Ben Schwencke, Business Psychologist, Test Partnership

Ben Schwencke, Business Psychologist, Test Partnership

This is an interview with Ben Schwencke, Business Psychologist, Test Partnership.

Ben, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to becoming an expert in using psychometric tests for recruitment?

As with most young aspiring psychologists, I started with an interest in the clinical side of things. Before being thoroughly informed on the many careers in psychology, psychology undergraduates typically gravitate towards therapeutic applications and are completely unaware of any commercial ones. However, a major turning point for me and my interest in psychology was during my final year at university, where I completed an industrial-organizational psychology module, which explored the applications of psychology in human resources, and I was immediately hooked.

After my undergraduate degree, I studied Occupational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, while concurrently working as a junior psychologist at a psychometric testing publisher. Both of these experiences allowed me to expand my knowledge and practical experience simultaneously, helping to establish my career and build a strong foundation. Throughout my commercial and academic career, I have consulted, researched, lectured, and managed, wonderful experiences for which I am deeply grateful.

What sparked your interest in psychometric testing, and how has your understanding of its applications in HR evolved over time?

The thing I have always struggled with in psychology is the lack of objectivity and the over-focus on qualitative information. Although these do definitely add value, a data-driven approach is required for the scientific and business communities to take psychology seriously. Psychometrics are the ideal way of achieving this, as they are deeply data-driven products which have substantial commercial applications in employee selection, development, and ongoing talent management.

Over time, my understanding of psychometric testing has been shaped most by client-led interactions. I have spoken with thousands of human resources professionals over my career, and their needs, requirements, and initial perspectives on psychometrics have been instrumental in how I think of these tools. Initially, I saw psychometrics as relatively inflexible, serving purely as recruitment tools. But now, I understand their applications are more varied, with broad applicability across the talent cycle.

You've spoken about the limitations of traditional interviews in assessing certain skills. From your experience, what types of roles or industries benefit most from incorporating psychometric tests into the hiring process?

Although all roles benefit from psychometrics, in much the same way that all roles benefit from interviewing, high-volume student recruitment typically sees the most benefit. In these roles, employers are often inundated with applications and are forced to rely on unscalable, inefficient screening tools such as resume sifting. Given that ChatGPT is writing everyone's resumes now, these are hardly reliable sifting tools for recruitment. However, pre-employment screening, particularly using cognitive assessments that measure one's ability to learn, solve problems, and make decisions, are very powerful predictors of performance, particularly in relatively complex work.

Psychometric tests are scalable tools, as you can invite 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 applicants to complete online assessments almost instantly. This saves hundreds of hours of administration and tedious reviewing, freeing HR to add value elsewhere. Additionally, given the learning and training requirements in early-stage careers, cognitive assessments will be the strongest predictors of performance that we know of, improving the quality of hire tremendously. Although other roles benefit from psychometrics too, high-volume student recruitment is the perfect use case for psychometric testing, particularly cognitive testing.

Can you share an example of a time when a psychometric test revealed insights about a candidate that wouldn't have been apparent through traditional interviews alone? How did this impact the hiring decision?

I recently conducted a study looking at psychometric test results, interview performance, and job performance in a large law firm. Their psychometric assessment was designed to measure eight broad competencies, i.e., cooperation, supporting colleagues, work ethic, problem-solving, etc. Their interview was also designed in line with these eight competencies, but when we correlated the results together, we found that only one competency was associated with interview performance: “communicates clearly.”

Interviews are fundamentally communication tests, and charismatic and personable candidates will perform well regardless of what the interview is designed to measure. If you ask a candidate about their resilience, the most charismatic candidate comes out on top. If you ask the candidate about their work ethic, the most charismatic candidate comes out on top, and so on. Although I was already aware of this, this finding has completely reshaped how this organization looks at interviews and personality, treating the two as entirely separate when making selection decisions.

Many organizations are concerned about the potential for bias in hiring. How can HR professionals ensure that the psychometric tests they use are fair and unbiased, and don't unfairly disadvantage certain groups of candidates?

Organizations are rightly concerned about the impact of bias in employee selection; however, psychometric tests are a way to mitigate bias rather than another avenue to propagate it. The most inherently biased stages of the recruitment process are the CV sift and the interview. In both of these stages, the candidate's result is purely determined by the subjective opinion of an assessor who, like all of us, has their own biases. Unconscious bias is extremely pervasive at these stages, but psychometrics can mitigate this.

Psychometric tests generate scores automatically and do not rely on manual input from assessors. Consequently, the subjective opinions, unconscious biases, or even explicit prejudice from assessors cannot pervade the selection process, ensuring fairness. This levels the playing field, ensuring that candidates always have one purely meritocratic opportunity to showcase their value without fear of biased decision-making.

