Three questions to ask if considering the use of a psychological assessment for selection purposes

By Paul Barrett on December 5, 2019

© Orlando Florin Rosu/


Q1: Can the person actually do the job required of them? i.e. do they possess the experience, knowledge, skills, and ability to do the job?

Q2: Are they permitted ‘legally’ to do the job i.e. the formal accreditation to do the job required, in the form of recognized academic or professional qualifications and/or registration by a professional body?

Q3: What level of autonomy does the job-role possess? Yes, an unexpected question, but one that’s now the game-changer for assessment organizations and employers alike.

If an automobile repair workshop needs a new mechanic, Q1 is the priority. A hospital looking to employ a medical specialist/consultant would have both Q1 and Q2 as first-base priorities. However, if an employer feels the need to assess the psychological characteristics of an individual, then answering Q3 requires an appraisal of the degree of autonomy as a defining feature of the job-role.


Job Role Autonomy

By autonomy, I mean the degree to which the employee will have the freedom to choose how they wish to achieve necessary work-goals, make decisions and ‘influence’ (in the widest possible meaning of that term) other employees and important organizational outcomes.

For example, a low-autonomy job-role would be a corporate retail chain-store supervisor, a store manager, a call-centre operative, a desk-clerk, an entry-level graduate employee, a team leader, line manager, or postdoctoral fellow/junior academic. “People” above them make the key decisions and policies which must be obeyed.

A high autonomy job-role would be a corporate head-office/organizational C-Suite leader or a professional expert in any science, legal, or advisory position.

This is not about ‘job crafting’ – but about the constraining organizational expectations which for many low autonomy roles rely upon absolute compliance and obedience with those expectations e.g. product choice and pricing in a retail chain is made by Head Office, not by a store manager. Call centre salespeople follow scripted information and ‘pathways’ dictated by software algorithms. Corporate line managers/HR managers implement strategy/deploy products and services which are invariably mandated to them from ‘above’.


The modern workplace from a psychological assessment perspective

The assessment purchasing market is dominated by large global corporates or other organizations which run their operations as corporates (e.g. government departments, universities). Within this market, job-roles attracting the use of psychological assessment have now split into two main types:

  • The Drone Employee: low-autonomy, low-stake job-roles in which the employee is required to comply with an organizations’ expectations and job-role requirements, all of which require absolute obedience which if not given without question will result in adverse consequences for the employee. These employees are easily replaceable if not functioning adequately.
  • The High Autonomy Employee: high-stake job-roles in which considerable freedom of thought is afforded and indeed, encouraged from the employee. These are the employees who will create/influence organizational strategy, create operational rules to be obeyed by others, provide leadership, whose advice is provided from an expertise base, and who have been employed to substantively impact an organization by their work and decisions. These people possess autonomy because what they bring to an organization is rare, of critical importance, and expensive to replace should their performance prove inadequate.

The “Drone Employee” term was introduced into the employment market many years ago, describing a wide range of modern workplace job-roles. For example:

From Jeff Schmidt in 2001, a book entitled: Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives. The reader comments on this book (through to 2016) show the reality for many low-autonomy professionals in the modern workplace.

From Philip Brown and colleagues, in 2011, a book entitled: The broken promises of education, jobs, and incomes.

Andre Spicer’s 2013 article:  Shooting the shit: The role of bullshit in organisations. And also from the same author in a 2016 New Scientist article entitled: The road to hell is paved with corporate wellness

And from David Graeber in 2018, a book entitled: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. One of many reviews of the book can be found in a 2018 New Yorker book review entitled: The Bullshit-Job Boom: For more and more people, work appears to serve no purpose. Is there any good left in the grind?

All of which probably explains why national and international employee engagement surveys keep reporting levels that are impervious to any of the workplace ‘benefits/interventions’ introduced by employers, such as in-house gyms, games areas, happiness officers, free staff canteens, mindfulness and well-being sessions etc. For example, in a 2014 Gallup engagement survey of employees in New Zealand and Australia, just 24% or employees considered themselves ‘engaged’ in the workplace. The same survey in 2018 reported just 14%.

Forbes magazine in 2018 reported the results of a Gallup international survey on employee engagement, with an article entitled: Our approach to employee engagement is not working

“A staggering 87% of employees worldwide are not engaged”.

