The sorcerer’s apprenticesOn 4 Mar 2003 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos. Anyone who applies for a job in one of B&Q’s DIY stores is in for ashock. Not for B&Q the terse little letter, asking promising candidates tocome in for interview, or informing the unsuccessful of their doom. Instead,candidates will receive a document with a graph on it plotting theirpersonality against population norms on such factors as conscientiousness,cleanliness and integrity, and a commentary explaining why they may or may notbe cut out for a life in customer service. Thanks to an ‘Automated Telephone Screening Interview’ – a telephone-basedpsychometric questionnaire – the store claims to be able to tell which of the200,000 applicants each year might be suitable for one of 15,000 jobs. Bypressing numbers on a phone, B&Q tests personalities to see if applicantsfit with the kind of ‘culture’ it wants in its shops. “I prefer to have myclosest relationships outside work rather than with a colleague,” thesystem asks, or “I believe most people will steal if they can get away withit.” You press five for ‘very like me’ or numbers down to one for ‘nothinglike me at all’. Brave new techniques Following the ‘interview’, the system works out a score and generates thedocument. The successful go on to a database so managers at one of the 320stores can pick from a shortlist. Only then will candidates be asked aboutdrill bits, paint finishes and pyracanthas. There is always a section of the HR community who become incontinent withexcitement about go-ahead psychological sorcery like this. Imagine, they say tothemselves, a whole shop of people sharing personality traits – everybodyyes-siring and can-doing and going the extra mile – but not swiping stock orimpregnating their colleagues. Fantastic! But isn’t it all a bit too Brave New World? Recruitment is becoming atool for breeding social stability in the workplace, a kind ofpseudo-scientific caste system. The next step might be hatching employees inincubators. It is with a certain cheek, that the company has ‘respect forpeople’ as one of its five ‘values’ adorning wall plaques in stores across theland. Prospective scoffers should not be too quick, though. B&Q has beenoutspokenly progressive on HR. It is in the vanguard of employers who havetaken up the cause of older workers (they know more about DIY), has verygenerous profit-share policies and has pioneered flexible working and elearning. Moreover, its automated recruitment scheme has the advantage ofconsistency and does not discriminate on race or gender. Store managerswhittling down a pile of applications by the time-honoured method of capriceand prejudice is not exactly ideal. The psychometric commentary is part of an effort to provide feedback toapplicants (part of psychometric best practice). Yet the most powerful argumentin its favour is a simple one: since the psychometric system was adopted in1999, staff turnover has fallen, from 35 per cent a year to 29 per cent. Psychometric tests, of course, remain controversial. To some they are wickedbecause they are darkly accurate, boiling down personalities to theiralchemical essence. To others they are wicked because they are inaccurate, withas much predictive veracity for employment as sorting by birth weight. But assuming the technical bona fides of B&Q’s test, it seems to methere are two good grounds for questioning if this sifting mechanism is, well,quite up to the job. Dubious wisdom First, it is very intrusive. Prying into the quirks and ticks of humanindividuality for the sake of an entry-level job does not seem proportionate,let alone wise. How would you like it if you went for a job selling paint, werequizzed about your relationships, and received an analysis of your personality?Second, it is dubious how this system fits with the guidelines of the BritishPsychological Society (BPS), the body that supposedly promotes responsible testuse. The BPS code of good practice says test users should “use tests only inconjunction with other assessment methods and only when their use can besupported by the available technical information”. In B&Q’s system, more than 150,000 applicants are being rejected on thebasis of a psychometric instrument alone. Fortunately for B&Q, the BPS is not clear what its own guideline means.Does it mean psychometric tests should not be the only tool used to accept orreject someone? Or does it mean a company should use interviews and referencesin addition to psychometrics in its overall recruitment armoury? David Bartram, chairman of the BPS steering committee on test standards andresearch director of SHL, says the latter: it’s a question of overallrecruitment and B&Q is safe. Yet Colin Selby, a member of the division ofoccupational psychology at the BPS and a consultant with Penna, says theformer: no-one should be rejected solely because of a psychometric test score. To have such a confused message is a fudge of real psychological genius onthe part of the BPS, leaving organisations to invent their own rules – ablyassisted by suppliers with an interest in marketing psychometric applications.The truth is neither efficient nor modern: there are significant ethicaldownsides to relying on psychometrics as an initial filter that never existedwith old-fashioned manual short-listing. Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed.