A Test of Character

31st May 2006 (Last Updated May 31st, 2006 18:30)

Psychometric testing can be a powerful tool in finding the right candidate for a position. It can also establish benchmarks within an organisation, writes Christian Anklin of HVS Executive Search London.

A Test of Character

When recruiting new staff, many companies believe a good candidate can always be taught the necessary skills to do their job, and that it is more important to find someone with the right personal qualities. (This is particularly true for the
people-focused hotel industry.) These kinds of character traits cannot be taught.

So how do you determine whether someone has the right leadership qualities, creativity and self-efficacy to do the job? How do you know if a candidate has the right level of service orientation or works well in groups?

According to one survey, up to 56 per cent of candidates exaggerate their skills or experience on their CVs, and even if the information on there is accurate, it will only tell the potential employer where the candidate worked and what they
achieved.

While certain claims made on a candidate’s CV can be verified by a prospective employer, the latter is still left to make an educated guess as to whether the achievement implies a higher level of leadership or self-efficacy.

Obviously, employers cannot rely on CVs alone, hence the need for face-to-face interviews. This is an arduous and time-consuming process, but given the large number of potential applicants, weeding out ‘unsuitables’ on the basis of their
CV is not enough.

There are other obstacles, such as the subjectivity of a one-off, face-to-face interview. For example, there may be a simple lack of chemistry between the interviewer and the interviewee, which can significantly affect the interviewer’s
assessment of the candidate’s character.

A further obstacle lies in the impossibility of assessing all the relevant characteristics in one interview. Even when the interview is supported with written tests or case studies, it is hard to cover all the bases in a single session.

QUALITY CONTROL

It would be very helpful to have a tool that measures all the relevant characteristics in an objective manner; it would be even better to be able to tailor this tool to the type of organisation and the type of position for which the candidate is
applying; and it would be perfect if this tool could be administered over the internet, adjusted to different languages and executed in an hour maximum, requiring only the presence of the interested candidate.

“IRT mathematically determines whether certain items on an assessment indicate low, medium or high levels of a given trait.”

This is where psychometric testing comes in. Psychometrics, the field of study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement, is not particularly new, but it has been developed and refined tremendously of late. Originating in an
attempt to measure intelligence, the theory of psychometrics has been applied more recently to the measurement of personality. The more sophisticated personality assessment tools will use item response theory (IRT), which is the same statistical gold
standard used in such well-known admission and achievement tests as GRE, LSAT and MCAT in the USA.

In laymen’s terms, IRT mathematically determines whether certain items on an assessment indicate low, medium or high levels of a given trait, such as service orientation or leadership. These are generally statements about the candidate where
they are asked to rate their degree of agreement in response to a specific statement, or how often they perform certain tasks or act in a specific way.

However, IRT also works with a wide variety of question types, including Poisson counts, percentages and even paired comparisons. Thus, IRT produces rigorous assessments that actually plot test-takers’ results along an interval-level continuum
or ‘ruler’.

IRT-based assessments will measure a candidate’s individual characteristics by rating them on a scale that may, for example, be based on a national benchmark of traits for a specific position. Alternatively, the employer may wish to establish a
company-wide benchmark by having all employees complete the assessment. This in turn allows a candidate’s character traits to be directly compared to those of successful counterparts in the company.

This kind of assessment is really more of a tool than a test. There are no right or wrong answers unless there is an added section measuring the candidate’s cognitive or computational skills. As such, the candidate needn’t be nervous about
completing a psychological assessment. It is better for both the employer and the candidate if there is a good fit between the latter’s character traits and the ideal character profile for the position.

AN EFFECTIVE MEASURE?

Psychometric tests are most useful in conjunction with an interview. They offer an objective way of assessing the candidate’s character traits, the results of which can be followed up on or expanded upon later. In addition, companies that have
benchmarked their employees with psychometric tests can use the results to determine whether any of them need additional training or development.

For instance, one of your mid-level employees may react more strongly than their peers to the issue of ‘preferring a lot of responsibility at work’. This may in turn prompt the employer to question whether the employee has a tendency to
spread themselves too thinly. The problem can then be addressed by speaking directly to them and offering additional training in time management and multi-tasking.

The effectiveness of psychometric testing, both in fine-tuning the skills of existing staff and in identifying the most suitable new staff, should not be underestimated. It can significantly increase the likelihood of superior performance by
individual employees, reducing staff turnover and thus improving the bottom line. As an increasing number of companies begin to use the latest psychometric testing, not just in their hiring process but as a tool for internal benchmarking, evaluation and
training, you may ask yourself if it is time your company did the same.