Know how to land the perfect job? Maybe it's all in the mind

Your CV and interview technique may be great, but as more and more companies are using psychological profiling tests to select their employees, everything could hinge on your choice of adjectives
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The Independent Culture
You have to feel sorry for Gary Southgate. Not only did he miss the penalty that knocked England out of last year's European Championship, but a psychological profile has revealed that he should never even have made the attempt. Southgate, concluded a psychologist from Saville and Holdsworth, a leading psychometric testing firm, is a team player who will volunteer for everything, but is temperamentally unsuited to taking penalties.

Psychological profiling is not just for footballers. According to a survey by Reed Personnel Services, its use in business has risen 119 per cent over the past four years: 75 per cent of organisations with more 1,000 staff now use psychological tests to select new people. Although these tests are virtually standard practice in graduate recruitment, you're by no means safe in more humble positions; many companies now employ them across the board, including secretarial and admin grades.

While many of the 33 psychometric tests on the market look as innocuous as those quizzes beloved by women's magazines, they are more than a little bit of fun. Your answers can make all the difference between getting that job or promotion - or not. Your CV may be immaculate, your interview technique honed to perfection, but whether you agree or disagree with such questions as "I enjoy meeting people", "I am easily disappointed" or "I sometimes make mistakes" could have profound repercussions on your career.

It's not difficult to see why companies use them. According to Bill Mabey, Saville and Holdsworth's joint deputy chairman, a one-hour personality test can give a company 400 pieces of information about someone for just pounds 10-pounds 15. "It's a cost-effective approach that gives companies relevant information. They use them because they believe they add value, or they wouldn't do it." And candidates also appreciate them, he believes: "If you've got two job offers, one following a quick interview and another following a day of tough and relevant tests, you'd probably take the latter."

Used in conjunction with conventional recruitment methods and psychometric tests which measure intelligence and aptitude, psychological profiles can provide an accurate assessment of job performance, says Professor Clive Fletcher, occupational psychologist at Goldsmith's College, London: "The evidence is fairly conclusive that they do have the ability to predict future performance. Hundreds of studies prove that properly used they are among the best predictors."

Most blue-chip companies are already convinced. Barclays Bank and the Halifax Building Society, for instance, have both used psychological tests as part of their recruitment procedures for over 10 years, although both are only now assessing how well these have translated into job performance. "They do provide a useful source of secondary information," says Matthew Jolly, resourcing and selection manager at Barclays, "but it's purely how the candidates see themselves. We never use them in place of other measures like interviews."

So what's the problem? Take the case of the young woman employed by a company that decided to deploy the more notorious "adjective" test. On the basis of 48 words she picked out to describe herself, her employers told her she was liable to schizophrenia, and sacked her. When she applied for another position with a major financial company, she discovered her test score and its interpretation had been passed on with her reference. She didn't get the job.

"This is a real case of someone whose life was totally screwed up by the inappropriate application of a test," says occupational psychologist Dr Steve Blinkhorn, an occupational psychologist and one of the most outspoken critics of psychological testing. "Her life has been made a misery by choosing from a load of adjectives. How can you possibly diagnose schizophrenia from that? There's an awful lot of cheap and cheerful junk about, it sells like dog food," he says, "But bad tests are like empty fire extinguishers; they give a spurious sense of confidence."

The controversy over psychological testing was kindled a few years ago, when Anglia Water and Southwark councils were panned for using such tests to assess which staff to make redundant. But they were not the only culprits. Jim Closs, an occupational psychologist at the University of Edinburgh Careers Research Centre, tells of a colleague who was working at a local authority careers service when it was privatised, and forced to take a psychological test in the process of reapplying for his old job. "He wasn't taken back, even though he'd worked there successfully for years. The test was irrelevant to the job, but they concluded he wasn't `nasty' enough."

Closs points out that while few would dispute the validity and relevance of intelligence and aptitude tests, where worldwide research has achieved some degree of consensus, in the field of personality it is almost impossible to find two psychologists who agree what personality actually is or even what characteristics can be measured.

"A lot of what employers are using, like the 48 adjectives from which they reconstruct your whole life, is absolute rubbish," he says, "But it's akin to horoscopes, the phrases the tests use to describe people are vague enough so you can read into them whatever you want. Often candidates will ask you how accurately the tests summed them up, but they'd probably say the same if they read someone else's results."

And even the stuff that claims to be more respectable is not that good, he believes. "Their validity is very low; nine times out of 10 they do not predict job performance accurately. The trouble is that company managers believe what they hear, but it's a marketing exercise, not a scientific one."

Blinkhorn is equally scathing. Although there has been much research on personality testing and its relationship to performance at work, he insists there is little hard evidence that it works. Moreover, tests fail to take into account individual versatility and adaptability - people with widely differing characteristics may be equally capable of carrying out a similar job.

"Personality testing is a seductive concept, people are persuaded by it. A whole set of expectations has been built up around this business and the assumption that it's a powerful technique, but what is being sold to personnel professionals is basically a cock-and-bull story."

Even if this is true, it's unlikely that anyone will blow the whistle for some time - people are just having just too much fun. "The trouble is there's a little bit of prurience in everybody," says Blinkhorn. "After all, what business is it for an organisation recruiting a secretary to know the details of her private and personal attitudes? It's the equivalent of rummaging through someone's underwear drawer."

have you got what it takes?

City recruitment firms come up with the crucial qualities employers may be looking for:

Secretary

Helpful, approachable, attention to detail, well-organised, calm, team- spirited, enthusiastic, reliable.

accountant

Perceptive, confident, sociable, thorough, down to earth, attention to detail, patient, diligent, good communicator.

city trader

Risk-taker, extrovert, confident, competitive, belligerent, thrives on stress, energetic, ambitious.

can you cheat?

In simpler tests it's often possible to spot the "right" answer. If you see an obvious way of cheating, do, says Jim Closs, an occupational psychologist. "Don't feel honour-bound to divulge your innermost secrets. Answer in the way more likely to get you the job; you'd be crazy to do anything else."

Often, however, the relevance to the job is not transparent, and you can't tell what answer is more acceptable. In this case, avoid looking too extreme - if you are have a strong, quirky personality, tone it down. Try to sound like a people person, quite out-going, but not unduly dominant. Always appear well-balanced and psychologically stable; never admit to minor nervous symptoms. "Basically you should try to present yourself like the archangel Gabriel," says Dr Steve Blinkhorn. "Put yourself across as virtuous, hardworking, loyal and somewhat self-critical."

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