Finally, the Global Study of Engagement from the ADP Research Institute reported its results in 2019. The results from surveying more than 19,000 workers across 19 countries revealed that only about 16% of workers overall are fully engaged. An infographic global engagement map prepared by Marcus Buckingham is a useful way of looking at these data. A Harvard Business Review article entitled: Engagement Around the World, Charted, also provided additional analytics.


Psychological Assessment products have now evolved to address both kinds of employee assessment

Low autonomy job-roles

These can attract huge numbers of applicants. Proctored paper-and-pencil assessments are no longer practical, especially given the relatively high cost of many of these ‘legacy assessments’ and the logistics of proctoring. Technology via smartphones, tablets, readily available wifi, and mobile communications accessibility has put an assessment delivery platform in the hands of many who might never even have had access to a desktop, portable computer, or even internet access. This, in turn, has been the stimulus for a host of new, innovative, technology-led assessment companies creating brief assessments of psychological attributes as ‘games’ to be played on a mobile. The 100+ item self-report questionnaire leviathans of years ago are no longer sensible to administer via a mobile. Instead, we see 15-minutes or less ‘gamified’ assessments for assessing many kinds of psychological attributes. The established test publishers have also responded by creating short-form assessments which can be delivered on a mobile, as well as organizations like Cognadev creating completely new kinds of assessment platforms which blur the line between social networking and short multi-attribute psychological assessments e.g. Cliquidity.

The value-proposition in this market is to provide employers with a financially practical solution for high-volume, secure, fully automated, applicant screening via a multimedia-ready assessment on relevant psychological attributes. Such assessments are used primarily as ‘screen-out’ filters; a way of efficiently reducing huge volumes of applicants down to those who meet organizational requirements.

These ‘next-generation’ platforms are intended to assess basic psychological information about a candidate which is useful for automated screening, because low-autonomy job-roles are less reliant upon a candidate’s personal characteristics except insofar that they engender organizational compliance and fit (after ensuring they possess the necessary skills/experience to do the job in question); a point made in a target article from Bob Hogan and colleagues in 2013, entitled: Employability and career success: Bridging the gap between theory and reality.


High autonomy job-roles

In contrast, these roles invariably require deep psychological information about a candidate, except where the required expertise and criticality of the job-goals to be completed outweigh all other considerations. i.e. hiring cybersecurity software experts for government or commercial cybersecurity security agencies. Whatever ‘personality’ issues they may bring with them can be “managed”, just so long as they can do what you need them to do. In short, “getting the job done” is the priority, and not whether they are difficult to work with etc.

If we exclude the “expertise at all costs” job-roles (which are, by definition, rare), then in addition to biodata information and employment history/job-role experience, there is a clear market now for the assessment of deep psychological information about a candidate (cognition, their motivation, their values). The major test publishers still rely upon their varieties of legacy self-report questionnaires to gain this information, sometimes accompanied by simple-response, generic-context situational judgement tests (SJTs). Unfortunately, these SJTs are hardly any more informative beyond identifying those candidates possessing the ability to infer job-role criteria (ATIC: the term used by researchers describing candidates’ ability to identify the criteria used to evaluate their performance during a selection procedure).

However, for the past 25 years, Cognadev has been creating and incrementally improving a unique range of assessments which are a mix of complex behavioural tasks (for acquiring performance-based information on cognition and cognitive styles) and completely unique kinds of self-reports for motivation and values which do not rely upon self-insight and assessment-related motivation as do most of the standard Likert-response questionnaire-item formats. In a very real sense, the design logic and even the integral psychology theory upon which their foundational logic is based was prescient of the now increasingly sharp divide between job-roles defined by levels of autonomy available to incumbents.

For Cognadev assessments, registered and suitably trained applied psychologists are required to properly evaluate assessment results. The psychological information acquired is far beyond that of any simple self-report questionnaire, partly because the information provided by the assessments must be carefully integrated in order to best describe a candidate’s psychological functioning. Not as a set of ‘discrete’ trait-scores, but as an integrated whole constructed from cognitive style preferences and intellectual competencies demonstrated within a complex behavioural task, incorporating relevant information about their personal values and motivations.


The Bottom Line?

Low autonomy job-roles are literally low-stakes. The cost of ‘getting it wrong’ when selecting candidates for such roles is generally trivial because the role itself is always low-impact within an organization, and there is always a ready supply of potential candidates for such jobs.  High autonomy job-roles are the opposite. The cost of ‘getting it wrong’ is always high because the role itself is, by definition, high-impact within an organization; and there is never a ready supply of optimal candidates for such jobs.

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