The selection interview and use of psychometrics: debunking some myths and misconceptions

Posted 12 October 2012 by
Penny Moyle

Did you catch last week’s debate on Radio 4’s PM about the use of interviews in recruitment? Much was made on the programme about how awful it is for a candidate to be put through lengthy competency-based interviews and assessment centres only to be told that they didn’t get the job. Conducting a thorough assessment process was positioned as being terribly cruel. Unfortunately much less was said about the unfairness that can be inflicted on candidates who are rejected on the basis of an employer’s gut instinct within the first couple of minutes of an interview, without ever having had the opportunity to demonstrate their suitability and competence for the role.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a journalist who was writing an article about how psychometrics were being used in the selection of a new CEO for Lothian NHS, and I found myself being part of a similarly polarised debate. This has all got me thinking that there is still considerable misunderstanding and mythology in the general public about what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to selecting the right candidate for a job, and a deep scepticism amongst many about the role of psychometric testing as a part of any such process. Of course no-one enjoys the experience of being rejected for a job, and it’s difficult not to blame the process when one feels wrongly rejected. However, the truth is that applying for a job is a competitive process, typically with many more applicants than roles available. It’s inevitable that applicants will be rejected. But isn’t this the very reason why we owe it to candidates to be thorough, and to use evidenced-based processes rather than relying on the biases that comprise gut instinct?

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that, compared to standard interviews, well-designed assessment centres provide superior prediction of job performance. Of course, just because an assessment process is lengthy does not necessarily mean it is going to be effective. It matters a great deal what components are included in an assessment centre and how these are used. Components will typically include a structured competency-based interview, psychometric tests, a work-sample or situational judgement test, and observed exercises. Each component should not be considered in isolation, but added together they build a multi-faceted picture of the candidate and their likelihood of performing well in the role.

Take for example the psychometric test component. We often say the use of psychometric instruments is a little like the use of any tool. You need to select the right kind and quality of tool for a particular job, and then you need to use it with appropriate expertise. For example, the MBTI instrument may be one of the most well known and widely used psychometric instruments, but it is not an appropriate tool for recruitment. The 16PF, on the other hand, can be applied in both recruitment and staff development. This kind of assessment can quickly provide insights that you might otherwise only acquire by knowing someone for a good period of time. If you interview someone for an hour you will get to know a few things about them, but if you additionally have the personality information made available by a well-designed personality assessment you can get to know much more about them in this short time. In particular, a personality assessment can uncover areas that warrant deeper exploration in interview, which not only inform the recruitment decision but also provide insight about how best to manage the successful candidate once recruited. Moreover, the 16PF is backed up by a research library, including predictions of key job-related behaviours and workplace performance.

Using a psychometric tool in the recruitment process by no means guarantees the selection of a perfect candidate, but it can improve the odds. Current methods of assessing personality through questionnaires have been evolving for more than 60 years, and like any science methods will continue to develop and improve. Meanwhile, those of us who work in recruitment clearly have a job to do to help people understand the value to candidates as well as employers of using established tools and techniques to match people to jobs, rather than fallible first impressions and typical biases of choosing candidates who are like oneself.

The online and broadcasted feedback around both articles mentioned above included a good deal of assertion that interviews and psychometric assessment are a waste of time and money. But the potentially disastrous time-waster is the good candidate rejected on the basis of a first impression or the poor candidate installed without sufficient assessment, who then fails on the job.

For more on this subject, take a look at OPP’s white paper Selecting for potential: Improving the outcomes of your selection process.

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