Using Psychometric Testing in Redundancy Selection

The 5th July edition of New Zealand’s Dominion Post ran a major story on public sector staff in The Dept of Conservation and Ministry of Business & Innovation being required to complete personality questionnaires as part of a redundancy selection process.

Whilst the article itself was somewhat flimsy journalism that got little further than identifying concerns over face validity of personality questionnaires in high-stakes situations such as redundancy selection, it did uncover the genuine fear that using questionnaires engenders in staff affected by restructures, especially when exacerbated by a Trade Union out to make a headline and an eager journalist with a story between their teeth.

Psychometric testing and assessment is the core of our business, but in this article I set out to  demonstrate experiences of using personality profiling in restructures and advise against using this approach and outline credible and more effective alternatives.

I have run and fed-back many thousands of personality profiles since becoming a qualified user of most of the world’s most respected questionnaires in the mid-Nineties.  Personality profiling is the backbone of this business and I promote and defend their application in recruitment, selection, team development, outplacement and career management every day of the week.

However, having being involved in their application in restructure and outplacement on a number of occasions, the affect the news that personality profiling will form part of redundancy selection criteria has on those affected, and their representatives, coupled with observed effects on the personality profiles of people under the stresses that threatened redundancy brings has led me to advise against their use in this setting:

The Face Validity Argument

The core of the Dominion Post Article focused on participants and their Union being unable to see the link between individual questionnaire questions and effectiveness in restructured jobs.

The fact that these individual questions build into a bigger picture gets outweighed by the frustration and confusion created in the mind of the participant who cannot see the profile being built in the background and their doubts over whether their responses are creating a favourable profile of their suitability for a new role.  The first effect is that participants start doing what the questionnaire administrator asked them to refrain from doing; over-analysing each question and not giving a first natural response, which builds into a skewed profile with high Impression Management scores*

The Temporarily Skewed Profile

As any reader with experience in using personality profiling knows, these tools are designed to measure enduring traits rather than temporary states.

However, during times of threatened job loss or changes to job content and purpose, several of the desired traits favoured by change-focused employers are temporarily affected.  Through observations of hundreds of outplacement sessions where people who have either received notice of termination through redundancy or are going through the uncertainty of a restructure process, the traits desired by employers yet diminished by circumstance in applicants include:

Being Change Focused: A highly desired trait for staff in the newly restructured organisation, but staff under threat of redundancy frequently report themselves to be wary or suspicious of change when completing personality questionnaires in restructure situations

Apprehension –Vs- Self Confidence: Again, new restructures typically seek out individuals who have confidence in their abilities to take on the challenges of the new role, yet the threat of restructure often diminishes the confidence and heightens the apprehension of those affected when they complete the questionnaire

Trusting –Vs- Suspicious: Most personality questionnaires worth a second look have an element of assessing whether participants are suspicious of or trusting in the intentions and abilities of their managers and peers.  Again, people who are facing a selection process with genuine threat of redundancy tend to be temporarily more suspicious of the motives of those directing the restructure, which is likely to show up as a contra-indicator to success in the role

Emotional Stability & Resilience: Whilst people like me will tell you over and over that there is no such thing as a ‘wrong personality profile’, it’s fair to say that the stronger the measure of emotional stability and resilience, the better, at times when people redeployed into newly restructured roles in organisations face new challenges.  Yet these factors are frequently affected by the threatened state of participants completing the questionnaire.

Just these four factors alone demonstrate the risk that the profile presented by the participant may not be the profile they would present if not under threat of redundancy, and whilst both Government departments in the Dominion Post article were using recognised, respected strong personality profiling questionnaires, their resulting profiles run the risk of being out of kilter with the individual who completed them.

The Alternative

If we take personality profiling out of the redundancy selection process, what should employers leave in place or introduce?

Ability Testing: Getting an absolute measure of a participants capacity to operate at the desired level in the restructured role is best achieved through Ability Tests that are appropriately pitched for the complexity of the job.

Assessment Centre Exercises: Simulations of the activities critical to success in the restructured roles.    Again, these need to be pitched to the level and content of the job, but there is a thorough range of off-the-shelf products ranging from simulated meetings and interviews, scheduling, analysis and in-basket exercises that match most job levels and industry/public sectors.

These approaches still cause anxiety among participants and still require effort to win over their representatives, but when communicated effectively, have the face validity to clearly demonstrate that the selection method is relevant to the job, which personality profiling manifestly does not.

I have long argued that the assessment/development centre approach is not used enough in New Zealand and would welcome any enquiries from organisations looking to introduce them into their general selection processes.

Steve Evans

Director, People Central Ltd.

0508 736 753

*Impression Management Scores result from questions embedded into some personality questionnaires to check whether participants are giving a consistent response, or attempting to create an impression of someone that they are not