The particular assessment used at Freshfields, Terry explains, produces reports which tend to read positively. “You think, ‘Christ, this guy must have written this himself!’” But in one instance a lawyer’s report confirmed unattractive features which had been noticed in interviews beforehand. “He didn’t look like a team player,” says Terry. “The report said, ‘This person is very focused and ambitious and will achieve goals…’ [When] you read between the lines, you could see he was a bit of a shit. A bit high-maintenance.” Consequently, that lawyer did not become a partner at Freshfields.
One who did is Richard Lister, an e-commerce specialist who consulted the assessors’ website before taking the test. “It’s based on Adlerian theory. I went to Books Etc and sat there reading every every idiot’s guide to Adlerian theory I could find.”
After submitting some written material, Lister spent several hours with a psychologist, Dr Nick Isbister. “You go through what you have written. Nick asks what you were feeling – what went though your mind – when, for example, you beat someone in the piano competition at Manchester Grammar School. His questions are designed to expose the specific drives within you.”
When Isbister’s report came through, Lister was amused to find he was just the sort of person who would go into a bookshop to research the test. “I’m a data-hoover. It’s something I’ve noticed in myself – something people have taken the piss out of me for.”
Which is indeed interesting, but you hear much the same subjective endorsement from astrology fanatics. Is psychological assessment any more scientific than star signs? It’s hard to say, because the people best placed to judge the work of occupational psychologists are… occupational psychologists.
Respectable assessors, to be fair, offer employers the reassurance of extensive statistical validation. The test I am taking, for instance was developed by an American, Professor Robert Hogan, in 1972. And he based it on a pre-existing test, the California Psychological Inventory, so there’s plenty of statistical research.
The company which operates Hogan’s tests outside the US is Psychological Consultancy Ltd, established in 1992 by a psychologist, Dr Geoff Trickey. The Hogan tests are not the best known in the UK, but in recent months Trickey has received 15 requests for it from overseas – most recently from Turkey. Over coffee in St Martin’s Lane – followed immediately, at 6pm, by a beer – he attempts to explain the attraction of his product.
Despite his sober suit, wire-framed specs and grey hair, Trickey is an amusing character – unduly inclinded to flippancy, according to his own personality profile. He’s particularly excitable today because he’s been talking to potential clients about his new online testing service.
To take the Hogan tests online costs around £80 per person (for large jobs PCL offers discounts). This is how it works. After receiving the completed questionnaire electronically, PCL’s computers interpret the answers – and allocate scores, across a predetermined set of character traits – within moments. Further algorithmic analysis assesses the candidate’s potential for, say, clerical work, sales or management. And finally candidates are appraised against a predetermined statistical ideal for the specific job they’re after. The whole process takes moments, and a summary report can be emailed to applicants in less than five minutes. (In-depth feedback is also available.)
But – rapid or slow – do employers really need psychometric testing? Yes, says Trickey: “Unless you hire everyone, you are into selection. And that can have dire results. Ask any employer if they’ve ever had the employee from hell. They all have! Whenever you open a newspaper you find an instance of something that has gone wrong because of a bad assessment of a person’s character. For example, someone who’s been let out of prison and kills again. We all have to sum up other people, but the fact is that our ability to sum up another person’s character is not good.”
Psychometric testing has an actuarial basis. “We compare the results and work out a pattern – showing, say, which kinds of people will stay with a call centre and which ones will soon leave. It’s like trying to bottle what is good about the most effective people.”
Applicants hoping to cheat can do so only if they know the personality profile required for the particular job. In practice, few bother. Roger Holdsworth, co-founder of a leading consultancy, the publicly owned Saville & Holdsworth, has suggested that people are sometimes too honest: “It is not unknown for people applying for customer service jobs to say they don’t like working with clients. Either they can’t be bothered to lie – or they can’t work out what is required.”
And a recent study, of 10,000 applicants for the US army – adds Trickey – showed that only 5 per cent were faking. They know this because each test has some kind of in-built validity scale, triggered by candidates’ responses to certain questions. For example, I have never knowingly told a lie. If candidates agree with that statement, employers might reasonably be suspicious of all their other answers.
On training courses, human resources personnel are encouraged to fake the Hogan test, skewing their answers in response to two job ads: one for a sales director, the other for a community librarian. The results, Trickey says, are usually grotesque. “When people abandon their own frame of reference, they’re lost.”
That’s what he says. I’d like to see it for myself. So I try faking. Half-way through, I’m interrupted by a call from Trickey: he’s got the result of my own, real test. To my surprise, he says he likes it – “I was chuffed when I read it” – because it confirms what he knows about me. That’s not a great deal, after just a couple of quick drinks – and anyway his response is deeply paradoxical. Trickey’s company depends on individuals being bad judges of other people – while personally he displays the human impulse to “get” somebody’s character. He wonders if I’d like him to fax through my report, but I put him off because I want to finish faking. This pleases him even more: “Ah, yes,” he says, “that’s because you’re less impetuous than me.”
Having faked the theoretical salesman and librarian, I try faking again in the character of a couple of real people, close friends who have agreed to take the test themselves to see how close I get. Having shared a flat with them both, I’m extremely confident.