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Psychometric testing can be misunderstood, even feared. Here, Peter Farmer demystifies the subject, provides an overview of how such testing works and what it can achieve

Psychometric and aptitude testing is a valuable tool, both in recruitment and in the development of current employees or teams, but the mere mention of words like 'psychology' and 'testing' turns a lot of people off.

Psychometrics can provide a valuable insight into character, intellectual ability, personal values and aptitude. Among the things it can provide are an understanding of an individual's strengths and weaknesses; a clear impression of their skills; an insight into their personality; an understanding of their interests; a robust foundation for making career decisions; an insight into the aptitudes needed to carry out a particular role; and the ability to help teams understand what each member contributes.

Psychometric testing is most commonly used at interview (particularly when employing people with little previous experience); in team development; in career guidance within larger organisations; and in general assessment and development work.

Survey evidence suggests that more than 50% of UK employers currently use psychometric measures as part of their selection procedures. It can prove particularly helpful in establishing, for example, whether potential employees are well suited to complex technical or accounting roles - possessing, perhaps, strong numerical reasoning skills - or whether they have a natural aptitude for roles involving selling or customer relations.

These assessments can also be useful in team-building and analysing team roles. They can help members to understand the different contributions each individual brings to the team and the different people 'types' that make up a team. Psychometrics can also be used to help individuals understand more about themselves and their development, and to focus on particular areas where they have unexploited potential or face challenges. This can often link up with career guidance and development plans.

Types of tests

Aptitude tests are designed to measure an individual's capacity to perform in a variety of particular contexts, including numerical reasoning, verbal reasoning, manual dexterity, spatial awareness, general reasoning, mechanical ability, and abstract reasoning.

They are commonly used when recruiting for specific posts, where a particular aptitude is required and effective selection can minimise the need for training and induction. Individuals can be measured against an expected 'norm' or against a theoretical score required to perform a particular role. Results should not be seen in terms of 'pass' or 'fail' but as a helpful guide for both individuals and employers to highlight strengths, weaknesses and development needs.

The types of aptitude test used will vary depending on the particular qualities and level of role the employer is looking for. Combining interest tests with aptitude tests can be particularly helpful in career guidance, as such an approach takes into consideration both motivational factors and aptitude.

Personality tests are most commonly used in team development scenarios, to help understand the make-up of a team and how the different personality types affect its effectiveness. They can also be helpful when recruiting an individual into an existing team. Understanding more about the kind of person you could be introducing, and how they may affect team dynamics, can help support more intelligent and effective selection.

Personality profiles are used to evaluate an individual's character traits in terms of tolerance to stress, sociability, assertiveness, or leadership skills - for example, evidence of being extroverted or introverted. Personality questionnaires are concerned not with what a person can do, but with how they do it. Consequently, there are no 'right' or 'wrong' answers.

Finally, there are tests that combine all three elements of aptitude, interests and personality. These are known as 'test batteries' and provide a rounded and objective way of identifying appropriate career development paths.

An exam?

The word 'test' may conjure up thoughts of an examination that is either passed or failed. True, psychometric tests can be carried out under examination conditions, with strict timing, but these rules primarily apply to aptitude tests - which are, in fact, deliberately designed so that most candidates will not be able to complete them in the time available.

At its simplest level, a test will consist of a set of questions or tasks to complete. When carrying them out, it is usually helpful to avoid using the word 'test' and refer instead to an assessment or even a quiz. This is particularly the case with personality testing, which is purely descriptive, and where any implication of 'good/bad' or 'pass/fail' could damage an individual's confidence or self-esteem.

It is obviously important that whoever administers and evaluates any testing has the appropriate training and understanding themselves. Otherwise, the findings could prove meaningless or even misleading. Tests should normally come with a manual detailing how to administer them to a consistent standard, and these should be carefully followed. Assessors often have to be officially trained and accredited by the organisation providing the tests, such as Saville and Holdsworth.

When testing, you should always explain the purpose of the exercise clearly.

In team development scenarios, you should set a fixed deadline by which profiles must be returned, and set up one-to-one sessions with a qualified assessor at which individuals can discuss their results before holding group discussions.

Of course, psychometric tests cannot make your decisions for you. The results of properly conducted psychometric testing can provide a valuable guide - but they can never replace the hard thinking required when making decisions about recruitment and employee development.

- Peter Farmer is director of Searchlight Solutions.

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