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What test should I use today?
Pros and cons for recruiting managers

By Robert Edenborough

27 January 2005 - Managers involved in recruiting have more possibilities for assessment available now than ever before. These include psychometrics, assessment centres and competency based interviews. Many have their own favourite procedures, whilst being strongly disinclined to use others. With information from publishers, consultants and one's own HR department the choice can be bewildering and may not always be made systematically, with all matters considered. This article discusses some of the issues involved in making such choices.

Rubbish in, rubbish out

The starting point before choosing a test or other procedure should be the role requirements. Although increasingly behavioural in nature, person specifications often have limitations. For example it is common to find unrelated or contradictory behaviours grouped under one competency. Competency modelling itself is specialised, making use of approaches from focus groups, observation and diary analysis to sophisticated methods including critical incident interviewing and repertory grid. Not all of those will be feasible in all cases, but if no systematic approach is applied to develop the competency model, it will have been created on a subjective basis, may be confusing to users and will not contain the 80% of the 80/20 rule.


Ability and personality measures make up the larger part of what is commonly used in psychometric assessment for recruitment, while motivation and interest inventories are also occasionally employed. Although the choice is wide - with 10,000 tests in print in English - a small subset is used by most practitioners. This means that one may see a candidate who has had quite recent experience of the same instrument and arguably some advantage thereby. Although the extent of this should not be exaggerated - specific memory will be expected to fade within a few months - it does add a noise factor, so it is worth checking what candidates' recent experience has actually been.

An advantage of psychometrics is objectivity, afforded through standardisation. This applies particularly to ability tests where there is typically a direct and relatively simple comparison with a norm group. In personality measurement, although individual scales are normed there is a further level of analysis usually required to interpret the overall pattern. With a flexible "broadband" personality measure, this pattern can be compared with an ideal profile, derived from mapping personality trait behaviours against the competency model. However there may not be wholly relevant norm groups for highly specialised or more senior roles.

Assessment Centres

Many people know of assessment centres with their mix of interactive group exercises and written tasks such as in-trays and role-play scenarios.. In fact the use of multiple exercises and assessment against multiple competencies are amongst the strengths of the approach. One of the advantages they have over psychometrics is that they can involve line managers directly as assessors. However, as assessment centres are very resource intensive it is quite common particularly at senior levels, for line managers not to take part. Assessors are instead drawn from the HR function or more commonly from an external consultancy. The danger here is that the objective detail of the centre findings may be set aside as subjective impressions from a single, often narrowly focused, panel interview situation, come into play.

Structured interviews

Competency based interviews i.e. with questions related to specific competencies provide the general form here, but there are many variations, for instance in the use of historical versus hypothetical, 'situational' questions. As most selection process include an interview anyway there is a tension potentially between structured and unstructured approaches with, again, the possibility of findings from a structured interview being set aside. This is less likely to be the case where the interview has been thoroughly researched. Such research involves intense study of people who have performed well in a job and contrasting their responses with those who are no better than average performers. This can result in a highly refined instrument but, as with psychometrics and assessment centres, training is required for effective use. Additionally the fully researched approach is only fully applicable to high volume situations.

The internet

A different dimension is the scope afforded by electronic media for delivering assessments and capturing results. Remote electronic delivery is not new but the arrival of the Internet and its increasing currency makes this a very tempting approach to use for assessment. There are, though, pitfalls. First is that the entry cost to setting up a website carrying a glossy looking instrument is relatively low. Thus an instrument may appear in form very similar to one that has had years of research lavished on it by a test publisher, whilst actually having no pedigree. There are also questions of identity: with a remote assessment it is just harder to know that the right person is taking the test. Control is always seen as particularly critical for ability tests and although there may be ways around this in terms, for instance, of the timing aspect of such a measure, other problems such as the use of an assistant could still remain. Even with personality measures, although there may be less of a temptation to get someone else to stand in for oneself, control is still an issue. For example, there can be no guarantees that the respondent will not be interrupted and if so the interruptions will not generally have been logged and noted for possible impact.

The Way forward

All these techniques, used singly or in combination, can be very powerful levers in the hands of the recruiting manager. In fact any one of them can be a useful predictor of job success. Some managers attempt to throw the whole tool kit at the recruitment situation. Where they do so they often fail to recognise the overlaps between the different instruments; then time and effort may be wasted. Others just stick with a single method, regardless of real requirements. Standing back, planning and realising that there are 'horses for courses' is inevitably going to yield the best results.

Dr Robert Edenborough is a chartered occupational psychologist and director leading the Management Review and Assessment practice in KPMG

Copyright ©Robert Edenborough 2005

Dr Robert Edenborough is a chartered occupational psychologist and director leading the Management Review and Assessment practice in KPMG.

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