Workplace personality testing has recently exploded into a $500 million dollar industry, growing by 10% to 15% each year. Technology, it would appear, has helped boost the reliability of these tests, but there are still some inherent problems. Personality testing can be done in the form of evaluations of current employees, but more frequently, it is a tool to screen job seekers. Some companies have reported success in decreasing attrition after instituting personality testing, especially with the more sophisticated tests. The problem is these tests are fallible, and many job seekers see them as a barrier to success.
One such seeker told The Wall Street Journal, “When I go to apply for a job and they state ‘You must take the personality test,’ I just don’t apply.” He added, “I don’t feel like wasting another hour of my life for a job I won’t get.” Many times, personality testing is used to narrow the field initially for HR managers. That means qualified applicants can be disqualified before their resumes are even seen, and they usually never find out why they were rejected.
Of course, the usefulness of personality tests varies somewhat with the type of test. Some are sophisticated enough to detect that you may be rushing through or over-thinking the questions. Others are designed to make it more difficult to predict the most favorable answers. Some research has suggested that while personality tests are one of the least effective hiring selection practices, multi-measure tests that incorporate integrity or cognitive ability lead to better results.
It’s incredibly hard to measure the accuracy of any form of personality assessment. What isn’t difficult to realize is that most jobs don’t require a certain personality type to ensure success. The testing industry would certainly prefer that hiring managers think so, but Susan J. Stabile, a law professor, disagrees. “A lot of these tests that measure aspects of personality don’t measure things that are particularly job-related,” she told ABC News. “Let’s say someone uses Myers-Briggs. So you know someone is an INFJ — that doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about how they’re going to do a particular job. There are values to tests like that, but I don’t see evidence that they help you get better employees in the end.”
Evidenced by a wave of discrimination lawsuits involving pre-employment personality testing, Stabile isn’t the only one who feels this way. In one notable case, an employer agreed to refund $550,000 in back pay to 253 African-American, Asian, and Hispanic job seekers who were denied laborer positions after failing a job skills assessment test called WorkKeys. Many more lawsuits are in progress that specifically target personality tests. The Equal Employment Opportunity commission is investigating whether personality tests discriminate against people with disabilities, in part by looking into whether the tests discount people with mental illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorder, who happen to be completely qualified for the job.
RadioShack, for example, asks potential employees to report their level of agreement with the following statements: “Over the course of the day, I can experience many mood changes;” “I am always happy;” and “Sometimes there is so much stress I wonder how I am going to make it through the day.”At McDonald’s, applicants must choose which of two statements they agree with more, such as: “I sometimes get confused by my own thoughts and feelings,” versus “I do not really like when I have to do something I have not done before.”
Confounding and seemingly useless tasks like these are common on personality tests. Some ask test takers to report their level of agreement with a single abstract term, reported a frustrated Barbara Ehrenreich in Bait and Switch, after encountering numerous forms of these tests administered by highly-paid career coaches. Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Cult of Personality, had this to say about the reliability of workplace personality tests:
“These tests may make Human Resources people feel that they’re doing a good job sorting the application pool, but because personality is situational and because these tests are actually not very reliable in terms of their results, they’re not a good way to evaluate perspective employees.”
Psychologist Walter Mischel, who spent his career studying personality theory, agrees that personality is largely situational rather than fixed. In Mischel’s view, the entire concept of a personality type is a myth. This is the inherent flaw of personality assessments. Because they do not account for context, many view personality tests as a waste of time for both job seekers and hiring managers. In the gravest scenarios, workplace personality testing can arbitrarily cost people jobs and cost companies valuable employees.