2003 - Faking personality tests
On the face of it, you would
be hard put to find two more unlikely soul mates
than Jack Welch, former chief executive of General
Electric, and Margaret Beckett, secretary of state
for the UK's environment, food and rural affairs
Yet both have declared an enthusiasm
for rigorous assessment and grading at the highest
levels of their organisations. Mr Welch was responsible
for pioneering "session Cs", where every
year the company's leading executives are given
A, B and C ratings. The Cs are told they must
improve or else they are out.
The Defra model of leadership
assessment, announced earlier this month, appears
to be equally selective. Some 500 managers are
to be psychometrically tested to discover their
leadership qualities. From this exercise a minority
will be perceived to have the right stuff. Most
will be earmarked for development training but
those regarded as lost causes among the bottom
tier may lose their jobs.
Charles Johnson, chairman of
the British Psychological Society's steering committee
for test standards, is puzzled that tests should
be used at all in such an exercise.
"When you have had staff
working for you for some considerable time and
you have to rely on test data, it would suggest
that something peculiar has been going on with
your staff appraisal processes," he says.
Defra was at pains this week
to stress that the assessments, which it confirms
will include personality and ability tests, are
about developing staff. "We are not setting
out to make people redundant. We can't say that
people won't lose their jobs but there is no staff
redundancy strategy. This is all about getting
a leadership profile," it says.
It is to be hoped that personality
tests are not used to remove people. When such
tests were used in selecting people for redundancy
at Southwark Council and at Anglian Water some
years ago, the practice was widely criticised
Yet the use of psychometric testing
continues to enjoy popularity, particularly in
employee development and at entry-level recruitment.
According to SHL, the human resources group, 56
per cent of UK employers with more than 750 employees
use personality tests and an even bigger percentage
use the less controversial ability tests.
But there is good news for those
who may be undergoing personality tests in recruitment,
development or redeployment. They are easy to
fake. I know this because I put myself to a test
BBC Radio 4's Today programme, made available
on its website.*
The test is a 60-item questionnaire
described as a Jung Type Indicator assessment
profile. Some 12,000 people had taken the test
by the beginning of this week. It takes no more
than five minutes if you belt through the questions.
I took the test three times,
the first time answering the questions as honestly
as possible. The second time I answered them as
if I were an outgoing, life-and-soul-of-the-party
type, which I am not. The third time I behaved
as if I were an orderly individual who is comfortable
with numbers, which I am not.
The results for the test I completed
as the "real me" did not look good.
It said: "He is fairly unconventional and
independently minded by nature and will not want
to feel constrained by his work situation."
This is psycho-speak for "difficult".
It did not get any better: "will not enjoy
working within traditional hierarchical structures;
prefers a loose and unstructured environment;
unlikely to be seen as highly dependable but individualistic
Would I employ the man described
here? Not a chance, particularly if I had the
choice of one of his alter egos.
For the second questionnaire,
I imagined myself to be a smooth-talking but not
very caring socialite. The results suggested that
this fellow was much more employable. It proposed
only two areas for development: the need for a
little more reflection before taking action; and
a need to spend "more focused concentration
on aspects of his work".
But these seemed trifling issues
when compared with the report's assessment of
his dependability. It concluded that he was structured,
organised, reliable and loyal to his organisation
and managers. What more could any employer want?
The third test report, as might be expected, described
a somewhat detached figure who finds it difficult
to relate to people.
I would not quibble too much
with the results of the first test. In its assessment
of my management style, I would say it was bang
on. In that sense, as a way of gaining personal
insight into your personality, these tests work.
But when the stakes are high,
when the chance of a job, or indeed your future
in a job, might depend to some extent on your
performance in one of these tests, would it be
wise to be honest? Or should you give them the
answers you think the bosses want? My own test
results suggest that this is not too difficult
to achieve. Laurence Paltiel, director of Psytech,
the company that put the test on the Today website,
agrees that personality tests can be faked: "What
you put in, you get out. That's one of their disadvantages,"
He stresses that the Jung test
is not used for selection. Some tests are equipped
with so-called "lie detector" questions
but it is possible to be aware of these too.
If I were one of the 500 Defra
managers I would try to anticipate the requirements
of the assessment procedure. In Defra's case it
is looking for an individual's willingness to
It would therefore be wise to
go big on communications, social skills, openness
and creativity. I would steer clear of agreeing
with anything that suggests I might like to work
in a quiet office.
For years these managers have
worked within the system, carefully briefing ministers,
passing on the benefits of their experience. But
everybody in Whitehall is suddenly talking about
change. At Defra the tactic for survival is straightforward.
Stop using words such as "agriculture"
and "farming" and start using buzz words
such as "sustainability" and "environment".
Bone up on organic farming and
wetlands management. Decide what personality the
top people are looking for, walk the walk and
talk the talk. Last, remember this: when taking
a personality test you can be whoever you want
Those seeking more information
on psychometric testing can visit the British
Psychological Society's online testing centre
as a pdf file