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Identifying the best human capital

IAGO, the villain in Shakespeare’s play Othello, must have seemed like the perfect employee – capable, honest and good-natured. His boss, the Moorish general Othello, trusted him implicitly.

Unfortunately, the benign face Iago presented to the world concealed a deeply vindictive nature. When passed over for promotion, he embarked on a series of machinations that led to the tragic deaths of Othello and his wife Desdemona.

Could a good human resources department have prevented Iago from being recruited to serve under Othello in the first place? As an experienced soldier, he undoubtedly had an impressive resume, and his superficial charm would have ensured that he made an excellent impression in interviews.

But one modern hiring tool, psychometric assessment, might have revealed the flaws in Iago’s personality and ensured that his position went to someone far less destructive and more deserving.

Psychometric assessment, or simply psychometrics, is the science of measuring psychological characteristics such as knowledge, skills, aptitudes and personality traits through various forms of testing.

A psychometric test might measure IQ, mathematical aptitude, short-term memory, openness to new experiences, personal integrity, or any other aspect of either cognitive ability or personality including a person’s propensity to harbour murderous resentment in the way that Iago did.

As a fully developed branch of the sciences, psychometrics is a highly technical discipline with exacting standards.

In 2006, the New York Times called psychometrics “one of the most obscure, esoteric and cerebral professions in America”. The field has since moved further into the mainstream.

Creating a psychometrically informative IQ test, for example, is not just a matter of writing down a few randomly selected logic problems.

Each item (question) on a psychometric instrument (test) should be crafted by professionals with relevant expertise and the questions should be tried out on a large population of test-takers.

Analysis of the test-takers’ responses permits evaluation of the quality of the instrument in terms of mathematically defined psychometric properties such as validity and reliability.

Although this process may be time-consuming and expensive, it can be used to develop psychometric instruments that are not only helpful in understanding the workings of the human mind but can also serve many practical applications.

Any testing programme can be made more rigorous by the application of psychometric principles, and psychometricians can develop new testing programmes to meet a wide variety of needs.

The role of psychometrics in Malaysian education recently expanded with the introduction of the School-Based Assessment, which includes psychometric testing as an integral component.

Psychometrics can also be used to help select promising students for scholarships, or for admission to university programmes, based on whatever combination of cognitive abilities and personality traits is deemed most appropriate by those in charge of the selection process.

Psychometrics has also begun to have a major impact on how corporations, governments and even military forces around the world recruit personnel.

Judiciously combining psychometric tests with interviews and other traditional methods of assessing job applicants can greatly improve an employer’s odds of finding staff who are both intellectually and temperamentally suited to their positions.

A Harvard Business Review article suggested that psychometric tests can be particularly useful, at least in certain industries, when deployed as a screening tool early in the hiring process.

Even after new employees have been hired, repeated psychometric assessment at regular intervals can help monitor their progress and identify suitable candidates for promotion.

Employers have always needed to understand the characteristics of job applicants and current staff in order to make properly informed human resources decisions, and psychometric testing can provide insight into this critical issue in an efficient and objective manner.

According to a widely quoted statistic, more than 80% of Fortune 500 companies make use of psychometrics. Psychometric techniques can also be utilised to improve tests that are used in licensing members of various professions.

If you are a business owner thinking of taking on a new employee, psychometrics might turn out to be the key to finding that special person who meets your needs precisely. And if you are looking for a job yourself, don’t be put off or intimidated if potential employers ask you to take psychometric tests.

Provided the tests are well designed and psychometrically sound, they will help to reveal your unique combination of strengths and ensure that you end up in a position that makes you smile every morning on the way to work.

President, Malaysian Psychometrics Association

and Director of Psychometrics Cluster, MIMOS Bhd