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Under new plans unveiled this week by the College of Policing, all new police officers in England & Wales could require a degree as a minimum qualification for entry. As a business psychologist with expertise in designing and running robust assessment systems, this is an interesting development. It also stands in stark contrast to EY’s recent decision to no longer consider degree or A-level results when assessing potential graduate employees. So, who’s right?

Claiming that the role of a police officer is now of “degree level complexity” and that “the role of a police officer was as complicated as that of a social worker or a nurse”, Chief Constable Alex Marshall, chief executive of the college, is proposing that police applicants must complete a degree in practical policing (or a conversion course) if they are to be considered for future roles.

Whilst I applaud any desire to raise standards, this approach smacks of laziness. It was not so long ago that job adverts used “xx years of experience” as a linguistic shortcut to imply the skills and capabilities required to do the job successfully. The introduction of Age Discrimination Legislation in 2006 (integrated into the Equality Act 2010) put paid to that approach and instead employers are now rightly required to make clear specifically what is needed to perform well. The current proposals are conceptually the same; they are being used as a linguistic shortcut to describe a need for applicants to have sufficient intellectual capability to cope with complexity and an ability to learn from experience. If you want certain qualities, be clear in what those qualities are.

Secondly, while the research is clear on intellectual capability being the best predictor of performance and should therefore be assessed during recruitment, the use of a degree as a tangential measure of intellectual capability is flawed. It assumes that the standard of degrees between universities is equivalent. The use of direct measures such as ability tests will provide a far more objective, consistent and accurate insight into intellect than assumptions based on a degree.

Finally, I agree with EY’s conclusion. Bearing in mind that the average degree currently costs £12,000 per year, there is a risk that use of a degree qualification as a minimum requirement will indirectly favour those individuals who can afford it. Those from certain socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic minority groups will ‘perform’ less well under this system, decreasing the diversity of the applicants at a time when the College of Policing is working hard to create a police force that is representative of the population it serves.

Any attempt to identify the best candidates for the right job using fair, objective, consistent and accurate means should be the aim of all employers. But to do so using shortcuts such as this could be more damaging than we think. As my mum used to say, if you’re going to do it, do it right.

To read more of Jon Atkin's blogs on business psychology topics, click here.

It seems graphology – or the study of handwriting – is back in the news. A recent article on the HR Magazine website suggests a resurgence in popularity of the technique with "30% of UK and US companies using handwriting analysis as part of the recruitment process". Apparently, it is "fast becoming a crucial element in the vetting and screening of incoming personnel".

Really!? I thought we had put this one to bed. Do we still need to ask whether graphology is worth the paper it’s printed on??

First, the short answer...No.

Now for the longer answer...

According to advocates of graphology, it is possible to infer various characteristics such as personality and predicted job performance from a person’s handwriting. As a technique, it has long been argued to provide an accurate and reliable mechanism for selection and assessment.

Unfortunately for the movement, decades of scientific research have thoroughly debunked this claim. Several empirical studies in the mid-1980s (e.g. Ben-Shakar et al, 1986) all found that graphology revealed nothing about subsequent job performance. Decades of research going back to the 1960s (e.g. Reid, 1983) identified no correlation between the interpretations of graphologists and personality characteristics of the subject. In 2000, Anderson and Cunningham-Snell reported validity coefficients (i.e. the degree to which success in the tool predicts success in the job) of graphology as an accurate tool for selection to be zero. It simply doesn’t work.

Interestingly however, its popularity dogmatically persists despite clear evidence that it simply doesn’t work. In France for example, graphology is very popular with up to 52% of companies using it at some point during the selection process (Smith and Abrahamson, 1992). It is this popularity that graphologists use as proof of its efficacy. However, just because people like something doesn’t mean it has any true value.

According to the same research, the UK uses the technique in just 3% of cases, not 30% as illustrated by the piece in HR Magazine. Indeed, it’s worth bearing in mind that this recent claim for renewed interest in graphology comes from Erik Rees, a leading graphology expert and former chairman of the British Institute of Graphologists, and comes with the caveat that companies may use the technique but “few would openly admit to doing so”. So, not only is the author of the claim a key source of PR for graphology but he also makes a claim that is irrefutable.

