Psychometric testing and tech in recruitment

‘Hello. Nice to meet you. Please allow me to tell you who you are.’

The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests are Leading us to Miseducate our Children, Mismanage our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves.

Annie Murphy Paul

Technology has become increasingly important in recruitment, from psychometric testing to AI-powered video interviews. An extra-step added to an already long and disassociated recruitment process. Furthermore, the history of tech-driven personality assessment has a chequered history. Ultimately, it is what you do with the technology and the data it produces that matters.

Psychometrics: a history

Take the example of psychometric testing. The word psychometric means measurement of the mind. A psychometric test measures human behaviour and turns it into data. Tests come in two basic forms: the aptitude test, measuring cognition, and the personality test, measuring – well, supposedly – your personality.

Personality testing began evolving in the First World War, when the American army wanted to find out who was unfit to fly fighter planes.

Famously, an American mother-daughter duo, Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, created the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which gained popularity in post-WW2 America. It remains the most well-known personality test, despite being widely discredited. It has been labelled ‘a fad that won’t die’ and ‘shockingly bad’.

‘The characteristics measured by the test have almost no predictive power on how happy you’ll be in a situation, how you’ll perform at your job, or how happy you’ll be in your marriage,’ Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said of the Myers-Briggs.

The problem being – according to Simine Vazire, a personality researcher at the University of California, Davis – ‘that personality tests can only tell you what you tell it.’ They are dependant on the honesty of the respondent; they are not that difficult to game.

Technology in recruitment

As of 2017, 75 of The Times Top 100 UK Companies use some form of psychometric test. Mostly, these come in the form of aptitude tests. Increasingly, however, psychometric testing is being used to inform recruitment processes.

Even in the early 2000s, the Myers-Briggs was still being used by 89 of the Fortune top 100 companies – a scandalously, embarrassingly high number. In 2015, the company that produces and markets the test was making $20m annually, and 2 million people take it every year.

Now, AI is providing an equally attractive proposition for recruiters. A company called HireVue sells a job interview platform whereby the AI scans video interviews from candidates and predicts their likelihood of success. AI is also being used to scan CVs.

In the US, the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, accusing HireVue of bias, deceptive trade practices and inaccuracy. Other algorithmic job decision services are being investigated by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in at least two discrimination cases.

Psychometrics: problems and lessons

Technological systems are only as good as the humans that build them. AI can inherit biases from the data it is trained on; psychometrics can misrepresent people. The case of Myers-Briggs illustrates that in spite of empirical evidence from academics, the allure of popular – and supposedly revolutionary – tech can often prove too tempting to resist. People like to look ahead of the curve.

Psychometric testing tells you nothing about your organisation. People regularly use tests that they don’t understand. For tests to have any real value, you need to understand the role and organisation that the respondent is entering, you need to understand the test itself, and you need to understand how to use the data it produces.

But that it is not to say we should do away with tech in recruitment altogether. Rather, we should be aware of the histories, limitations, and biases of what it is that we are using and adapt our practices accordingly. A considered, reflective use of tech in recruiting can add value; a blind, unthinking embrace of all that is shiny and new will only lead to embarrassment. After all, nothing is new forever.

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