The rise of psychometric testing is harming workplace diversity

By | September 20, 2017

Psychometrics have become an essential weapon in the graduate recruiter’s arsenal, helping large private and public sector employers whittle down applications from the tens of thousands to the elite few who will be invited to an interview or assessment centre. Nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) of graduate recruiters use psychometric testing, according to a 2016 paper by the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

But while there are undeniable benefits of using such testing methods – speed and efficacy chief among them – have you considered the impact of your choice on applicants, and the fact that your method could be harming your organisation’s ability to achieve its diversity goals?

Think about it: when would a student have been asked to complete verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests before applying for an entry-level job or graduate scheme? Probably only when sitting an exam similar to an 11+ to determine entry to a grammar or private school. That means students with certain backgrounds – likely to be those who were state-schooled, or from poorer communities – are less likely to have been exposed to the learning associated with psychometric testing before applying for their first post-university roles.

That thousands of students are entering – and leaving – university without this exposure to psychometric testing, and are developing a fear of failing such tests, is growing in importance as the number of non-privately educated students at UK universities rises. In 2014-15, 20.8 per cent of students entering Russell Group universities had poorer backgrounds. That proportion rises to more than a third (37.5 per cent) at non-Russell Group institutions.

People often ask me: does it matter if these students are put off from applying for jobs that require psychometric testing? Can’t they just apply for the roles that don’t have this requirement? That’s a compelling argument, but my response is simple – it’s about creating equality of opportunity. These students are too scared of failure to try, and this means employers are losing out on vast swathes of talented individuals.

I want every student to be able to apply for any role they want to; at the moment, they can’t. And that won’t change without a concerted effort from universities and employers alike. At Bradford’s School of Management, I’ve embedded into every undergraduate programme under my purview a requirement that every student is exposed to psychometric testing and develops their verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills. Their scores aren’t important, but they gain an understanding of what the tests require, and their importance in the graduate job application process, so they can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to apply for roles that are recruited in this way.

I accept that employers are unlikely to do away with psychometric testing entirely, but there is still work they can do to reach a broader audience. Talk to a wider range of universities, and connect with students on courses that you wouldn’t usually target. Arrange to do a guest lecture. Meet students and build relationships with them. Offer short-term placements or internships that might serve as extended job interviews for permanent roles in the future.

It’s time employers looked beyond the same people from the same institutions and courses, and started to rethink the ‘tried and tested’ recruitment methods, to bring about the true diversity of thinking that every successful modern company requires.

Professor Zahir Irani is Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Bradford

About Zahir Irani

Professor Zahir Irani joined the University of Bradford as Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law in December 2016. Professor Irani has held several senior management positions at Brunel University London, the most recent of which being the Dean of College (Business, Arts and Social Sciences - CBASS) which he set up following an organisational restructuring from eight schools into three colleges. Prior to this role, he was seconded full-time to Whitehall, where he was a Senior Policy Advisor at the Cabinet Office during part of the coalition Government. He is however most proud of being Head of the Brunel Business School, which in 2013 was awarded the Times Higher Education Business School of the Year under his leadership. He completed a BEng (Hons) at Salford University before then accepting a research position in industry where he finished his Master’s degree by research. He has a PhD in the area of investment evaluation and undertook his leadership development at the Harvard Business School. He has an extensive list of 3 and 4 star publications in the area of information systems, Project Management and eGovernment, and significant grant income from national and international funding councils.