With the rise of AI and tools like ChatGPT, how do you see the landscape of psychometric testing evolving? What innovations are you most excited about?

The biggest change that we are seeing as a result of ChatGPT and AI is a shift towards gamified psychometric assessments. Whereas CVs and application forms have been completely nullified as screening tools by AI, aptitude tests have only just begun to show vulnerability to AI-based cheating, as candidates can now upload screenshots of questions directly to ChatGPT to answer. Although AI, as of right now, isn’t as effective as an actual person at answering cognitive assessment questions, the trajectory is upward, and eventually, traditional aptitude tests will become obsolete.

Gamified assessments, however, are effectively immune to ChatGPT-based cheating. Game mechanics make tasks inherently more complex and cannot be captured by screenshots. Similarly, game mechanics allow us to speed up the assessment process itself, reducing the reading requirement, which takes time. Consequently, attempts to cheat would be met with failure, as candidates simply couldn’t upload questions to ChatGPT in time. I am very excited to see how gamification proliferates in online assessment, and I am already seeing a trend in this direction.

What are some common mistakes organizations make when implementing psychometric tests in their hiring process? What advice would you give to HR professionals looking to avoid these pitfalls?

The biggest mistake that I see organizations make when using psychometric tests is being too lenient with pass marks. Although it may seem harsh, the value you get from psychometrics is directly proportional to the number of candidates you screen out. Think of it this way: Imagine you can interview 10 candidates or 1,000, and either way, you pick the top performer. With 10 candidates, you are picking a 1 in 10 performer, who is likely to be pretty good. However, a 1 in 1,000 performer is likely to be an amazing hire; it's a simple numbers game.

Although interviewing 1,000 candidates to achieve one hire would be insanely inefficient, with psychometric testing, that represents a viable option. You can very easily invite thousands of applicants to complete an assessment and then shortlist only the very best performers, giving you access to stellar performers. This is how you maximize the return on investment with psychometric testing, and I strongly recommend that organizations cast their net wide and search for the best candidates they can find.

Beyond recruitment, how else have you seen psychometric tests used effectively within organizations? Can you share any examples related to employee development or team building?

Personality questionnaires, in particular, are powerful tools in the learning and development space. Although you can't change an employee's personality, making them aware of their behavioral dispositions can greatly help structure personal and professional development plans. For example, if a candidate finds out they are quite introverted from their personality results, they now know they need to focus on relationships, communication, and teamwork. Additionally, if they find out they aren't very conscientious, then they need to work on organization, planning, and attention to detail.

This approach is particularly useful in conjunction with an annual performance review, helping to add structure to a manager's observations. For example, if work ethic is a problem, it can be hard to raise this issue in isolation. But if the candidate shows low scores in industriousness, then this explains the observation, adding weight to the manager's review. This approach makes performance management seem less personal or accusatory, helping to ease the employee's concerns or limit resistance to feedback.

For HR professionals who are new to using psychometric tests, what resources or advice would you recommend for choosing and implementing the right assessments for their organization's needs?

The most important consideration when choosing an assessment is to speak with a number of providers and focus your attention on those with good science. Many assessment providers are effectively just tech companies with an assessment platform, but they lack any expertise in psychology or research. A good provider will put you in touch with an assessment expert and guide you through the process. Naturally, employing organizations are the customers here, and it isn’t the customer's responsibility to convince themselves to work with a particular provider; it's the provider's responsibility to show quality.

By working with a provider who is willing to invest the time and effort into informing new clients about the value of psychometrics, you ensure that you are getting the support you need. Moreover, if the organization is able to speak cogently about the value of psychometrics from an expert's perspective, this suggests the provider is themselves well-informed, speaking to the quality of their tools. However, providers who focus solely on the tech, the platform, and reporting are effectively just salespeople who know nothing about psychometrics, setting you up for failure.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge and expertise. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Thank you very much for your questions, and I hope my responses have been helpful. The last thing I would like to say is that psychometric tests, however powerful, are not perfect predictors of performance. The evidence is extremely supportive of their use, and their predictive power can be considerable, but I must temper expectations and provide a balanced overview. There are thousands of variables that influence our performance at work, many of which are seemingly random, such as how well you are sleeping, your relationship with your manager, ongoing health issues, etc. Consequently, psychometrics should be considered part of the puzzle, but never the whole picture.

That being said, assuming you have chosen a good provider who offers thoroughly validated assessments, you can expect substantial improvement in the quality of hire, as well as a reduction in administrative burden, making them an overall win-win.

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