What Is a Psychometric Test in Recruitment? And Do They Really Work?

Published by:
Joe Caccavale
September 7, 2022
min read

Work Sample Cheatsheet

Psychometric tests are becoming a popular talent assessment tool among organisations of all sizes.

According to People Management psychometric tests are used by 80% of Fortune 500 firms, as well as 75% of organisations listed in The Times Best Companies to Work For.

Despite their increased usage, questions still remain as to whether psychometric testing is a reliable indicator of future job performance.

Below, we'll review the benefits and limitations of psychometric testing in recruitment, giving employers the heads up on whether or not to include them in their hiring process...

What is a psychometric test? 

While the word ‘psychometric’ sounds overly technical, it simply defines ways of ‘measuring’ the mind. The concept has also been around longer than some may realise. Psychometric research has been around since the late 19th Century. One of the first examples was the University of Cambridge's psychometric lab, which studied subjects’ memories, reactions, and attention spans. 

When it comes to hiring, psychometric tests can be used to measure an array of skills and attributes, from critical reasoning, verbal and mathematical ability to emotional intelligence and soft skills such as communication and time management.

Those who are unfamiliar with ‘psychometrics’ may be envisioning some form of Freudian scenario. However, they've likely encountered one of the most common psychometric tests, the Myer Briggs Personality Test. That’s right, one of the most popular personality tests, the one that tells you whether you’re an Inspector, a Campaigner or a Crafter, is a classic example of psychometric tests. This is one of many examples of personality profiling used by recruiters over the years.

What are the components of a psychometric test?

Psychometric tests vary in their content, based on whichever test a recruiter or manager may deem to be the best fit for a specific role. That being said, psychometric tests can be broadly classified as one of two categories: aptitude tests and personality tests.

Aptitude tests

Anyone who has taken an IQ test should be familiar with aptitude testing. These tests often use multiple-choice questions and are designed to measure a person’s proficiency in a specific skill or ability. Below are some of the skills that are usually assessed via aptitude tests:

  • Attention to Detail: For example, a candidate may be asked to identify errors in a numerical dataset or proofread a piece of text for spelling, grammar and readability.

  • Situational Judgement: Candidates will be given scenario-based questions based on situations they may encounter in the advertised job role to test their problem-solving abilities.

  • Verbal Reasoning: These assessments use words and language to evaluate a candidate’s problem-solving skills. This usually involves asking questions based on a written passage.

  • Inductive Reasoning: Also known as ‘abstract reasoning’, testing this skill usually involves a candidate being presented with a dataset so they can attempt to identify trends and patterns.

  • Deductive Reasoning: Deductive reasoning tests are designed to measure a person’s capacity for logical decision-making, based purely on the information provided to them in the test.

  • Diagrammatic Reasoning: Diagrammatic reasoning tests use visual methods such as charts and diagrams to measure logic and problem-solving. A common example is asking candidates to place diagrams in sequences or assign them to certain groups based on perceived similarities.

  • Spatial Reasoning: These are similar to diagrammatic reasoning tests, in that they assess logic using visual cues. However, spatial reasoning tests use a variety of 2D and 3D shapes, asking candidates to spot patterns and visualise their movement or rotation.

Personality tests

Managers may use personality tests in recruitment because they feel that a person’s CV, as well as the way they present themselves in interviews, is not indicative of their ‘true’ character. These tests seek to gain a deeper insight into whether a candidate has the right attributes to not only flourish in the advertised role but also to gel with a range of personality types (which is what we often mean when we talk about “culture fit”). Theoretically speaking, a personality assessment could help answer a range of key questions:

  • What would motivate this candidate to succeed in this role (e.g. praise, financial incentives or opportunities for promotion?)

  • What factors influence their decision-making process?

  • How receptive are they to constructive criticism or feedback?

What are some examples of psychometric tests?

Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPQ)

In this test, 32 personality traits are categorised based on how they impact both your work and your relationships with others. Examples include a person's thinking style, their sense of empathy and how they influence others. 

The OPQ also includes a ‘social desirability measure.’ This supposedly roots out those who may be hiding their true colours. In other words, the test deters people from offering answers that they think will 'appease' the interviewer. 

