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Disciplines > Human Resources > Selection > Biodata

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Biodata methods collect biographical information about a person that has been proven to correlate with good job performance. The correlations can be quite strange: all you need is to know that if a person has a certain item in their history that they are more likely to be good at the target job.

For example, in World War 2, the US Air Force discovered that men who had built and flown model aircraft when they were boys were more likely to make good fighter pilots. In 1952, Mosel's detailed study of department store sales staff found that the most successful people were widowed, female, 35-54 years old, between 4 foot 11 inches and 5 foot 2 inches, weighed at least 160 pounds, lived in a boarding house, had dependants, had a high-school education, had at least five years sales experience but had been in the previous post for less than five years with no time off for illness.

More recent and understandable events can also be used, for example working on government projects might correlate with effective use of project management methodologies. Biodata can include aspects of personal information, childhood, education, employment, external experiences, skills, socioeconomic status, social activities, hobbies and personal traits and characteristics.

Biodata is collected using a written form, structured to discover the key information that is required. The target people complete the form and hand it in, where it is studied for the key characteristics being sought.


Define 'performance'

First start off by defining the performance that you are seeking. This should be in a form that will help you with the next step, for example using standard descriptions of 'leadership' or 'technical ability'.

Find high performers

Find a significant population from which you can extract sufficient numbers of high performers in the job you are analyzing. Thus a large company may study international managers who have proven successful at managing virtual teams, whilst an army may seek individual soldiers who have shown exemplary battlefield bravery (perhaps via those who have been awarded medals).

Collect biographical data

Design a structured and repeatable data collection method to extract as much biographical information as you can handle. This may include investigation of childhood events, education, jobs performed and self-reported significant 'life events'.

Approaches such as Critical Incident Technique, Interview and Structured questionnaires may be used to collect information. Each method used will typically expose different information, allowing different facets of the person to be examined.

Correlate performance and biographical data

This step is largely statistical, as the biographical data is coded and correlated with job performance.

Scoring is done with ‘item responses level keying’.

  • Empirical approach: look at proportion of variance accounted for between item and outcome criteria.
  • Rational approach: job experts devise weightings based on theoretical a priori links.

Draft a questionnaire for each hypothesized scale and apply to a large sample (450). Each question is tested and results are factor analyzed to find (desirable) clustering.

Design biodata form

When collecting biodata information, it can be a good idea to hide the key characteristics you are seeking within other irrelevant information (which also may be found in your researches). Where possible, collect hard, verifiable items (such as examinations passed). Where this is not possible, the potential for faking must be taken into account.

Biodata may be collected in scripted format:

Please describe a time when you were faced with a difficult customer. What was said? What did you do? What has the result? (Please answer in no more than 200 words).

It is very often, however, collected in more structured formats that allow for rigorous analysis:

Which of the following have you done in the past five years? Please tick all that apply:

[  ]  Climbed a high mountain
[  ]  Been on holiday to at least three different countries
[  ]  Run a marathon
[  ]  Raced a car

Test and use

Finally, try it out, for example on the people who supplied the data in the first place.


Biodata is little known but is widely used (the first recorded use was in Chicago in 1894). It has nothing to do with biological aspects of the person, but has much to do with their biography (biodata is short for 'biographical data', not 'biological data'). Done well it has a high level of reliability and validity.

Unlike many other tools, biodata has a solely empirical root. There is no psychological theory behind it. It simply finds what works and does not question why. The founding hypothesis is that statistics holds true, and that correlations found in some people will also be found in other people.

Developing biodata tests is very time-consuming and hence costly. This goes some way to explain its use in particular areas, for example the military, where there is a large population available for study and a consistent need in terms of job performance.

Biodata is different from personality tests in that it has a broader content and is more specific. It can also be re-scored for different roles and can be done both by candidate and also by someone they know.

Once developed, it is then quick to process lots of applicants, particularly if multiple-choice tick-boxes are used.

Biodata has face validity and is clearly fair as it is same for all. It is also easier to monitor for discrimination.

Unless demonstrated to be job-dependent, items about race, gender, marital status, number of dependents, birth order and spousal occupation are likely to be illegal. Other issues of concern include accuracy, faking, invasion of privacy and adverse impact on perceptions of the applicant.

Faking may be minimized when the correlations are not clear (as in the WW2 pilot example). This can be improved further by hiding the real question amongst other less critical items.

Over time, a standard biodata test could lead to less diverse recruiting. It is also constrained by time and context. It can become dated as jobs change, which may reduce reasons for using it as it takes a lot of effort to set up in the first place. Same test may not be useful across the world – problem for global companies.

See also



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