Do psychometric tests disadvantage older workers?

Lucie Mitchell investigates whether the widespread use of psychometric tests in the recruitment process is biased against older workers.


Psychometric testing has been used as a recruitment tool for decades and is a common way for employers to gain a better understanding of a candidate’s personality, capabilities and aptitude by measuring, for example, their verbal, numerical, or logical reasoning, as well as their personality characteristics. Used correctly, psychometric tests can give an indication as to whether candidates will be a good fit for the company and are likely to succeed in their new role.

Psychometric tests are used across a range of industries and research suggests that 75% of The Times Top 100 companies use psychometric testing as part of their recruitment process. However, despite their popularity, there is the risk that some psychometric tests could put older candidates at a disadvantage because cognitive skills such as memory and recall can decline as people age – and even personality can change – meaning age may have an impact on psychometric performance for older workers.

“Many psychometric tests – particularly those that rely on speed of processing – will show a peak of performance in our late teens or early 20s,” remarks Lucy Standing, co-founder of Brave Starts, a community for older professionals.

“After that, our performance on these tests declines, which means the tests have potential to cause direct discrimination. That may not in itself be an issue, provided the job can reasonably and justifiably indicate that skill is needed at that level of performance.”

However, she adds: “Intelligence can be broken down into two main camps; fluid – the mechanics of how your brain works, such as processing speed, perception, memory, recall; and crystallised – what you know and apply based on context. It is in fact crystallised intelligence that has the stronger link with job performance than fluid intelligence.”

A representative comparison

One other significant issue is that, to find an average mark, psychometric tests compare a candidate’s results with those in a ‘norm group’.  Yet, if this norm group does not include enough people who are over 50, there’s a chance that the tests may be biased against older age groups.

“Do people who use these psychometric tests even know what the norm group is or how it was made up?” asks Standing. “If the norm group is made up of people primarily in their late teens or early 20s, then someone who is say 50 years old is being compared with a group of people predominantly made up of people nearly 30 years younger.”

The assessment results should be based on a comparison group that is representative of the general population in terms of age, gender and ethnicity, comments Robert Newry, CEO and co-founder of Arctic Shores, a provider of behaviour-based psychometric assessments.

“If there is a cognitive element to the role, then that should be carefully determined as to the level and type of cognition involved; too often we see ‘intelligence tests’ used that are not relevant to the role.”

Tailor the test

Lewis Maleh, executive recruitment expert and CEO of executive search firm Bentley Lewis, says tests should be designed with the specific role in mind.

“I would encourage employers to reflect on whether they are using a psychometric test because it is a useful benchmark for that role, or purely because it is a legacy recruitment procedure. If the latter, this could be a prime opportunity to consider its inherent value here.”

It would also appear that some employers are unaware of the implications of psychometric testing on older workers.

“The training courses that are required before organisations are allowed to use the test are orientated towards getting people to learn how to use the test – not how to critically evaluate it,” remarks Standing. “I can’t speak for all test providers or all courses, but if you ask almost anyone recruiting in an organisation the age of the demographic used in the norm group, you’ll be met with stunned silence.”

To ensure age does not put older candidates at a disadvantage, Standing advises employers to first consider exactly what it is they need to assess. “If speed of processing isn’t really needed, then remove speed-based tests from the process.

Secondly, make sure if you are using a test, you have norm groups which include the wider age demographic. People are getting older and living longer, so in the future it’s reasonable people in their 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s will be working. Are they currently represented in the norm group and if not – why not?

Thirdly, do a validation study. If the people who perform best in the tests turn out to be the best performers in the job, then you have a strong basis for the use of the test. If you never evaluate the outcomes, then consider this a loop you should be closing.”

Missing out on talent

It’s also crucial that psychometric tests are never used in isolation and are instead part of a robust selection process.

“Psychometric tests can certainly help illustrate a candidate’s skills, but it’s worth remembering that not everyone performs well in standardised testing, so it’s very likely that you will be missing highly valuable candidates if using this as your only screening procedure,” comments Maleh. “With studies proving that psychometric performance often declines with age, it is clear that any recruitment process that relies solely on psychometric testing has clear diversity and inclusion implications in relation to older candidates.”

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