Knowing Your Psychometric Assessment

Over the last decade, psychometric assessments moved from being a luxury into becoming an industrial norm across different stages of the employee lifecycle. It’s become an integral part of the business world. Despite the encroachment however, the field remains largely vague to most people not labeled professionals in the field of psychology. And many overlook the aspect of measurement.

In fact, almost all domains of applied psychology unites under the concept of measurement. Psychometrics are designed to do just that, and the term itself is an abbreviation for ‘psychological measurement’.[1]

In most cases, psychometrics include a combination of personality and cognitive tests. And for the longest time, they’ve been splitting hairs in the organizational ecosystem.

It’s easy enough to find a camp of seasoned professionals labelling the test as a valuable resource, and another that brands the same as a pseudo scientific pile of crock. If you’d like to know which side works more strongly than the other? It would help to continue reading.

What Do You Know About Personality Tests?

Paper & Pencil personality tests in an organizational context was near nonexistent prior the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, contemporary application of these measures and tests for personnel selection could be attributed to the field of management science and turn-of-the-century industrial psychologists.

Interestingly, through the aftermath of World War I, with the expansion of American business in terms of size, complexity, competition and employee regulation, the development of rational management systems pushed into the spotlight. It recommended the application of scientific methods to organizational problems.[2]

Early Issues & Current Scenario

The distinction between industrial psychology and scientific management reached its apex when psychologists began to emphasize the importance of individual factors such as intelligence and personality over contextual factors such as incentives.[3]

But, while cognitive ability testing emerged with established and strong acceptance, personality tests failed in terms of recognition or trust. Without any support, the use of personality tests in employment selection evoked controversy.[4]In fact, several experts concluded that personality tests used in personnel selection lacked validity, were easily faked, and generally unsuitable for pre-employment screening.

While this was largely remedied by the Five Factor Model (FFM or Big 5) well into the second decade of the 21st century, personality tests are still frowned upon with substantial doubt. But evidence suggest that the popularity of these personality tests are on the rise, with a sizable amount of big companies using them one way or the other in much of their processes.

You could equate personality testing to the marmite of the business world, and its skeptics are just as passionate as its advocates.


Marmite is a sticky, brown food paste with a distinctive, but powerful flavor. It’s salty to say the least, and its unique nature propelled the company’s marketing slogan to echo, “Love it or hate it.” Its prominence in British popular culture has since transformed marmite into a metaphor for something that is an acquired taste or tends to polarise opinions.

There are cases that recommend observation:

  1. In 2014, personality tests came under hot water in the UK after a bank chief was hired based on his test results. With almost zero experience in finance, Reverend Paul Flowers was pulled in as chairman of Co-Op Bank for a lucrative salary based on exceptional results on his personality test. He was later forced to resign in ignominy over a £1.5 billion black hole in Co-Op’s balance sheet. [5]
  2. VIA - an American organization for psychology - branded their own personality test as a failure, recommending a UK Government Agency to stop using it for jobseekers. After failing its scientific validation, the test was discredited. [6] Yes. This was a test being used by an official government agency. Worrying.

Nonetheless, personality tests by itself and in combination to build onto psychometric tests have undergone multiple bouts of improvements. It might be wise to not dismiss it despite evidence that suggests otherwise, at least for the time being.

Would You Trust Personality Tests?

By raw definition, personality tests gathers information about an individual to make inferences about personal characteristics. These include feelings, behaviours or thoughts. They are designed to measure aspects of personality that determine - or are predictive of - successful performance at work, thinking style, workplace relationships, task management, feelings and motivation.

But coming to the basic question, would you trust personality tests? Models of personality have ranged from Eysenck’s 2-dimensional personality model to Cattell’s 171 traits with a ton of others in between.[6] With the development of sophisticated meta-analytic techniques, researchers have been able to aggregate specific traits into broad behaviours that define job performance. [7]

In the 1990s, estimates of the validity of personality testing inched toward the development of factorial approaches that have come to be known as the Big-Five Personality Dimensions - Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, and Agreeableness. These factors have shown to reliably predict ratings of job and training proficiencies.[8] Despite modern flaws, and even those mentioned in [1.1.1], these tests have proven to be successful also.


Between 2015-16, KPMG pioneered GROW - a leadership development initiative sponsored by Melanie Richards, KPMG Vice-Chair & Diversity Champion - aimed to identify key barriers faced by under-represented groups, including women. It used internal programmes and training to break them down.[9] The 9-month initiative included an amalgamation of group coaching, action learning sessions, and workshops in addition to personality testing and networking. It resulted in 15% of GROW delegates receiving promotions in 2016.