In all, graphology is simply not worth the paper it is written on. And its use as a selection tool is deeply worrying. These are decisions that influence a person’s career, their life. These are decisions that cost organisations a fortune with the estimated cost of a poor selection decision reaching three to five times the annual salary of the role in question.

Remember, despite what the 1980’s BT advert with Maureen Lipman would say, just because it is an “ology”, does not make it science.

Over the last few years, I have helped hundreds of individuals to better understand and tackle their ingrained, unconscious biases in the workplace and, nine times out of ten, someone will ask "If these biases are unconscious, can I change them?".

Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer. If it were, it would be unlikely that I would be providing the services I do. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all biased. We are both products of 'nature' and 'nurture' and the research clearly shows that our interpretations of others are significantly impacted by both conscious and unconscious bias.

However, recent research by a team led by Professor Mel Slater at the University of Barcelona has given us the hint of a high-tech solution with undertones of the movie Avatar.

Participants were asked to complete the implicit association test to determine the degree of unconscious racial bias before and after being immersed in a virtual reality simulation in which they were given the body of a different race. Only those who had spent time in the simulation showed a drop in unconscious racial bias.

This research goes a step further in highlighting the importance of empathy and perspective taking in tackling bias and enhancing inclusivity in organisations. The simple fact is that our biases preclude us from considering the world through someone else’s eyes, particularly if that person happens to be different from us. However, we also know that by ‘training’ our brains to be more empathetic (e.g. by suspending judgement and actively exploring the other person’s view on the world), we can circumvent existing biases and begin to erode the associations (positive or negative) that stem from them.

So, while it is unlikely that we will live our lives through virtual reality simulations any time soon, we do know that taking simple steps to enhance our skills in empathy is critical for creating inclusive working environments in which people are treated fairly and with dignity and respect.

Email has undoubtedly provided for quicker and more convenient communication. But with Ferrari’s plans to clamp down on group emails by staff, it’s a worthy reminder that all is not rosy in the world of email.

Take some recent findings from the research:

All of this can have a pronounced impact on our concentration, motivation and levels of “flow” at work. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In essence, they are those moments when you are completely absorbed in what you are doing; you are ‘in the zone’. They are also those moments when you are likely to be personally stretched and performing at your best.

Email, however, is the equivalent of the itch you can’t scratch; the neighbours partying in the flat downstairs; the song you can’t get out of your head. It is invasive, distracting and all-consuming if not carefully managed. It can become our work, rather than being a vehicle for us doing our work. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself when you last said “I had a really productive day…I got loads of emails done”. Is this really how we should be measuring our optimal performance?

(By the way, during the writing of this blog, I was interrupted by seven new emails, most of which were rubbish, and actively checked my own emails 12 times.)

The British are obsessed with class. A recent BBC Lab UK sociological survey of over 160,000 people has challenged the commonly held belief in an Upper, Middle, and Working class and replaced it with a total of seven different class levels.

While the results illustrated how our 20th century middle and working class stereotypes are dated and more complex than we realised, I was more interested in what determines your class in the first place. Class, it seems, is not just about how much money you have, but also what you do with it and who you network with. Specifically, it is a product of three forms of ‘capital’:

  1. Economic capital – how much money you have in cash, savings and property.
  2. Cultural capital – how you use your leisure time.
  3. Social capital – who you spend your time with.

As a psychologist, it was this mention of social capital that caught my attention. It is not just what you do, or how much money you have, but who you are connected with that determines opportunity and success. As the old adage goes, ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know that’s important’.

Now, take the same adage and apply it to work. Who you know – or how well networked you are – can be a significant determinant of success at work. Consider the following:

  • 83% of people report they got their current job through the networks they have
  • 85% of people report that information critical in performing their job successfully comes to them through their networks
  • 13% of variance in performance ratings is solely down to how well someone is networked
  • 40% of people report they left their job because they felt on the “outside”

In essence, who you know plays a significant role in whether you get a job, how you do the job once you’ve got it, how successfully you are rated in that job, and whether you are likely to hang around.

But is this ethically and morally right? Does it even make business sense? Surely we should be more interested in casting the net as wide as possible, creating truly inclusive working environments and basing our decisions on merit. Socio-economic background can be a blocker or an enabler to success in life. At work, it begs the question, what are you doing to break down barriers to create a ‘classless’ and inclusive working environment in which opportunity and success is based on what you do, not just who you know?

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