Your answer could cost you your job

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 05:00 05/07/2013

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Longstanding public servants are being asked whether their friends know how to party, if they hate opera and whether they like riddles - and their answers could cost them their jobs.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Department of Conservation are two government agencies that have used psychometric testing as part of restructures and redundancies.

But employment lawyers and psychologists say the increasing use of testing in this way - in both the public and private sectors - is "inherently problematic" and could be illegal.

News of their use comes on the back of an Employment Court decision that found a psychometric test was unfair and used "irrelevant criteria" for deciding on redundancies.

About 320 DOC managers were made to take two psychometric tests as part of a "management of change" process, which will cut about 70 jobs.

The department paid $80,000 for a test to be administered on "verbal, numeric and diagrammatic abilities", and a second on leadership styles.

DOC deputy director-general change management Sue Cosford said psychometric tests were one of a range of assessment tools it was using.

At the ministry, 135 health and safety inspectors had to take psychometric personality tests as part of restructuring in February.

The Hogan Assessments' The Science of Personality test, obtained by The Dominion Post, asked them to answer true or false to questions such as: "I hate opera singing", "I like to try new, exotic foods", "I can use a microscope", and "my best friends know how to party".

The ministry said last night that the assessments were "designed to ensure that our inspectors have the skills and competencies necessary to undertake the new and more highly skilled (and more highly paid) roles" in the new Crown agency WorkSafe NZ.

"They were included in our selection process as one of a range of opportunities for individuals to demonstrate competence in a number of different areas. They contributed to the overall assessment of an applicant's suitability for the new roles."

Psychometric testing has risen in popularity since first being used to identify battle-ready soldiers by the British in World War I. It is widely used for recruitment, but employment lawyer Barbara Buckett says its use as part of restructuring is a new and sinister trend.

"It's a cute move they use to get rid of what they classify as 'dead wood'. They can design it to make sure certain people don't pass."
One of her clients, a former public servant, took redundancy rather than complete a test, after deciding that failure could obstruct future employment.

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Public Service Association national secretary Brenda Pilott said it objected strongly to the tests. "We think this kind of dabbling in people's psychological makeup is horribly intrusive, and it's ridiculous - how does liking opera singing make me a good health and safety inspector?

"I suppose you're meant to say you don't like it, because if you say 'yes' you are some kind of elitist snob, but I don't know."

Massey University school of management lecturer Darryl Forsyth said that, used properly, psychometric tests were the best way to select people.

They got rid of interviewer bias - for example, choosing someone based on their looks, whether they were friendly, or known to the interviewer - and could reliably predict future job performance.

But tests lacked validity if they were not relevant, or if they were administered and interpreted incorrectly. It was "inherently problematic" using them as part of restructuring, he said.

In an April 29 decision, Employment Court chief judge Graeme Colgan awarded a former Transfield Services worker $15,000 for wrongful dismissal after a psychometric test was used as part of redundancy considerations. He ruled that the test was "irrelevant", of dubious value, and led to a "plainly wrong" conclusion.

PERSONALITY TESTS

An aptitude or personality assessment using multiple-choice questions. The tests are used in recruitment, management training, team-building exercises and, more recently, in making redundancy selections.

The personality tests are designed to measure how candidates relate to other people, their ability to deal with their own and other people's emotions, and the way they handle and solve problems.

Ethos Consulting Group psychometrician Jeff Simpson, who has conducted more than 12,000 assessments, says he would never use a test without an interview to accompany it, and that tests should not be used for restructuring purposes.

"That's rubbish, that's garbage. In that case there's absolutely no use for them."

Cognitive assessments were more helpful than personality tests, in which a psychopath could score the same as a genius, he said. "It's just so complex."

NERVOUS TICKS

Questions to Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment staff from Hogan Assessments' "The Science of Personality" tests.

Participants had to tick true/false or agree/disagree/undecided.

The secrets of the universe are objective and knowable

I can make up stories quickly

I would enjoy skydiving

I frequently have indigestion

I have never deliberately told a lie

I find Greek mythology interesting

If it feels good, do it

I believe in people

Sometimes I feel a kind of power around me

I like fast cars 

- The Dominion Post

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