These days, the jobs market is an employer's ticket, and the glut of strong candidates leaves personnel departments with the problem of selecting between applicants of equal merit. According to Angela Baron, policy adviser to the Institute of Personnel and Development, human resources departments are "looking for ways to reject people".
As such, personality plays an ever larger part in the decision process. Today's so-called flattened management strategies are also an influence. "Jobs have changed," says Angela Baron, "and people are judged by how they will fit in with the culture of an organisation." But just how do personnel managers make this judgement?
One sector of the population privy to the way personnel managers come to their decisions is recruitment consultants. While the candidate receives the form letter, which claims the job went to someone else with more experience, the recruitment consultant will hear the truth. One consultant remembers that an otherwise highly suitable candidate was failed "because she had a boyfriend in Birmingham". In fact, the relationship was over. "But they were afraid she might start another relationship with someone in another city. So she was judged to be unreliable."
Then there was a candidate turned down "because she did not have an English name". And while everyone appreciates that employers will have views about personal appearance, surely someone can be forgiven for wearing "large glasses?" Apparently not. An accident of birth can cost you a job too. One recruitment consultant recalls an employer who would base his final decisions on the candidates' star signs. "Apparently he believed that there were only two signs compatible with him, and anyone else was turned down."
What gives personnel departments the right to make these judgements? Usually out on a limb from the organisations they work for, they do not always understand its core business. Often recruited themselves because, like Miss World contestants, "they are interested in people", they base their claims on the ability to understand the personality of the company they work for and the people they recruit.
Hence the attempt to put their decisions on a more scientific basis. Increasingly, candidates are being examined by written "personality tests", or even analysis of their handwriting. Even the IPD is cautious about these developments. Angela Baron insists "employers should never base decisions on these tests alone".
Personality tests ask questions to which there are no right or wrong answers, eg "Do you like Lord of The Rings?" Psychologists are divided as to their efficacy. Psychologist Dr Steven Blinkhorn has devised personality tests for 25 years, and believes that, used correctly, they can indeed provide a good indication of personality. But he is critical of their use in adversarial situations, such as eliminating candidates for a job. It is not just the candidate who is losing out. "Any employer using psychometric tests is a sucker and seriously wasting their time," he says.
The IPD insists that tests be administered by someone qualified by the British Pyschological Society. Even so, says Dr Blinkhorn, the problem can be in interpreting the results. The justification of personality testing is that it assesses how well an individual fits into an organisation. But for the results of a test to have any meaning they must be measured against a normative group, a large body of results from tests on similar candidates. Since very few organisations can provide a normative group in their own right, they will adopt one from elsewhere, and this is where the aberrations set in. For example, one water company measured the ability of its biochemists on criteria devised for its entire staff, with special emphasis on their ability to deal with the public, something the scientists seldom if ever had to do. Dr Blinkhorn's advice on what to do when confronted with a personality test is, "Walk out", although he appreciates this is not always practical.
While the use of personality tests is thought to be increasing, graphology, the alleged science of understanding personality from studying handwriting, is now less widespread. Yet some firms do still use it, especially in the financial sector, where the cost of recruiting is high and methods accordingly thorough. Perhaps more worryingly, according to Lawrence Warner, a practising graphologist, while it is common to see advertisements requesting applicants to enclose a handwritten letter, "these letters are not likely to be examined by a graphologist. Companies will look at a letter to assess the general feel." But then, can using a little amateur graphology really be as haphazard as the personnel manager who turned down one candidate because he had interviewed her on Friday the 13th?