Psychological testing for job applicants: Part II


Psychological testing for job applicants: Part II

  • By Ian Bradley
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Recently, I was asked by a large company to screen applicants for a senior management position using traditional psychological assessment tools. The lucrative offer was tempting but I declined.

In my previous post I argued that psychologists were not very good predictors.  Now I continue my criticism by suggesting that psychological testing has many underlying assumptions that need scrutiny before testing can be applied to selecting job applicants.

Besides a conceptual orientation, the assessing psychologist needs to decide upon what domains to assess.  Does he or she examine basic underlying cognitive abilities such as the ability to conceptualize, combining for example many seemingly disparate work elements into a common corporate theme.  However, there are multiple so-called formative cognitive abilities beside conceptualization. Again, which ones should be selected?  Furthermore, cognitive abilities cluster into higher level skills such as strategic thinking, therefore some job assessments focus on these more macro abilities or competencies.

Perhaps assuming that all applicants for executive posts are bright, other assessment reports eschew cognitive assessment to focus on personality. Although more academically oriented psychologists have distilled personality into five underlying variables of which conscientiousness is probably the most valuable for job assessment, industrial psychologists display extreme heterogeneity in how they define personality.  Thus, one still sees abundance use of rather antiquated measures of personality such as the Jungian-based Myer Briggs.  Carl Jung was creative, but the relevance of Jungian theorizing for success in a modern corporate environment is debatable.

Psychologists more impacted by modern corporate scandals might argue that the only personality factors that matter relate to moral values, others with a more targeted-approach might restrict their hunt for those personality factors that could derail a career or a company. But again, I wonder how good out profession is at predicting what male C-level executives are likely to develop ill-advised sexual relationships with junior interns.

Moving on from personality, what about interpersonal skills especially leadership skills, should this variable not be thrown into the mix as well?

As you can see the potential domains for assessment are vast, the relevance of each for any particular job is unclear.

Even if a domain is highlighted, what tools or assessment instruments does a psychologist use? Again, there are no hard and fast answers. Some assessors prefer to review an applicant’s past work behaviour to seek examples of leadership or conflict resolution. Others use psychological tests, and still others present hypothetical situations in either paper/pencil or behavioural format as in an assessment center. The validity of any of the methods is rarely substantiated.

As you can see, the area seems to have more questions than clear answers. For that reason, I am uncomfortable writing a report with a definite answer about whether to hire or not.

However, I am bullish about the information that an unbiased and well-trained psychologist can provide as an adjunct to the existing information that a hiring manager or owner might have.  In fact, I strongly endorse the recommendation by a well-respected I/O psychologist Dr Rodney Lowman that the assessment practice is not to recommend or to hire a candidate but simply to provide supplemental information to help those doing the hiring make a decision. The information can be valuable, but in my opinion, it should never be crucial.