Psycho Babble - Psychometric (Personality) Assessment Testing

By: Kim Jones


I’ve never been that big a fan of psychometric testing (the “science” of personality assessment), since Jim, Maria and myself were tested and found to be unemployable in any normal company due to a collective tendency to stroll along to the beat of our individual drums. So we retaliated by setting up an advertising agency named after a strange looking animal with no relevance to advertising on the 13th of the month in the middle of the worst recession in 20 years.

Which pretty much proved there was nothing odd about us, we like to think.

Nevertheless, as every one of Britain’s 100 largest companies and some 80% of all the rest, use some sort of personality test on prospective employees, we thought it would be a good idea to have a look at the subject. Especially as the Sunday Telegraph did a big article on it which we could cull and make ourselves look dead clever.

There’s no doubt there’s a backlash against tests in the USA, evidenced by a mass of lawsuits from people who claim their lives have been damaged by them, particularly by invading their privacy and casting aspersions on their integrity. The pronouncement by the American Psychological Association that the vital “honesty” tests to sift out the potentially dishonest have a particularly high error rate hasn’t helped, while a newish book, “Cult of Personality”, argues persuasively that most profiling methods are flawed and damage the interests of all involved – the idea that you can capture the essence of a personality in a 20 minute test is nonsense given how complex people are, how moods can vary while being tested and, more importantly, how honestly the questions are answered. Re the latter, most testing groups claim to have anti-cheating (“lie-scales”) measures built in which attempt to measure consistency by asking the same question in different ways. That’s all very well but not all lies are conscious – there’s substantial evidence that people see things differently according to mood, and even day-to-day, and one body of research suggests that people taking an identical test a second time will be given a different personality type up to 75% of the time.

Psychometric fans, on the other hand, argue that the tests are not only a reliable guide but an acknowledgement that personality is critical in building a successful workplace. Which is why psychology has spent so long trying to crack the key to personality (and sold every resultant little fissure to business at every opportunity). The big break was the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the most successful test in the world, used by 89 out of the Fortune 100. Loosely based on Jung’s view that we all have a predisposition to a certain personality type, the 20 minute tests assign people precise personality designations – for example, you might be an ESPF (Extrovert, Sensing, Perceiving, Feeling) type. All good stuff, if we do indeed all fall into precise personality types, and we don’t allow for variable attitudes. For example, I’d answer one question about whether you’d rather work for a good natured, inconsistent boss (me) or a sharp tongued, logical one (Maria) with “It depends on the circumstances and why does sharp tongued rule out a good nature?”. Other questions to ponder are whether personality is set in stone anyway and whether all downsides are accounted for - most ad agencies would, for example, be desperate for E (Oy! I meant Extroverts) which is great, except E’s are prone to selfishness. While I also wonder whether looking for certain types leads to a dull, uniform workplace without any of the creative tension we all so know and love (“Write that ad in the next five minutes or I’ll thump you a good one with my menacing stick” - creative tension, as created by a certain member of Giraffe).

Given the disparate views, why have the tests become so popular? Mainly because of the pressure in the 1970’s for workplace equality forcing employers to look for more democratic methods of selection. They then became a fad in the 1980’s “Helping to make people in HR feel wanted” according to one expert (don’t even think of shooting the messenger) while in the 1990’s the cost of, and problems involved in, removing unsuitable employees finally entrenched testing in the workplace. So much so that two years ago we were all entertained by the sacking of Carl Filer, a star salesman at Britain’s largest DIY chain who was on the fast track until a test revealed the shocking news that his favourite colour was blue – resulting in his removal for lack of dynamism. Doesn’t beat the story of Prof Glenn Ellenbourg of New York who, on profiling the personality of a corpse using a test that gave credit for non-responses, found the cadaver had an IQ of 45 – and was likely to enjoy a good measure of popularity round the office.

At Giraffe, we tend to go by instinct when hiring, which may explain one or two little things that go on round here, and have never tested anyone else in our lives. So the 20 years Katharine Briggs, a Washington DC housewife, spent studying Jungian theory in order to understand what her daughter Isabel saw in her boyfriend, Clarence Myers – which is how the Myers-Briggs tests came about (See. You didn’t know that, did you?) - were pretty much wasted on us.

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In 1995, with Maria Manzo, he set up the UK office of BSA Advertising - a USA - owned agency - which he ran until deciding to set up Giraffe Advertising. Recruitment Advertising Agency & Website Design Company London UK

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