Hayley Gullen: If our sector is truly committed to diversity, we should ditch the psychometric tests

In a sector for which talented people can be hard to find, we should be striving to remove barriers to entry, rather than lengthening the recruitment process

Hayley Gullen
Hayley Gullen

About 12 years ago I applied for a job at a publishing company. A friend who already worked there warned me that I’d be presented with a set of coloured cards and asked to put them in order.

"Just put the bright colours first and the dark colours at the end," he said. "If you put the dark colours first they’ll think you’re negative."

I followed his advice and passed the test, but failed at the final interview stage, which in retrospect was probably a blessing in disguise.

These days psychometric tests are less ludicrous, more sophisticated and harder to game. Many major charities use a variety of psychometric techniques in their recruitment, from personality tests to verbal and numerical reasoning. I’ve used them myself when hiring in previous roles. It’s something I find problematic: not only is their claim to provide "objectivity" highly debatable, but I believe they risk undermining our sector’s commitment to diversity.

Some psychometric tests assess candidates’ "fit" against a specific set of desired characteristics, specified by the employer. A recent New York Times article highlighted the risk of bias in this process and, although testing systems such as Myers-Briggs emphasise that there is no "wrong" personality type, hiring managers and HR departments might interpret this differently with regard to different roles.

They might assume, for example, that a successful charity chief executive needs to be an extrovert. This, however, has no basis in reality, and we all know that the people who are most likely to demonstrate confidence and extroversion tend to be male, white, university-educated and neurotypical.

I have been familiar with verbal and numerical reasoning tests from an early age. I attended a state grammar school which used the 11+ entry exam. I therefore have the privilege of approaching psychometric tests with a level of familiarity and confidence that many others will lack.

This raises another difficult question: how many employers are dissuading talented candidates, or securing false-negative results, from a system that favours those from more comfortable backgrounds?

Finally, psychometric testing often takes up an hour or more of a candidate's time, in addition to the application and interview. Obviously this requirement will be harder for some people to manage, such as those candidates with caring responsibilities, or disabled people.

If our sector is truly committed to diversity, I believe we should be seeking to lessen the time demands on candidates, and in a sector such as fundraising, where talented people are hard to find, striving to remove barriers to entry, rather than lengthening the recruitment process.

I’ve heard many times that psychometric tests "should never be used to make a decision, only to inform decision-making". In my view, this is not sufficient justification to take up candidates’ time and betrays a lack of confidence in standard recruitment processes. Having been required to use psychometric tests myself when hiring trust fundraisers, I’ve never felt that they gave me any useful insight in addition to the interview and the role-specific test.

Recruitment is indeed difficult, and risky, and no organisation will get it right all the time. However, I believe it is eminently possible to recruit rigorously without psychometric tests. If verbal and numerical reasoning are important, I suggest devising a role-specific test for the candidate to complete on-site. And instead of testing personality or "culture fit" through invasive personal questions, hirers should explore a candidate’s fit with the charity’s values during the face-to-face interview.

This does require charities to do the hard work of identifying their true values, but I believe it is a fairer and more worthwhile exercise.

If our sector is truly committed to diversity, our recruitment processes need to be transparent, inclusive and straightforward. I don’t believe that psychometric tests have a place within them.

Hayley Gullen is a freelance trust fundraising consultant. She also blogs about the charity sector at www.scepticalfundraiser.com

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