It’s Wednesday afternoon. I’m sitting at my PC, furtively completing an online questionnaire. Every so often, somebody walks up behind me, so I tab between windows to hide what I’m doing. When they’ve gone, I tab back and continue to answer “true” or “false” to a series of boldly personal assertions: Sometimes I feel as if I’m falling apart. It upsets me to hurt people’s feelings. I would like to be a racing driver.
Altogether, there are 206 statements on the questionnaire. To answer them all takes about half an hour. When I’ve finished, I press a button which sends the completed questionnaire electronically to a firm of occupational psychologists. By the time you read this, I should find out if I’m suited to my job.
Psychological assessment, a huge business in the US, has grown solidly here since the 1970s, when it first became readily available to employers. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people submit to it as part of their applications for employment. The organisations which have embraced it include most high street banks; non-commercial agencies such as Voluntary Services Overseas; and multinational corporations such as BA, Shell and Pearson, which owns the Financial Times.
Not all of them use the same techniques – indeed, the techniques are often regarded as commercially valuable secrets. But between them, these organisations provide an enormous and lucrative market for occupational psychologists. In 1997, when the British consultancy Saville & Holdsworth went public, the market was valued at more than £30m. And there’s every reason to suppose it is growing. So if you haven’t been tested already, you soon will be.
The point of the exercise is not to weed out the mentally ill but to establish a person’s qualities relative to particular job. Take lorry drivers: they must be prudent – observing regulations – and also not particularly sociable. (If they are sociable, they’ll probably stop at a lot of transport cafes and maybe pick up hitch-hikers, which they shouldn’t.) So haulage firms, when they hire staff, tend to look for prudence and low sociability. Air traffic controllers, ideally, manifest a different set of characteristics – and foreign-exchange dealers yet another. There is no right or wrong, it depends entirely on the job. It’s like being short or tall: you can’t be both.
Until recently, solicitors only gave partnerships to lawyers from their own firm. Nowadays they hire specialist outsiders – and if done without sufficient care, this can have a dire effect on the corporate ethos. Ian Terry, managing partner at Freshfields, says his firm turned to a psychologist for help last year. “We needed to look a bit deeper. We can say for ourselves, ‘OK, so this guy is a leading Dutch tax lawyer’ – but is he also a psychopath?”