Psychological testing in recruitment | UK
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Psychological testing in recruitment

Employee selection and talent acquisition are always challenging. Hiring the right people can make or break a department or even a company, so ensuring a successful recruitment process is imperative for managers and HR professionals alike. Several ways to recruit exist. While the interview is the most common method, psychological testing is often considered a more objective and valid way to assess the applicant pool.

Psychological testing is the process of measuring psychology-related variables to get an indication of individual behavioural traits. Moreover, psychological testing can predict which applicants will perform the best in a particular role and can also identify job-related skills and attitudes often harder to identify in an interview setting. These tests comprise several different subcategories, but two variations are generally used in recruitment.


Personality tests

Personality is a widely researched subject in the field of psychology. Several theories and tests developed to measure this concept, have been proposed and rejected over the years.

Personality tests became prominent during the 1990s following the emergence of the ‘Five Factor’ model, which proposes five main personality traits – Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Openness to Experience – that can predict job performance. By the end of the decade, however, many studies concluded that personality testing had little validity in predicting job performance and its use declined.

Some traits like Conscientiousness, however, were later discovered to offer strong predictive results for job performance. Conscientiousness, for example, is now considered a valid predictor across all occupational groups, while Extraversion and Agreeableness are only valid in some cases, like when assessing management and sales occupations. As such, awareness of the traits emphasised when assessing test results is important. Performing a full ‘role responsibility’ analysis is also recommended, ideally before you even post the job advert, to achieve a complete picture of the ‘suitable candidate’ and the characteristics they should possess.

Personality influences how we meet people, choose jobs and how effective we are in various job roles, as well as how we motivate ourselves and others. Personality, therefore, is a good predictor of job performance, although, experts agree it is less valid than mental ability.


Mental ability tests

Mental ability or IQ tests measure more factors than personality tests, such as specific verbal or numerical aptitudes and abilities.

Mental ability, like personality, has undergone much scrutiny over the years. Several theories of how mental ability is measured and what it consists of are offered. One of the most valid and popular theories is general mental ability (GMA). GMA considers any combination of "two, three, or more specific aptitudes, or any measure that includes a variety of items measuring specific abilities."

General mental ability is the best available predictor for job performance and occupational level, better than any other ability, trait or disposition. GMA was first introduced by Spearman in the early 1900s, and later research found that ability is stable over time and does not increase.

How does this impact the recruitment process and does it affect psychological testing? Even though personality can, in some instances, predict who will succeed in a job, personality has far less predictive success than GMA. When analysing determinants of job performance, the major effect of GMA is on the acquisition of job knowledge. People with high GMA acquire more job knowledge, and faster, than those who score low on GMA scales. And higher levels of job knowledge, of course, results in better job performance.

Within a workplace environment, GMA is linked to an individual’s ability to solve problems, learn new things and work with information. As such, it is a better and more valid predictor of job performance than personality.


Pitfalls of relying too much on testing

When applying psychological testing in recruitment, it’s worth noting some potential pitfalls for personality and mental ability tests. First, while it’s possible to assess applicant skills, they don’t always accurately predict motivation. In other words, a person can have all the right skills and experience, but if they’re not motivated, hiring them could result in a negative financial and cultural impact on the business. It can also affect the test results. If a candidate isn't motivated for the job, they will not perform at their best and the results will not yield a true picture of their personality and abilities.

Second, if many complex factors related to job success exist, they can be hard to assess in a test. As discussed earlier, conducting a thorough ' role responsibility' analysis before starting the recruitment process is essential, as it will make the interview and testing process easier. A job analysis can also provide a basis to determine which tests to apply. Some mental ability tests provide better predictions for certain occupations more so than others. Nonetheless, because of several factors related to job success, psychological tests cannot guarantee job performance.

Third, some people experience anxiety during assessments. At one extreme, people can be so nervous that their performance will not reflect their true personality or abilities. And if someone is motivated to get a job, they can portray a false image of themselves. People are always prone to present themselves in a favourable way and can unintentionally present inaccurate results, though most tests are designed to spot when someone does this. Complementing the test scores with other selection methods is always advised to get a more accurate picture of a candidate.


Code of practice

When performing psychological tests and analysing test results, several factors should be considered. People who use psychological testing in occupational settings should meet all standards of competence required to perform and assess them. Services should never lie outside your scope of competence. At Nigel Wright, all personnel that administer tests are certified, and how we administer, score and interpret tests is aligned with instructions provided by the test provider.

Regarding candidates and feedback, ensuring all test takers are prepared for the test is vital. And feedback given after testing should always be in correspondence within certain important principles e.g. people should not be stigmatised and feedback should always focus on strengths. More importantly, you should inform all test takers that only limited data are measured. Results will never reveal the full picture and can be affected by other factors. Finally, the test should always be consistent with the role in question.


Concluding remarks

Are psychological tests just another technological solution to recruitment? No, not at all. It looks like psychological tests are here to stay, but it’s important to keep in mind that they don’t guarantee the absolute truth. If used correctly, though, tests can predict which applicant will perform the best in a job. They represent a more efficient way of getting the right information and increasing the quality of the people hired. Consequently, psychological tests are becoming popular selection tools, but must always be administered by competent and trained professionals and used in conjunction with other tools, such as interviews or job-related questionnaires.

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