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Article in The Australian Newspaper

From: The Australian

AS company director of one of the nation's oldest funeral companies, Don Burstow recruits a rare mix of employees -- accountants, IT specialists, consultants and embalmers.

Until two years ago, T.S. Burstow Funerals' management relied on traditional face-to-face interviews and reference checks to assess workplace candidates. A decision to incorporate psychometric testing into the process has paid off for the family business, which has been operating in the regional Queensland city of Toowoomba since 1900.

"I wish I'd got stuck into it about 20 years ago," Burstow says. "I would have had a lot less grey hair."

Once a disbeliever, Burstow says such testing helps management match workers' skill-sets with the most appropriate jobs. Employees are happier, more productive and less likely to leave.

The history of psychometrics dates back many decades and involves quantitative tests to measure traits such as intelligence, aptitude and personality. Through major assessment consultancies such as SHL, TestGrid and GeneSys, most major corporations in the US, Britain and Australia use this form of testing for executive recruitment.

Many SMEs also rely on the multiple-choice assessments to test a candidate's motivation, interests and decision-making skills.

Victor Callan, a professor of management at the University of Queensland Business School, says psychometrics should be used not as a single predictor but as one of a suite of recruitment tools that can "increase the chances that you're going to make a decision that proves correct two months or three months down the track".

He warns that accurate testing often requires high levels of training and the use of tailored programs designed to suit specific jobs. This can be expensive.

"Cost varies widely," Callan says. "At the lower level you're looking at a lower unit of cost using a very valid and reliable measure that allows you to do mass screening, often around aptitudes. At the higher level the testing is much more expensive because the testing is much more complex."

Fees can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars for a single test.

The Rogers Group provides a range of psychometric appraisal systems and services, including the respected McQuaig System.

Managing director Martyn Rogers says an average test may cost about $200, while the better tests can cost considerably more.

"But the return on investment is huge," he says.

In an era of low unemployment and skills shortages, Rogers says some companies will be tempted to hire any staff who apply for a job. "However, the thinkers among the marketplace are certainly maintaining their need to get the right person because long term it just doesn't work getting the wrong one. You find yourself back in the same place in three months' time when you fire them."

In recent years, the major trend in psychometrics has been a shift to online testing. While it is usually cheaper and faster, critics question its accuracy and urge that companies implement such assessments in their offices to limit cheating candidates.

Jamie Smith is a Director at JP Smith Recruitment and HR, the Toowoomba-based recruitment consultancy that has assisted T.S. Burstow Funerals with its psychometric testing. He believes a distinction should be drawn between psychometric testing and psychological testing. The former includes basic online tests that can vary according to the moods of candidates on any given day, while the latter involves a comprehensive profile whereby a trained psychologist measures factors such as coping mechanisms and emotional stability.

"You need to know if someone is going to cope under stress," Smith says. "If you put them under the pump you want to make sure they have appropriate coping mechanisms. Only a psychologist using a true psychological profile will find out if they have those coping mechanisms."

The aim is to root out clever candidates who perform a "one-act play" at interviews. They wear their best suit and know their lines perfectly.

"They are the ones that are very skilful at interviews because they've had a lot of practice," Smith says.

At T.S. Burstow Funerals, Don Burstow says he has become convinced of the value of psychometric testing.

"I must admit that early on I was a real sceptic but we've just found that the results have been so accurate most of the time that we wouldn't be without it now."

Before turning to psychometrics, the business typically lost about four staff members a year because of a lack of job fit. Only two staff members have left in the past two years, both for family reasons.

Burstow says the ability to retain the right staff more than justifies the cost of psychometric testing, which in his business's case has cost about $800-1500 a profile.

"Lots of companies talk about how people are your most important asset, but it really is only the case when you get the job fit right."

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