Is a brain scan of the applicant useful and ethically acceptable?
published by , on 05/03/2009

Willem Verbeke, the Flemish (from Ghent) professor of  ‘sales and account management’ who teaches at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam believes it is useful for employer to have brain scans done of their (potential) employees.

At the ISAM Neuroscience research institute at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Verbeke and his team studied the behaviour of people and their social and emotional intelligence based on brain scans. According to Verbeke, based on such a scan, well-founded statements can be made about the degree to which someone is appropriate for a specific job. The use could be extended to career advice.

Verbeke’s consultancy firm – Professional Capital, which he founded in 2004 with Maarten Colijn – offers brain scans, tests and interviews of candidates for commercial job openings (from the management to the external department) with, as they say themselves, validated reporting. Brain scans will be used increasingly within the framework of recruitment and selection or career development, according to Verbeke. In five years time, they will even be very common. But, they will always (have to) be done with the applicant or employee’s consent.

Roger Blanpain, emeritus professor of labour law at the University of Leuven (Belgium), says that such brain scans within the framework of recruitment and selection or career advice are illegal. In addition, Blanpain says, “there are no limits to tarnishing the human personality.”

And what do you think?

Reactions (4)
  • Annick Metten says:

    Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” was the first thing which came to my mind.

    “….they will always (have to) be done with the applicant or employee’s consent.”
    Which consent ? Will Mr. Verbeke agree if an applicant refuses ? Will the applicant still stand a chance ?

    Beside the unethical and illegal aspect, I strongly suspect results wouldn’t be valid either. It just seems a new form of typology in the tradition of Kretschmer, Sheldon and the likes. A line of thought in psychology which has been proven wrong many times and has been left by professionals more than 40 years ago.

    It’s far more worth while to have an indepth interview focussing on accomplishments and personality of applicants.
    In HR-context: how a human being “uses” his brains is far more interesting then how his brains look.

    Annick Metten (HR-manager at Imtech Infra NV)

  • Chris Dik says:

    Dear professor Verbeke,

    Might be a good idea, but might also violate law. As an occupational assessor I do see a lot of people, and I believe there is no such thing as parts of people. I think you always have to look in the holistic way to know what a persons abillities are.

    Kind regards,
    Chris Dik.

  • A holistic approach strikes me as better than a one-off brain scan. Holistic means looking at the person as a whole at turning points in their life. During career guidance, we ‘scan’ not only experience, knowledge, skills and ambition, but also the family situation, health, values, learning capacity, financial aspirations and flexibility of the employee. I suspect that brain scanners will have to develop still further before they can pinpoint all these variable in the brain.

    It is the 200th birthday of Darwin. Did he not postulate that life continuously adapts to the environment? How often will we have to go under this scanner? And how accurate will the results be? If I put on my selector-hat, I’m worried: what is the margin of error, the reliability and the predictive power of these scans? During selection, one can make two mistakes: letting somebody through who isn’t good enough and rejecting somebody who is. Isn’t there a risk that the recruiter will make a judgment which will long advantage or disadvantage the candidate? And then there are also the privacy and other, ethical considerations.

    Brain analysis seems more like the ‘one way mirror approach’ of psychology in the last century, rather than the exploring together of the candidate’s employability. Won’t this kind of analysis result in a nice database with only a limited number of search criteria? Will recruiters forget the ‘core DNA’: the individual?

    I also have doubts about the over simplification in Marcella Petrarca’s question: am I suitable for sales? General sales does not exist: we could give examples of strong salespeople at company X who go over to the direct competition and fail there. Sales depends on the situation and is a cluster of competencies such as listening, convincing, deciding and networking. There are also different roles in sales: pre-sales, courting, deal making and after sales linked to account management. I suspect that a lot more water will flow through the Schelde before brain scans can incorporate this level of complexity.

    Not wishing to appear old fashioned, one final thought: I do think that if brain analysis can illuminate less clear structures than we should include them in our career guidance process.

    Reginald De Lannoy (Associate Director Hudson België –

  • Huib Sacré says:

    First and formost I do not believe this is ethically acceptable. Furthermore in my HR experience (over 25 years) I have used in-depth interviewing, behavioural and logical assessments as selection tools. But most important a recruiter must have the ability to pinpoint what is needed in the position and what it has to offer in 5-6 years.

    That is for the objective side of recruitment. For the subjective element listen to your gutfeeling. Learn to work with what you see hear and experience during interviews. That added to the former in a controlled manner makes a recruitment professional more accurate than a brain scan.

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