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Frequently Asked Questions About Psychometrics

last modified Oct 05, 2013 05:04 PM

Every UK school, most UK hospitals and around 70% of UK companies with over 50 employees use psychometric tests. Yet 'psychometrics' still sounds like a black art and 'testing' gives people flashbacks to sweating over exam papers. Let's clear away some of the mystery and misunderstanding, using business to illustrate what psychometrics is all about.

Do psychometric tests only test IQ?
What are psychometric tests?
What are psychometric tests used for?
What is psychometrics?
Why use psychometric tests?
What are the organisational benefits of testing?
How can I tell a high quality test from a 'quiz'?
Do we have to be a big company to use tests?
Don't people dislike tests?
Where do I learn about psychometrics?
 
Do psychometric tests only test IQ?

No. BBC TV's programme 'Test the Nation' seems to suggest that testing looks at what you know; that a test is something you pass or fail. Yet you know that your knowledge is only part of what you bring to life - at school, at work or at home. Given how quickly the world changes, it might seem better to find out what and how easily someone can learn in the future rather than what they know now.

What are often known as 'softer' factors are increasingly seen as important in success, for instance: how well you understand and get on with people; your ability to lead; how far you follow rules or come up with your own unique solutions; your ability to cope with stress. Testing is as much about these as about being a 'know-it-all'.

People are truly any organisation's most important resource - whether it's a multi-million pound corporate or a voluntary club.  They're also an organisation's biggest cost and single most complex aspect of organisational success and failure. Next to recruiting and managing a workforce, putting in a new intranet is a doddle.

What are psychometric tests?

If you're a parent, your children take them at school in between examinations to check their progress and predict their results. They sometimes highlight particular strengths and areas that need more teaching. If you've entered work on a graduate recruitment scheme, you've probably taken one during the milk round. And you may well have sat one when you went for your first or a subsequent job.

Psychometric tests provide an MOT of what goes on under the human bonnet. They compare one individual's performance with other people's or show what are the relatively strong and weak areas within one person. True psychometric tests look at three basic areas:

  • Abilities: people's capacity to work with numbers, words, diagrams and systems

  • Attainment: what people actually know about an area

  • Personality: how people are typically likely to act. This covers a huge range of aspects from people's motivations and values to how they characteristically react to authority and their honesty or integrity.

Mix and match these and you get dedicated tests of areas like emotional intelligence, trainability, leadership, customer service orientation and how people think - areas that are directly related to particular jobs. Assess lots of people in your company and you can get an organisational profile:  how well your teams work; what particular skills you lack; who's going to fit in. 

What are psychometric tests used for?

Tests are used to recruit new staff; identify people with the potential to be promoted and developed; counsel staff who are under-performing; put teams together; coach senior managers; identify stress factors in an organisation; decide on the best organisational structure; create incentive programmes that really motivate - any decision about people individually or people in groups. 

What is psychometrics?

This could get long and complicated! Put simply, psychometrics is a set of techniques used to ensure, among other things, that;

  • you're actually testing what you think you are testing. A written test of mathematics should be testing maths not writing for instance

  • your test gives the same results if it's given to the same person twice or administered by different people

  • it's fair to everyone

  • you know how accurate the measurement is and how far you can depend on it. No measure - whether of your height or your profit - is 100% accurate (just ask an accountant about the latter). Sometimes this can be significant (in the latter case ask the taxman!). Psychometrics allows you to weigh up the accuracy of your decision. 

Why use psychometric tests?

You should never use them on their own because tests can only provide part of the picture; interviews, for instance, provide information tests can't reach.

But research shows that interviews, references and application forms are very bad at predicting whether people will succeed. Interviews are particularly dangerous because you will be hugely influenced by your prejudices, likes and dislikes without realising it. If you think back, you'll remember the great candidate who proved to be a complete disaster. You might even recall the exciting company which employed you and which you left as quickly as you could. Let's not forget that recruitment is two way! Using tests can never prevent mistakes like this, but they can make them less likely.

What are the organisational benefits of testing?

Psychometric tests sound rather academic but they're actually a way of making hard-headed business decisions. They will increase your bottom line. They'll decrease staff turnover, identify talent, create a more efficient organisation.

Psychometric tests sometimes look expensive. A good test might cost you £50 to administer and interpret. But since it may cost you £10,000 in direct costs if you recruit the wrong senior manager (and a lot more in indirect costs) this doesn't seem too high a price.

Tests will also help companies defend against legal challenges to HR decisions, which might end up in expensive tribunals and court cases. It's illegal to discriminate on grounds of gender, race, sexual orientation, age or religious belief. Test results are defensible evidence in court, whereas interviews are open to all sorts of challenges. And, of course, using them will ensure that you are being objective, building a successful, effective, motivated organisation.

Good recruitment and development practice are part of a company's marketing and brand development. Even a rejected candidate will speak well of a company that's taken the time to create a professional recruitment process which gives valuable feedback: tests provide that.

How can I tell a high quality test from a 'quiz' ?

There are thousands of tests on the market. It's a real growth area and, as with any product or service, it's sometimes difficult to work out the cowboys from the cavalry.

Tests are particularly difficult in this respect. What defines a good test is the research and data behind the questions just as the design of a computer says nothing about the quality of the software or the processor. Internet-delivered tests are a particular problem since the 'sexiness' of their design is beguiling but many of them provide no evidence that they're any good.

A good psychometric test will be absolutely transparent to you as a user. It will state how it was developed, how many people it was tried on, where it should be used and where not and, most importantly, how much you can trust the results. 

Do we have to be a big company to use tests?

Not anymore. Once upon a time the costs of training in, then buying the materials seemed prohibitive. The internet, centralised testing centres and the number of trained consultants available to run sessions means even the smallest company can get the benefits.

There's a strong argument that smaller companies need to use the technique even more than larger ones. A rogue senior manager in a 30,000 staff company can do damage; in an SME with 10 employees he or she can literally destroy the business. Every recruitment decision in a small business is high stakes!

Don't people dislike tests?

Far from it: people actually like doing tests because tests tell them about their favourite subjects; themselves. If handled the right way tests used with existing staff can cause a buzz.

Where do I learn about psychometrics?

Talk to staff at The Psychometrics Centre. They'll be more than happy to advise you. If you decide to go ahead you'll need to train.

Tests are used to make complex and costly human decisions. You'll either need to train, or employ/contract a trained test user if you're going to use a good instrument. Training ensures you get the most out of them, in the same way that you need to train to get the most out of a new software programme. The training will also introduce you to lots of people issues which will make you a better manager and recruiter.