You went for an interview, you got the inquisition

By Christopher Walker
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The Independent Online

"Are you vindictive or aggressive? Answer immediately." The cold eyes were set deep within the psychiatrist's hatchet face. They narrowed further as my lips betrayed a smile. I could not help thinking that this reminded me of a childhood game. But we were not playing a game now - my job depended on the answer.

"Are you vindictive or aggressive? Answer immediately." The cold eyes were set deep within the psychiatrist's hatchet face. They narrowed further as my lips betrayed a smile. I could not help thinking that this reminded me of a childhood game. But we were not playing a game now - my job depended on the answer.

City selection procedures have become increasingly sophisticated, if not bizarre. As we undergo a wave of consolidation and the "war for talent" reaches fever pitch, so the choice of the right people for the right jobs has become a battlefront. The Oxbridge interview is child's play by comparison.

This column has previously highlighted the pitfalls in the straightforward interview. The unwitting candidate is placed in the hands of someone handicapped by prejudice or inability. I knew one interviewer who always asked every candidate the same question, whatever the job: "How many bricks in a house?" His view of candidates al-ways turned on whether they came close or not to the "correct" answer.

However, some years ago a merger and a job search exposed me to the alternatives. The experience taught me that a well-conducted interview was infinitely preferable. The ability tests can be frightening. The numerical ones are particularly ferocious, resembling an IQ test done in a whirlwind. Eight seconds to calculate the following (with a calculator). Three different coal mines produce respectively 110, 220 and 300 tonnes per annum, take three, four and five weeks off and charge £140, £120 and £100 a tonne. Which is the more profitable? Look out for the catch. What fun! The only good thing is comparing results and finding you've beaten a trained accountant with your O level in mathematics.

If you think this is bad then beware the even more sinister psychological tests. As we all work in a people business, where we must be team players while continuing to show leadership, psychological profiling has now become de rigueur. An international investment bank was the first to introduce this, employing some elderly widow in a Zurich garret to assess candidates' handwriting. Too many squiggles in the wrong direction and you were unfit to lead that M&A team.

Since then the psychobabble has gradually taken over. I have been forced to sit some ridiculous multiple-choice questionnaires. "Which of the following is your ideal evening: a night at the theatre, a night watching television, or an evening with clients?" Now which one do you think we are supposed to choose? The results of all these tests are then drawn together to form a pictogram of your psychological profile. This will cover various aspects, from "go-getterness" to "emotional stability".

The problem lies in the way this pictogram is then compared with a supposed ideal of what a City slicker should be. This is all very well, but a lot of assumptions are made. I remember nervously running through the process before one interview with my sister (who knows about this sort of thing). I was horrified to find questions like: "How disturbed would you be by a team member's suicide?" The supposed correct response was that you should not allow it to affect you at all.

Is this really the definition of leadership we want? And how do women compare to men? Socialisation teaches women to be warm and caring. Is there a hidden bias?

It gets worse. When out of work, I applied for a job that required first getting through a "body psychologist" (reportedly trained by MI5), who watches your body movements to ascertain what you are really like. I spent a sleepless night beforehand studying a book on body psychology (believe me, I wanted the job).

Nothing could have prepared me for what happened. "What do you think the weather will be today?" I was asked. Will it rain?" I sat in the posture my book had told me to adopt, all to no avail. At the end the interviewer explained witheringly that candidates often thought he was a mere body psychologist. In fact, he was a much more advanced expert on the "psychological implications of the movements of the head".

It rained all day.

The City is a brutal place. If you have ever witnessed a "black bagging", you'll know it is not a pretty sight. People go into a room for a "chat" and do not re-emerge; their desk is cleared into a black dustbin bag. The hatchet face got me. As I swept many years of my life into a suitcase, I walked as tall as I could on to the street. I felt totally dehumanised. It was one of the worst moments of my life.

Christopher.Walker@hsam.co.uk

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