It’s interesting to note that from this example, and also from many others - personality assessments are rarely among tests to be considered on a stand alone basis. They do function best in combination with a battery of others. It’s why you’re likely to find different recipes to psychometric assessments, the most common pairing being between personality and cognitive tests.

What Do You Know About Cognitive Tests?

Cognitive tests are all about measuring your competence and intellectual capabilities. It also works into understanding your logical and analytical reasoning abilities in a very specific area. This translates to a reasonably accurate assessment of your abilities to use specific job-related skills and to predict consequent job performance.

They are generally time-limited with results measured against past test-takers; this extrapolates into a comparable assessment of a person’s level of ability or aptitude.

Cognitive Ability Testing & Fairness in Selection

Despite high utility and predictive validity by cognitive tests, few use them as selection tools. A reason for this is in cognitive tests’ inherent issue in producing group differences or adverse impact.[10]For example, African-Americans or Hispanics score lower in comparison to the general population. At the same time, Asian-Americans tended to score higher.[11]

Interestingly, legal challenges to cognitive ability testing began with the famous 1971 Griggs v. Duke Power case. In the case, the Supreme Court ruled that when a selection test produces adverse impact against protected groups, the company must furnish a defense by showing that use of the test is a business necessity.

Historically, courts have held narrow interpretations of business necessity that require companies to show that no other plausible or acceptable selection alternative exists. In consequence, several companies abandoned the use of cognitive tests.[12]

Over the years, there have been several attempts to mitigate this such as norming or banding.

Would You Use Cognitive Tests?

To reach a conclusion using an aptitude or cognitive test is erroneous, to say the least. But the test doesn’t come without its benefits. There are instances where cognitive tests find popular and legitimate use; the opposite holds true also.

When is it a good idea to use cognitive tests?

  1. Filtration: A larger candidate base often requires filter. Aptitude testing is always an easier, faster and more efficient process to narrow down the candidate pool.
  2. Nature of the job: When the job is more technical in nature than managerial, the measurement of a candidate’s aptitude will provide a much better understanding of his or her potential.
  3. Specificity of Technical Skills: When said job requires specific technical skills. For example, we expect content writers to weave some magic with their words, which is why they test for high verbal comprehension. A physically demanding job would require a physical fitness test. Therefore, if the skills are specific, measuring aptitude in that domain improves the validity of that result.
  4. High Job Complexity: For a highly complex job, cognitive ability is a better indicator of performance than other non-cognitive factors. Take spy work, for example. Being an asset to RAW is by no means an easy task; an agent trained to be the eyes and ears of their country outside its borders requires superior intelligence.[13] It is not all fancy Bond gadgets and cars. In fact, agents of RAW are screened through several intelligence tests – physical, language, logical, to name the few.

    When is it a not good idea to use cognitive tests?

    1. One Piece of a Puzzle: Cognitive assessments are only one piece of the bigger picture. Making decisions about anything based solely on one, or even a series of aptitude tests, leave much to be desired for in a candidate. There are competencies. Intrapersonal skills. These assessments are not one bit a substitute for all forms of pre-employment testing.
    2. For Managerial Roles: Intelligence is a factor, but for a role heavily dependent on competencies such as leadership, influence, and networking, cognitive assessments will provide no more than half-baked results.
    3. When Experience Trumps Numbers: You must have heard about succession planning. How about hires made due to performance shown in specific situations? Meritocracy trumps hard numbers sometimes. Tim Cook rightfully succeeded Steve Jobs for that very reason.[14] Hiring in certain cases should value experience over scores in an assessment.

    1. Keith Coaley (2009). An Introduction to Psychological Assessment and Psychometrics Ch.1, pg 19.
    2. Steven L. Thomas and Wesley A. Scroggins, Missouri State University (2006). Psychological Testing in Personnel Selection: Contemporary Issues in Cognitive Ability and Personality Testing
    3. Van De Water, 1997; Viteles, 1932
    4. Blinkorn & Johnson, 1990
    7. Heneman et al., 2000
    8. Barrick & Mount, 1991; Tett, Jackson, & Rothstein, 1991
    10. Cleary, Humphreys, Kendrick & Wesman, 1973; Hartigan & Wigdor, 1989; Wigdor & Gamer, 1982)
    11. Heneman et al, 2000; Lubenski, 1995
    12. Sovereign, 1999