Firm tests workers' aptitude - for redundancy: Sarah Strickland reports on the rise and rise of staff questionnaires

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EVER LOOKED back on your college days and thought: 'They were fun but at least I'll never have to do another test'? Today's business world no longer offers such blessed sanctuary. Employers love tests and are depending more and more on what are known as 'psychological tests' to select, promote, and even fire staff.

According to research by Mori, commissioned by the Institute of Personnel Management, 85 per cent of organisations now use tests at some time.

Last week Anglian Water was revealed as using a personality questionnaire to select 900 candidates for redundancy among its 2,700 white collar and management staff. David Taylor, the personnel manager, assured staff that they were simply a way of improving company performance. 'We are trying to change the company, to come up with a different way of doing things and to introduce as much objectivity into who goes and stays as possible,' he said.

The 'Occupational Personality Questionnaire' produced by Saville and Holdsworth, the UK's leading publisher of psychological tests, identifies six of the main 'competencies' Anglian Water is now looking for in its staff: conceptual thinking, innovation; team work; initiative; people orientation; and flexibility. 'These are the sorts of issues people will be expected to talk about when they are interviewed,' Mr Taylor said. The tests were not compulsory and were part of a series of well thought out procedures.

Anne Vinden, regional officer for Unison, the public services' union, was furious: 'These sort of tests should be used for development, not on people who are threatened with losing their jobs,' she said. 'It puts people under tremendous psychological pressure.'

More canny, competitive members of staff could quite easily fix the test by giving the most desirable answers, she felt, and women were particularly disadvantaged because they were more prone to highlighting their negative aspects.

So what exactly does completing a personality questionnaire involve? I rang Saville and Holdsworth Ltd (SHL) and asked if I could do one, and as only SHL-registered test users can obtain copies, the company invited me to do the test at its headquarters in Surbiton, Surrey. Would the fact that I was late (therefore tense and stressed) and hadn't eaten since breakfast cause me to black out or tick all the wrong boxes?

As I approached my apprehension grew. What if the results showed I had no personality and was fit only for a job as a Tory MEP?

The SHL management centre is like a country house hotel, complete with velvety lawns, outdoor pool and tennis courts. More than 1,000 people a year attend two-week training courses there to become test administrators. Clients include Shell, British Gas, Barclays Bank, Price Waterhouse, Woolworths and Pizza Hut.

Roy Davis, the press officer, explained that there were no right or wrong answers and that I should answer honestly without too much deliberation, always bearing in mind that the questions were generally related to the workplace.

There were 248 statements to disagree or agree with more or less strongly. As I got going nerves gave way to enjoyment. This was actually a rather pleasant, self-indulgent exercise for someone whose job was not on the line. I soon gave up the idea of trying to lie, since doing so would obviously be more trouble than it was worth. Certain statements were also repeated in different guises which could catch out devious answerers.

By statement number 150 I began to feel I had contradicted myself 20 times over. Sometimes there were no doubts: yes, I enjoyed classical literature, being with people, discussing ideas. But did I like talking about myself? Was I reserved about my achievements? Competitive? Optimistic or pessimistic? Did I put my career before family and social life? Make rapid decisions? Well yes and no, but those weren't options.

It was difficult to keep the context of work in mind. Like many people, at work I am forced to be organised and meet deadlines. At home I'm different: the red bills mount up and I still haven't vacuumed up where I dropped a plant behind the sofa. Inevitably, both sides came through.

Shortly after the test, Roger Austin, the director of SHL's consultancy division, gave me an hour-long feedback session, based on one side of A4 paper covered in strange squiggles with some small print down one side. Three main areas were covered: relationships; thinking styles; and emotions.

My results? High scores for independence, holding strong views, social confidence, appreciation of art and culture, egalitarian and caring style, being 'psychologically minded', intellectually curious, innovative, enjoying change and variety. Low scores for convention ality, data rationality, detail consciousness. Middle scores for persuasiveness, directing others, modesty, practical ability, forward planning and meeting deadlines.

Any surprises? Not really, but this, as Mr Austin reminded me, was about my own self-perception, not necessarily the real story. The test I did was similar to the one used by Anglian Water. Could people lie? Eight questions can indicate whether someone is being truthful or not - luckily I had been honest when asked if I ever talked about people behind their backs. Who doesn't after all? 'We warn people about these questions beforehand but all the blandishments may have no effect if you are desperate for a job,' Mr Austin said.

Steve Blinkhorn, an occupational psychologist who believes some psychological tests have benefits, thinks personality tests are a waste of time: 'They do not predict job performance, all they can measure is someone's self-concept and you can do that more or less honestly in an interview.' Mr Austin believes the tests are valuable, but insists they must be used with other evidence.

But when people's livelihoods are at stake their use seems at the least insensitive, at worst menacing. Besides, as Anne Vinden said: 'Who on earth wants the same all-singing, all-dancing, multi-talented workforce?'

(Photograph omitted)