer before ticking the box or clicking the mouse.
  6. The testers want to know what you are like as an employee, so answer the questions based on what you are like at work and not at home or in private.
  7. Answer the questions based on how you feel now and not in the past or in the future. The company wants to use your current personality.
  8. Don’t read too much into each question. Individual questions don’t have hidden underlying  meanings, the subtlety lies in how the questions mesh together.
  9. Avoid making too many extreme answers. If you have to mark things on a scale of one to five make sure there are more twos, threes and fours than ones or fives.
  10. After the test is over ask the tester to discuss the results with you. While you may not get the job in question, the test may offer insights in to more suitable career options.

psychometric tests

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 of those 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 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.

Many 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, so answer truthfully or you’ll be exposed as a phony.

My second fear is that managers often use it as a way of offloading 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.

Grant Frear writes about the demise of the knowledge worker after reading Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind.

Pink says people in rich countries need to move away from left-brain (linear, organised) thinking towards more right-brain (or creative) thinking.

Frear says; “Well maybe not a complete demise but most certainly a geographic shift”. So we won’t accuse him of an exaggerated report of the death of knowledge work.

Automation

Frear says work involving logical, repeatable left-brain tasks is better done by computer. Bosses can offload tasks which aren’t easily automated to Asia where there’s a cheaper workforce, hence the “geographic shift”.

It makes sense.

Low-value work has moved from Australia and New Zealand to Asia for at least a decade. How often have you rung telephone banking and spoken to someone with a strong Indian accent?

To make up for this geographic shift, Frear (or more accurately Frear quoting Pink) says people in richer countries need to work on their right-brain activities which are largely creative, non-linear and conceptual.

The problem he identifies is most rich-world employers favour left-brain thinking. They reward people based on these values and not on their creativity. All of this is true.

Knowledge work, left-brain right-brain

Frear (or maybe Pink) assumes knowledge work is a left-brain activity.

It can be but is not always: writing is creative, but a form of knowledge work.

Also, while there are people who seem 100 percent left-brain or right-brain, in reality most show a healthy mix of both.

Rather than requiring a disorienting binary switch from one type of thinking to a totally different one,  a smarter strategy might just be to steer one’s thinking more towards creativity.

If Frear and Pink are right, the good news is that in the future there will be less boring knowledge worker jobs in the richer world and more stimulating work.

Demise of the knowledge worker « Mutterings of a consultant