2002 - Building the perfect employee
Is it possible to find or indeed
build the perfect worker? Even if it were, perfection
itself does not always satisfy the human demand
Consider the example of Renaissance
artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo
da Vinci. Once they had perfected the depiction
of the human form, the mannerists, a subsequent
group of artists, decided to improve desirable
physical features, producing paintings of women
with swan-like necks and elongated fingers.
Today we may be on the threshold of achieving
a type of industrial mannerism, possessing the
tools and processes to select, improve and develop
human features that are deemed desirable in the
struggle for competitive advantage.
The prospects of a Frankenstein worker are explored
in a new book by Francis Fukuyama*, the social
thinker who is now a professor of political economy
at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Prof Fukuyama highlights the
way mood-enhancing drugs can change personality.
Prozac, for example, can improve self-esteem and
Ritalin may aid the ability to concentrate. During
the 1990s Ritalin, a drug used to treat attention
deficit disorder in children, became one of the
fastest-growing drugs used on US university campuses
as students found it helped them to study and
to pay attention in class.
Prozac, on the other hand, may
be seen as a version of "soma", the
fictional happy drug used to ensure harmony between
the castes in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
Some of these drugs have side-effects but, according
to Prof Fukuyama, knowledge of genomics will enable
pharmaceuticals companies to overcome these problems
by tailoring drugs to genetic profiles. "Stolid
people can become vivacious; introspective ones
extraverted; you can adopt one personality on
Wednesday and another for the weekend," he
What would be the point of personality testing
for specific jobs if you could pick up a ready-made
behaviour trait off the shelf? You want a bit
of extraversion to give that sales talk? Take
the blue pill. You want some emotional stability
for the annual meeting? Take the red one.
Even before such drugs are widely available, the
dependence on personality testing in recruitment
is troubling. Steve Blinkhorn, chairman of Psychometric
Research & Development, a British occupational
psychology consultancy and a persistent critic
of personality tests, pointed out in a recent
speech to the Association of Business Psychologists
that it was perfectly natural for people to adopt
different types of behaviour in certain circumstances.
"I'm a fairly quiet person normally but I
can sound quite gregarious when making a speech,"
This chameleon-like ability for people to adapt
their behaviour appropriately in different situations
was recognised in the 1960s by Walter Mischel,
a social learning theorist.
"There are, Mischel conceded, broad dimensions
of temperament, probably with a strong genetic
component, which influence the emotional climate
of our lives but have little impact, except in
extreme cases, on our successes and failures in
life," says Mr Blinkhorn.
"Far more important is
our capacity to learn roles and adapt appropriately
to changing situations, reading the social environment
and shaping our behaviour accordingly."
This ability to project a different
personality, says Mr Blinkhorn, more nearly fits
the Greek derivation of "persona", a
word meaning the sort of mask adopted by actors
when they assume roles. "Modern practice
in applied psychology seems determined to stick
to the idea that one personality profile, or mask,
fits all occasions," he says.
So if people can present differing personalities
at different times, why are personality tests
such popular tools in job selection? Mr Blinkhorn,
who has argued for many years that personality
tests "do not predict job performance to
any useful or significant extent", believes
that human resources departments have become obsessed
with ready-made products.
Mr Blinkhorn says that "instead of building
systems based on knowledge, choosing assessment
methods that map on to their needs . . . many
companies buy into the latest quick fix, glossily
presented, slickly sold and cavernously empty
of merit and utility."
Too many techniques and processes, he says, are
overshadowing the professional interpretative
skills of occupational psychologists. "Occupational
or business psychology is not a collection of
techniques or gobbets of knowledge. It is, or
should be, the professional skill of drawing on
theories and methods from psychology in general
to solve practical problems, enhance the performance
and well-being of people at work and dispel bad
and injurious practices."
His comments are timely, particularly
in the UK after a BBC television programme this
month aroused new interest in psychometric testing,
when some 95,000 viewers and studio-based teams
completed an IQ test. As Mr Blinkhorn points out,
such tests have been around since the 1930s. Rather
than achieve a snapshot of the nation's intelligence,
he says, all it achieved was to measure the intelligence
of those with nothing better to do on a Saturday
Such events may prove little
but they can help to create an inflated enthusiasm
for the power of testing. We can even imagine
a distant future in which people try to shape
their thinking, or that of their children, in
the same way that ageing Hollywood film stars
choose to shape their looks.
In such a dystopia, drugs might be prescribed
routinely to engender studious behaviour in children.
Advances in the technology of genetic engineering
could ultimately allow pre-modelled embryos, chosen
for hair colour, height and the ability to pass
Gregory Stock, director of the programme of medicine,
technology and society at the University of California,
Los Angeles' School of Medicine, writes in another
new book**: "Armed with a greater knowledge
about our genome, we might be able to capture
for our children a hint of musical talent of a
John Lennon, a touch of Einstein's genius, a wisp
of the physical prowess of Michael Jordan (the
A gene that helps to enhance
memory has been inserted into a mouse by Joe Tsien,
a Princeton biologist. This is a long way from
discovering a genetic coding for intelligence
or for memory, since both qualities rely on the
interaction of many different genes.
But as Prof Fukuyama writes, "a piece of
the puzzle is now in place and more will come".
Today we have boxed the techniques of selection.
Some day we may be boxing people. Is this what
*Our Posthuman Future: Consequences
of the Biotechnology Revolution, Francis Fukuyama,
Profile Books, £17.99 ** Redesigning Humans,
Choosing Our Children's Genes, Gregory Stock,
Profile Books, £17.99
as a pdf file