2005 - Psychometrics for graduates
Every year when students graduate
from university there are those who know how and
where they want to build their chosen career.
Some have already secured jobs and some have yet
to embark on a serious job search, preferring,
perhaps, to extend their studies or to travel
for a while.
Others are less certain. Some
of these may have been enticed, during campus
presentations, in to applying for any number of
graduate openings among big-name employers. How
do they know whether they have made the right
decision? Some may be simply confused. For years
they have moved through the education system,
heads down, progressively pairing down their subject
areas until they have a clear area of expertise.
But suppose they got it wrong?
My eldest son is about to take
his final examinations in the belief that he made
the wrong choice of degree. For the last three
years he has been studying economics. Not unnaturally,
most of his fellow students are looking at jobs
in the financial sector but my son wants to work
in a creative business such as the film industry.
“Some people I know are
just getting a job that pays well as a means to
an end. They don’t want to do the job but
that doesn’t seem to matter much to them.
I know others who go in to a certain career to
keep their parents happy,” he says.
As a parent I feel some responsibility
because I, like his teachers, had advised him
to get a good degree and worry about something
like film school later. The temptation now, is
to intervene again, but that would be unwise.
His future choices must be his own. Ambitious
parents can become far too influential in their
children’s career path when young people
need space to find themselves.
The point was made last week
by Charles Johnson, director of Competence Assurance
Solutions. Mr Johnson is also a member of the
advisory board of Cambridge Occupational Analysis,
a company that provides career advice to students
in universities and the private education system.
“The single biggest issue
we have to deal with,” he says, “is
parents trying to force their kids down particular
career routes when their children are not interested
doing a particular job.”
I had contacted Mr Johnson because
he was one half of a co-authored article that
appeared some 14 years ago casting doubt on the
use of personality tests for predicting job performance.
The other author was his then colleague, Steve
Blinkhorn, chairman of Psychometric Research and
Development, a St. Albans-based consultancy that
also, among other things, now provides career
advice for students using an online psychometric
Their article all those years
ago in Nature magazine caused controversy among
occupational psychologists when they accused some
test operators of using a pseudo science that
“bamboozles an unsophisticated public.”
In a later article they said they could find no
evidence of a personality test used in job selection
that could be linked to later job performance.
The criticisms were made before
the internet allowed test developers to expand
vastly their test-user databases and research
opportunities. So had anything happened in the
interim, I wondered, to change their minds? Apparently
“Quite a lot has changed
in the intervening years. Research has improved
and people have been able to check out what was
really going on. Now both the British Psychological
Society and the Chartered Institute of Personnel
and Development state in their guidelines for
the use of psychometrics that personality tests
should not be used on their own for making recruitment
and selection decisions,” says Mr Johnson.
There is a good reason for this.
Personality tests are self-reporting questionnaires.
They rely on the person taking the test to respond
honestly when they tick the boxes against various
propositions. One difficulty is that people do
not necessarily know themselves that well. This
is why personality testing may be useful for students
outside the recruitment process when they are
seeking to find a career fit for their skills
Testing is useful at this stage
because there is little incentive for a student
to cheat on a test. But they may be tempted to
manipulate their responses when tested for a job.
Personality questionnaires do not tend to recognise
an individual’s ability to role-play. We
can all adapt unnatural responses when the occasion
demands, such as fake sympathy for a departing
colleague and that self-preserving reserve adopted
on the daily train commute.
The tests do not assume that
ambitious candidates may be ready and able to
adopt whatever characteristics they perceive a
role demands. Whether candidates can sustain these
behaviours once they get the job is another matter.
Another deceiving feature is
the stylistic use of positive outlines in test
outcomes. You can’t fail these tests but
you might fail to be selected depending on your
responses. “Typically they say there are
no right or wrong answers but that would seem
to conflict with people who are going to look
askance at certain personality characteristics,”
says Mr Johnson.
Mr Blinkhorn’s continued
scepticism is as robust as that of his former
colleague. “There is a very moderate correlation
between measures of conscientiousness and tenure
in certain sorts of jobs,” he said. “Apart
from that they can usually pick up certain disorders
such as Asperger’s syndrome but these affect
quite small proportions of the population.
“I can lecture for an hour
without notes. I spent 14 years doing that. But
it doesn’t mean that I like to do that all
the time. You negotiate with your own temperament
and sometimes you develop different selves and
interact differently with different people. The
derivative of personality, the word Persona, after
all is Latin for a mask.”
Mr Blinkhorn equates the approach
of some tests as “the equivalent to rifling
through someone’s underwear drawer. It’s
a bit sneaky.”
In fact delving among underwear
drawers and the rest of the bedroom may be effective
ways of assessing character according to Blink,
the latest book by Malcolm Gladwell, author of
the best-selling Tipping Point. He cites research
by Samuel Gosling, of the University of Texas,
Austin, that measured a group of students across
what are referred to as the “big five”
dimensions of personality: extraversion, agreeableness,
conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness
to new experiences.
The friends were able to rank
the students pretty accurately on the same dimensions.
In his next exercise Mr Gosling used strangers
who he asked to rank people on the basis of what
they could see in the students’ bedrooms.
The friends’ descriptions were better than
those of the strangers on two dimensions –
extraversion and agreeableness. But on the other
three traits, the strangers were closer to the
“What this suggests is
that it is quite possible for people who have
never met us and who have spent only twenty minutes
thinking about us, to come to a better understanding
of who we are than people who have known us for
A glance at my son’s bedroom
leads me to one observation: he should look for
some work in a jungle. He will feel comfortable
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