Virginia Matthews looks at the row over psychometric testing for jobs

The UK's first web-based career health check was lauched last week - a free service that enables job seekers to assess their strengths and weaknesses online and find out if they are in the right career.

The company behind the launch is totaljobs.com, whose 20-minute questionnaire has been devised by the leading occupational psychologists Selby MillSmith. It promises to send a comprehensive work/profile report by post within 72 hours.

Totaljobs.com believes that online "psychometric" testing not only helps candidates match their own personalities to appropriate careers, but saves recruiters time and money in their search for the best man or woman for a job. Yet the entire issue of online testing, which for a growing number of employers is becoming a first-stage "weeding out" process for unqualified or generally unsuitable candidates, remains contentious.

"Online testing may be useful in the pre-selection process, to test something like typing skills. But in our view, it will always be of limited value," says Angela Baron, adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD). "For one thing, a recruiter can never be sure that the online maths test, say, was completed by the candidate and not by his more numerate next-door neighbour, and for another, there is a real danger that some recruiters will treat the internet as some sort of personality test - almost as a substitute for a face-to-face interview."

She adds: "The real value of psychometric testing for job seekers - and this is only the case if they are properly analysed by experts in the field - is the feedback you get. The alternative is that online career health checks of this sort are just a bit of fun, rather like completing a magazine quiz."

Meanwhile Asda, which has already recruited 120 graduates via its own online testing system, accuses the IPD of outdated views. "Our web recruitment policy is currently based on 'cultural fit' testing rather than full psychometrics - a quiz that uses a multiple-choice format to determine whether a graduate applicant is really passionate about retailing and would fit in with our unique way of working," says Asda's graduate resourcing manager, Andrea Vowles.

"We have already weeded out about 60 per cent of graduates through our online-only recruitment process and are now keen to go even further down the online testing road. We hope to introduce mainstream online psychometric testing later this year."

For Corus, formerly British Steel, which introduced online recruitment last September, pre-selection via the web is also the way forward. "For today's graduate, applying for a job in the privacy of one's own room is as natural as pen and paper is for his parents," says John Carson, manager, graduate resourcing.

Corus, which aims to recruit 375 graduates by this autumn, asks applicants to submit what it calls "fairly basic biographical information" at the initial stages of recruitment, with a telephone interview later on. But like Asda, it now wants to introduce full online psychometric testing as the first stage of the selection process.

David Plummer, managing director of Triage Consulting, an IT and telecoms recruitment specialist, believes that what he calls "faceless online recruitment policies" can have a counter-productive effect. "Companies become inundated with unsuitable applications," he explains. "Everyone thinks that the internet will somehow magically solve all their recruitment problems, but it won't."

To Rob Perkins, publishing director at totaljobs.com, psychometric tests via the net are here to stay. He claims it was only a matter of time before tighter recruitment methods had to be brought in to cope with the growing number of job seekers. Far from easing recruiters' problems, the huge range of skills and attributes on offer is making the right people harder to find than ever.

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