Angus McDonald, Director of Realise Potential and previously Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Committee on Test Standards, explains why tests of cognitive ability are essential for recruiters.

If you can only do one thing, use a test of cognitive ability.

This was a response that I gave some years ago during a discussion about the most effective recruitment methods. It was stated in a slightly provocative way, as I was keen to see how my colleagues, some of whom were very familiar with the research on cognitive ability but others not, would react. After a moment of silence, one of my colleagues looked to another occupational psychologist in the room who nodded her agreement. The conversation then moved on, though I have since used similar assertions on a number of occasions to challenge assumptions about selection methods. They have not always been so readily accepted…

Many modern tests of cognitive ability are quick to complete. A reasonably accurate assessment of cognitive ability can certainly be obtained with 20 minutes testing time. Developments such as adaptive testing can reduce this even further. To many, the claim that a single score taken from such a test will tell you more about a prospective employee potential performance than pretty much anything else you might know about them is not easy to accept.

Valid concerns?

Whilst employers may see the importance of cognitive ability in graduate recruits or those with limited job experience, what about experienced hires? Returning to an earlier stage in our lives, what does cognitive ability measured at, say 12 years old, tell us about our likely career success? The consistent ability of cognitive tests to predict significant future outcomes, referred to by psychologists as predictive validity; is a surprise to many.

Whilst it is generally accepted that smart people generally do well and we all have our own definitions of what smart means. The idea of being good academically and having strong analytical intelligence, the kinds of abilities typically assessed by cognitive tests, is not everyone’s idea of smart, at least not exclusively. What about people who are creative, highly practical or excel despite struggling with significant life difficulties or a poor school record? We probably all have plenty of examples of these.

Managing the Risk

The key point to understand is that recruitment is a game of risk management and probabilities. If you just hired people at random you’d get a few great performers, a few awful ones and quite a lot who just muddle along in the middle. The most effective selection methods weight the recruitment game in our favour. By getting candidates to complete application forms, interviewing them and putting them through a range of other tasks, we are trying to improve our odds of spotting the great performers. However, assessments can only improve our odds if they are the right tools for the job.

For example, application forms are a very common first sift of candidates. They may be good at identifying qualifications or other basic requirements (though of course candidates can lie), but what do they tell us about factors such as a candidate’s cognitive abilities? Almost always the answer is very little&. So, it’s about using the right tools for the job, and in recruitment the best tools for the job are measures of cognitive ability. Over 100 years of academic research covering hundreds of thousands of respondents proves this.

Predictive Validity is King

In reality, the informed recruiter will rarely only do one thing. They will use a range of methods to build up a rounded picture of candidates as the recruitment process unfolds. What most miss is that as soon as you start to use sub-optimal tools – i.e. those with less than the best available predictive validity – your chances of putting through candidates who are unlikely to be successful increases as does you chances of missing potential stars.

In times when single vacancies regularly attract hundreds of applications, recruiters need to be using the most effective methods right up-front if they are to do their job as well as possible. These tools are not application forms, CVs or even referrals, but tests of cognitive ability.

Thanks to Angus McDonald for this post. In addition to his day job, Angus is also the lead trainer for our BPS Test User: Occupational Personality qualification.

Receive TalentLens Updates

Interested in Critical Thinking, Risk and/or one of the other topics of the TalentLens Insights? Subscribe and receive new Insights before we publish them on this website. Insights are sent no more than 1x per 2 weeks and you can unsubscribe any time.
  • Your business email address