With more and more employers using tests, both in the recruitment what you’re in for, you could do well. process and to assess the development potential of existing staff, ambitious accountants need to be aware of the kinds of tests they are likely to encounter, the ethics of test use, and the extent to which they can prepare for tests and improve their performance.
The two types of test which you are most likely to be asked to complete are ability tests and personality questionnaires.
Often incorrectly referred to as ‘intelligence tests’, tests of verbal, numerical and spatial reasoning are the most frequently used form of ability test. They differ from personality inventories in that they have right and wrong answers and, in many cases, a pass mark. Questions are usually of the multiple choice variety, requiring respondents to tick one of, say, three or four boxes.
Personality questionnaires (also known as inventories, or profiles) are, by contrast, not strictly tests at all, since they do not have right or wrong answers, but simply ask people to choose between their preferences for various activities, interests or modes of behaviour. They normally operate on a self-report basis, asking respondents to say how they see themselves.
While questions may, once again, use a multiple choice approach, they are just as likely to ask you to rate your preferences on a scale of, say, one to five, use a forced choice approach – making you choose between two extremes – or allow you to tread the middle path by saying that you have no strong preference. There is no ‘pass mark’, output normally taking the form of positioning participants along bi-polar scales such as ‘introvert/extrovert’.
Interest questionnaires, used to help people choose suitable careers, are similar to personality profiles in their use of a self-report approach and in the types of questions they ask.
You may be asked to take just a single test, or a battery of several instruments. Tests may also be included in an assessment or development centre programme, along with case studies, group exercises and interviews.
The nervousness which a lot of people feel about taking tests is largely unfounded, being based as much as anything on a fear of the unknown.
Tests fairer than interviews
In practice, you have less to fear from a test than you do from an inept or biased interviewer. Surveys have repeatedly shown that tests are far better predictors of subsequent performance. A well-designed test, used appropriately and administered, scored and interpreted by someone who has received proper training, should be fair and objective, which is more than you can say about at least a significant minority of interviews.
There are, however, a few genuine areas of concern in the way that psychometric instruments are sometimes used.
To begin with, tests should be used only if they reliably and validly assess specific criteria which can be shown to be directly relevant to the selection or development process. Some employers tend to use a test which they are familiar with indiscriminately, regardless of its relevance.
There is also an equal opportunities issue in that some tests may be culturally biased, although this may be difficult to detect. If, however, you are at an obvious disadvantage – for example, because you are disabled or because English is not your first language – an employer who observes good practice should make appropriate allowances for such factors.
In all cases, prior to asking anyone to take a test, employers should explain its nature and purpose, and provide guarantees about how the output from it will be used. Ethically, whenever people take tests, they have the right to receive feedback. In practice, particularly where tests are used on external applicants as part of the selection process, feedback is far too often given only when specifically requested and, even then, tends to be pretty minimal.
Another important matter is timing. Best practice dictates that tests should be given prior to selection interviews, and that the results should be discussed with individuals either before, or at least during, the interview so that any concerns can be explored.
Tests should, in any case, never be used in isolation but always as part of a broader assessment programme. There is also an issue about how long results should be kept. Because performance on tests alters over time, people should be retested once a year has elapsed.
Even though tests should be only one part of an assessment process, people are naturally concerned about their performance, given the career implications of whether or not they get the job or are selected for development to higher levels within an organisation. This inevitably leads to the question of whether performance can be improved or manipulated on personality questionnaires by giving what is perceived as the desired response.
The answer depends largely on the type of test. Tests of verbal, numerical and spatial reasoning usually involve answering a number of questions within a time limit. By practising on tests of this kind you can improve your score.
There are several reasons for this. To begin with, it is important to read the questions carefully and make sure you do not answer incorrectly, for example, by giving a synonym in a verbal test when an antonym is what is actually required.
That is why you will be asked to complete practice questions before starting the timed test.