SHL Managerial and Graduate Item Bank (MGIB)

The SHL Management and Graduate Item Bank (MGIB) is a test battery, with a range of assessments to measure logical reasoning skills. These assessments test numerical and verbal abilities, using questions based on business scenarios. As the title suggests, these tests are often used for promotion decisions, as well as screening candidates for fast-track graduate schemes or managerial positions.

Raven's Progressive Matrices (RPM)

Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RPM) are a group of non-verbal tests. Candidates have to identify sequences using geometric designs. These tests help determine a person’s capacity for abstract thinking and problem-solving. RPM was originally developed to determine the genetic and environmental factors of cognitive ability. Nowadays it is used across many educational and workplace environments. RPM is particularly common as a pre-interview screening tool, filtering out unsuitable candidates. 

What are the psychometric test's advantages and disadvantages?

What are the benefits of psychometric testing in recruitment?

More predictive than CVs

For the most part, psychometric testing is going to be far more predictive of actual skill than a typical CV screening process.

One of the big problems with both CVs and traditional interviews is that they’re both subjective ways of measuring a person's skills... and some of the evaluation criteria can vary on a person-by-person basis. Both of these issues are somewhat rectified by psychometric testing. Not only does psychometric testing offer a standardised approach, but it also provides a way to benchmark candidates so that if anyone falls below a certain criterion, they can be quickly taken out of the running.

Whilst evaluating someone based purely on their education and work experience might tell us something about their ability to perform on the job, testing for skills directly is always going to be more predictive than making assumptions based on proxies.

Psychometric testing evaluates (and importantly, quantifies) a candidate’s ability to perform a range of tasks, taking their result as indicative of skill. Many argue that this ‘objective overview’ helps leaders make an informed decision and reduces risk in the hiring process. According to their research 81% of organisations believe that psychometric tools, when used as part of an integrated evaluation strategy, have helped them make less risky hiring decisions.

Psychometric tests can be particularly beneficial for higher-level job vacancies. There is often more of a focus on a candidate's personal attributes and character. These jobs require someone with leadership skills. The successful candidate could be a driver of large-scale organisational change. In that case, that person needs to be able to motivate and inspire others. For these kinds of positions, psychometric testing can quickly weed out unsuitable candidates. 

Reduces unconscious bias

Traditional hiring tends to be prone to unconscious bias.

Someone's name, appearance and background can all play a major role in how we perceive them.

No matter where you are in the world, unconscious bias has a real, measurable impact on who gets hired.

Since psychometric tests don't ask for background details and are usually anonymous, they're a much more ethical means of assessing talent compared to CVs/cover letters.

What are the disadvantages/dangers of psychometric testing in recruitment? 

Not predictive enough to be used on their own

The issue with psychometric tests is that companies often think of them as a 'magic bullet' hiring solution. We only need to mention the controversy surrounding Paul Flowers. Also unfortunately known as 'The Crystal Methodist', Flowers had a disastrous reign as chair of Co-Op bank. Upon his resignation, it was found that he was hired partially off the back of psychometric tests.

People became highly invested in psychometric testing for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it was vouched for by people with considerable status. Psychometric tests also sound scientific - and so tend to be trusted as a proven way of finding the best person for a job.

However, in reality, they were never really intended to be the sole means of evaluating a candidate. Rather than companies using these tests as an aid for decision making, they have instead trusted the tests to decide for them. 

This is not to suggest that recruitment psychometric tests are completely devoid of merit. They can certainly yield some compelling insights (way more than a CV for instance). However, we must remember that when these tests were first developed, they were being used by doctors, researchers, and psychiatrists.

Now, pretty much anyone can print out a Myer Briggs sheet and say that they’re administering a psychometric test.

Richard MacKinnon, an occupational psychologist, puts it quite plainly when he says "psychometrics are only as good as the tool – and the hands using it.”

Suppose psychometric tests were carried out by vetted pros, and that they only formed part of an extended job application process. Can we be sure that they provide an objective - and more importantly fair - way of evaluating candidates? Multiple factors could potentially affect the fairness of psychometric testing:

  • There has been speculation recently as to whether psychometric testing is biased towards neurodiverse people. Using these tests in recruitment could exclude people with mental health issues or people on the autistic spectrum.

  • On a somewhat similar note, a person who is feeling nervous or anxious about a job interview could have the same skills as someone who is feeling confident. However, their psychometric tests could likely reveal different results.

