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Bridget Gray

Managing Director
Harvey Nash

The science behind selection

Recruitment and retention practices have changed dramatically in the last decade. Whilst the formal interview process has remained a feature of selection techniques, the style, function and outcomes of these meetings has and will continue to evolve. As an executive search recruiter, I’ve seen a resurgence of psychological assessment of candidates, essentially underpinning the fundamentally intuitive decision of whether or not to hire a particular candidate with science.

Harvey Nash has recently launched its Leadership Services function, with key senior recruiters, like me, becoming accredited in psychological assessment of candidates. In this particular post, I wanted to discuss the rationale behind psychological assessment and its evolving role in recruitment, selection and engagement processes.

The use of psychological assessment for recruitment and selection is actually around 100 years old, whilst resources devoted to employee engagement are relatively modern. It continues to be one of the most active areas of intellectual endeavour in the psychology profession. There are more than 6 million websites, 3000 books and a myriad of blogs and articles devoted to employee engagement alone!

The rationale for using psychological assessment for recruitment and selection purposes tends to follow the line that good work performance is desirable for both employers, employees and for society in general. As people differ in their abilities and attributes, so do occupations differ in their demands and rewards. Analysing the role you are recruiting for enables the identification of relevant dimensions and psychological assessment of shortlisted candidates enables the identification of relevant abilities and attributes. Matching individuals’ abilities and attributes with the demands and rewards of particular roles and companies is likely to enable good work performance, better engagement and reduced risk of attrition. Therefore, psychological assessment is useful in predicting effective and satisfying work performance, something which is mutually beneficial for employer and employee.

Whilst the logic above is simple, implementing psychological assessment into a recruitment process in an effective and appropriate manner can prove complex. The variations of tests and definitions available demonstrates that whatever form of psychological assessment used, the tools or the actual assessor must be somehow aligned to or invested in the potential employer. As such, clients of Harvey Nash will be able to rely on us to illuminate a candidate’s personality, development needs, motivators and values, whilst ensuring the candidate has a positive interview experience, reflecting well on the brand of the client.

Harvey Nash will analyse the role, the prospective candidates and the work context. Assessing these three areas gives us the ability to paint a full picture of each candidate’s suitability and potential future not only in the role, but also in the organisation itself.

Traditionally, job analysis has focussed on looking at specific positions in terms of work activities, worker attributes and work context. In terms of work activities, there is a difference in the predictive ability of differing personality traits according to job stage, suggesting that some attributes are relevant when learning new tasks (at transitional stages) and are distinct from those when performing ongoing routine tasks (at maintenance stages).

Interestingly, increasing attention is paid to the differing demands of everyday versus unusual work situations. Senior roles often require responses to critical incidents or are subject to particular pressures. Interestingly, as Hogan and Kaiser (2005) report, so-called ‘dark side’ dimensions potentially have some apparent short-term strength in managerial performance, but in the longer term reveal substantial and potentially costly weaknesses. Without psychological assessment, these potential weaknesses would not show themselves in a normal interview process. The implications of a ‘bad match’ between employer and employee are wide-ranging, and can include increased attrition, poor engagement and over used resources. I focus on not only identifying competence for the normal tasks, but also potential vulnerability to poor emotional responses to unexpected, exceptional and/or stressful work situation, enabling the business to make an intelligent, informed decision about who they hire.

I am continually assessing candidates for ‘dynamic performance’, as per Sackett & Lievens (2008, p.432): “creatively solving problems, dealing with uncertain work situations, cross-cultural adaptability and interpersonal adaptability”. Effective job performance in changing contexts involves a level of flexibility including the ability to ‘unlearn’ old strategies as well as learning new strategies. Most organisations seek dynamic performance given the pace of change and global economic climate. When dynamic performers are matched with dynamic companies, the result is increased market share and unparalleled growth.

Interestingly, according to a 2011 article in Personnel Psychology, engaged employees typically have high energy levels, pride, enthusiasm, and positive attitudes at work. They are more likely to go above and beyond their job requirements. Engagement also impacts a company’s bottom line. According to the 2009 book, Employee Engagement: Tools for Analysis, Practice, and Competitive Advantage, companies with highly engaged workers show higher return on assets, are more profitable and demonstrate nearly twice the value to their shareholders compared to companies characterised by low employee engagement. A recent Forbes article put it this way: high employee engagement equals better organisations performance; lower employee engagement equals worse organisational performance.

The above is especially true for creative, innovative employees – the most likely to show dynamic performance traits. And, whilst employees acknowledge that a bonus has a place in the reward system, it turns out that monetary rewards and poor drivers of performance, especially amongst creative personalities. A meta-analysis by Edward Deci and colleagues showed that when subjects knew in advance how much extra money they would receive for completing a task that they already found interesting and enjoyable, motivation decreased by 36%. By giving your employees meaningful work, you will motivate them to succeed.

‘Engagement’, whether at recruitment or development stage, shouldn’t be a buzzword; it has real consequences for employees, customers and companies. By using psychology assessment tools to measure engagement, improve hiring practices and develop new and existing leaders, companies can positively impact engagement and the bottom line. It is certain that working will involve more complexity, interconnection, unpredictability and change in the future, which is why Harvey Nash are continually working with clients to underpin recruitment and selection decisions with science. If you’d like to discuss this with me, please do get in touch!