Practising beforehand, however, will not only further reduce the chances of giving wrong answers but also make you more familiar with the types of question being asked. This, like familiarity with the clues in a particular newspaper’s crossword, will increase both your confidence and your speed.
A further point is that people who do enough of these tests may sometimes find that a test they are given is one they have actually done before. Finally, astute candidates who realise that they are running out of time will simply fill in random answers to the remaining questions on the basis that at least some will be correct and earn them extra marks – many tests involve only ticking one of, say, four boxes and do not deduct marks for wrong answers.
While the improvement achieved by these tactics may not be great, it could well be enough to make the difference between being above or below the pass mark and thus have great significance in terms of your career progression.
Any good bookshop will have a selection of volumes providing examples of the kinds of questions asked in tests of reasoning ability.
While personality profiles have no right or wrong answers, their self-report approach is often seen as an open invitation to present oneself in the most favourable light possible. If you are asked, for example, ‘Do you prefer to go to a party or sit at home reading a book?’, many people – assuming employers want extroverts – would answer with the former. In practice, this may not be so clever.
To start with, your assumptions about the qualities the employer is looking for may be incorrect. There is a whole range of management styles and team roles; your true self is just as likely to fit as any idealised image you try to portray.
In any case, most personality inventories contain a large number of questions.
It is extremely difficult to lie consistently and conflicting replies are likely to be noticed, alerting the test administrator to your devious tactics.
It is also dangerous to appear to be too good to be true. If you get a question like ‘Have you ever told a lie?’, be honest and say ‘yes’, otherwise the test report will cast doubts upon your integrity.
Furthermore, even if you were to succeed in presenting a false image in the test, that of a highly extroverted person for example, it would do you no good at all if you came across at the interview as shy and withdrawn.
Finally, of course, if you did actually manage to get a job under false pretences, you would be highly unlikely either to enjoy it or to be successful at it.
Know what you’re up against
It will, however, do you no harm at all to find out about personality questionnaires and to take every opportunity you can to complete them and to get feedback on the results.
While, unlike ability tests, this may not improve your performance on future questionnaires, it should help you at interviews when it comes to discussing the way you approach your work and manage staff. It will also help you in your job, by making you more aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and of where you should concentrate your efforts in terms of training and development in order to optimise your potential and progress your career.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Psychometric testing is now widely used – here, some proponents advise on how to approach them.
Nigel Llewellyn, national director of HR, Deloitte & Touche, says Deloittes uses a sequence of tests at different levels in its development workshops, and participants discuss feedback with trained professionals. ‘The individual must be comfortable with the process. Do not try to be someone you are not,’ he advises.
Stuart Duff, occupational psychologist, Development Associates Group Ltd, a management training and development consultancy, says testing should be a two-way process, ‘so be proactive and ask for feedback. Maximise the opportunity to get sound, objective feedback on your management style and your strengths and weaknesses. If employers demystified testing by explaining its purpose and how it works, the people who have to take tests would be less nervous about it.’
Jackie Evans, personnel administrator at National Grid, comments: ‘We select appropriate tests to use for each individual vacancy. The questionnaires we use help to assess qualities such as leadership, teamworking and the ability to cope with stress. We always give feedback to candidates before interviews take place, so that they have a chance to discuss the report before the interviewer sees it.’
Ron Vaughan, a director at Right Management Consultants, says tests provide an additional dimension, but stresses: ‘Do not use tests in isolation – you must look at the person in the round.
Feedback from personality profiling helps at interview when executives have to answer questions about their management style.’
John Seear, head of the English ICA’s Careers Service, warns that, with increasing numbers of employers using tests, you are more and more likely to encounter them in the selection process. ‘You stand a better chance of being judged on your true merits if employers are using tests to supplement interviews. Tests can help you to understand your strengths and weaknesses and are useful both in choosing a career path and in identifying areas for personal development.’
Graham Perkins practises as a career counsellor and is the author of several books on career management and related topics.
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