  • Some people may be more familiar with psychometric testing, due to their educational background. Therefore, they could be more aware of what answers recruiters are likely to want to hear. 

They don’t account for values and mission alignment 

Whist a recruitment psychometric test might help identify some vague skills and characteristic, it generally won't be organisation or role-specific.

This means that testing for things like mission and values is near enough impossible through a psychometric test alone.

You can have a candidate who seems to be fairly skilled and the sort of personality you're looking for... but you have no way of knowing how passionate they are about what your organisation is doing or the ways in which your team works together.

Psychometric tests don't necessarily translate into real workplace performance

Perhaps the most important question we need to ask, is the extent to which psychometric tests can prove how well someone will carry out a particular job.

Since psychometric tests don't frame questions in a job-specific context, we 're left to make the assumption that this will carry over into the workplace. You could say, with confidence, that a candidate showed a certain aptitude or characteristic... but there's no solid evidence that suggests this positively correlates with job performance.

Psychometric evaluations measure abstract, indirect skills - and these types of skills, as well as character traits measured in personality tests, aren’t necessarily indicative of how well someone would actually succeed in a particular role.

Psychometric tests can indicate that someone may have the aptitude for a certain skill. But should we be measuring based purely on aptitude? It could be akin to saying someone who’s played Operation has the aptitude to become a neuroscientist. While it may to some extent depend on the role in question, it’s likely you’ll want to hand the scalpel to someone you can be 100% sure that they’ll carry out the job to the best of their ability. 

The first issue is that some of the traits they measure are so broad, that it could potentially be tough to truly differentiate between candidates. After all, as human beings we all have cognitive abilities and communication skills - two things that are measured by psychometric tests.

Poor score spread doesn't make hiring decisions easier

Since psychometric tests tend to assess very broad traits, you'll tend to find that candidates' scores are generally clustered at the top end of the range.

Cognitive test score distribution (chart)

So, if you're looking to use a psychometric test to make tough decision and thin your candidate pool, this might not be the solution for you.

Conclusion: do psychometric tests work?

Ultimately, psychometric tests can add some colour to your assessment of a particular candidate.

And they work at picking out certain traits,.

The problem is we just don’t know how relevant these skills are once in a workplace context.

So whilst there is probably little harm in using a psychometric test, you probably shouldn't be using this as your only assessment method.

How to predict job performance without a psychometric test 

Given the hefty price tag that most psychometric tests come with, it's worth looking at cheaper and more predictive assessment options.

Here at Applied, we use work samples to screen candidates.

Work samples are the single most predictive form of assessment you can use - they simulate realistic tasks and scenarios that candidates would face, should they get the job.

Predictive validity of assessment methods (chart)

Instead of asking about past experience (like CVs) or assessing abstract characteristics (like psychometric tests), work samples test for the skills needed for the job, in the context they'll actually be used in.

Sure, you could take an educated guess that a certain test score or previous role would make someone great at the tasks they'll be doing day-to-day... but it's far more predictive to simply leave assumptions at the door and simply ask candidates to either perform or explain their approach to those tasks.

Here's what a work sample looks like in practice...

To create your own work samples:

  • Think of a task or scenario that would realistically occur on the job
  • Ask candidates what they would do, if this were to be asked of them (or actually simulate the task where possible)
  • Give yourself criteria to score against
  • Have other team members independently review answers to reduce bias
  • You can steal our entire screening process here

Want to completely de-bias and data-proof your hiring? Try using specific software like Applied

At Applied, we believe that an anonymised skills-based approach is the future of hiring. Our entire process is purpose built to reduce bias and accurately predict how someone will perform on the job.

We've of our core practices can be implemented without our platform (we've given away all of our full process here).

But, if you're looking to make your hiring as efficient, predictive and trackable as possible, the Applied Platform will automate things like anonymisation, interview scheduling and score collecting - so you can focus on identifying the very best candidates.

  • You can see how Applied works via our on-demand demo - no pressure or strings attached
  • Check out our science-backed test for consulting and commercial skills, Mapped.
  • Or grab all the tools and templates you need to transform your hiring without our tech via our Resources Library.

Applied is the essential platform for fairer hiring. Purpose-built to make hiring ethical and predictive, our platform uses anonymised applications and skills-based assessments to improve diversity and identify the best talent.

Start transforming your hiring now: book in a demo or browse our ready-to-use interview questions and talent assessments.