Using Personality Tests to Improve Employment Decisions

March 28, 2012

Bad hiring and promotion decisions can plague a company for years and cost it dearly. A candidate who looks amazing on paper and performs well in the interview process may perform poorly when placed in a particular position. Alternatively, some candidates appear weak in an interview but would have been a diamond in the rough if they had made it through the interview process. Employers looking to improve their hiring, promotion, and management practices may want to consider the use of personality tests or even an industrial psychologist to assist in decision-making and coaching employees. There are potential ADA implications, so you should consult with counsel before deciding what tests to use and how.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Personality tests and behavioral psychiatrists have been available to employers for decades. Many employers have had great success using these tools to help predict future performance of candidates in particular jobs. There are a large number of different personality tests on the market, including DISC Assessment, the Rembrandt Portrait, and the Predictive Index. For example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment is a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions. The Rembrandt Portrait is designed to reveal 14 personality characteristics of the test taker.

Each of these tests has its various strengths and weaknesses, and there are different reasons to pick one over the other, including cost and the particular emphasis you are placing on the test results. The tests generally center on major personality traits such as dominance, openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and patience. For example, the Predictive Index uses four primary traits:

(1) Dominance: the degree to which an individual seeks to control his environment. Individuals who score high in this dimension are independent, assertive, and self-confident. Individuals who score low are agreeable, cooperative, and accommodating.

(2) Extroversion: the degree to which an individual seeks social interaction with other people. Individuals who score high in this dimension are outgoing, persuasive, and socially poised. Individuals who score low are serious, introspective, and task-oriented.

(3) Patience: the degree to which an individual seeks consistency and stability in his environment. Individuals who score high in this dimension are patient, consistent, and deliberate. Individuals who score low are fast-paced, urgent, and intense.

(4) Formality: the degree to which an individual seeks to conform to formal rules and structure. Individuals who score high on this dimension are organized, precise, and self-disciplined. Individuals who score low are informal, casual, and uninhibited.

Many of these tests use a free-association methodology in which a candidate self-identifies certain personality traits such as loyalty or flexibility. An employee can attempt to “fake” the test, but because there is no right or wrong answer, he won’t know what the employer is looking for. The test is reviewed by a professional (or software), who deciphers the interplay of the candidate’s unique traits. The employer then reviews the conclusions to determine how the applicant’s personality traits mesh with the position for which he is applying.

Personality tests can help you identify what motivates your employees or prospective employees. That insight can provide you with invaluable information for improved employee retention, coaching, leadership development, talent management, and team performance. Additionally, there are supplemental tools that help identify the behavioral requirements needed for optimal performance in a particular job.

You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

If you think back to when you were in kindergarten, you probably exhibited many of the same personality traits that you have today. The plain fact is that people who are gregarious as children tend to be gregarious as adults. Dominant kids tend to be dominant adults. Kids who are risk averse grow up to be risk averse. Detail-oriented children tend to be detail-oriented throughout their life. While there are exceptions to the rule, objects at rest tend to stay at rest. A fad diet may lead to short-term weight loss, but over time, it’s likely that those 10 pounds will return. Similarly, someone with poor organizational skills will revert back to his status quo.

Objectifying the Subjective

While hiring and promotion discrimination claims are difficult for employees to prove, the mere filing of a discrimination complaint can be an expensive proposition. The cost of defending a discrimination complaint goes up considerably if an employee is able to get a probable cause determination by an administrative agency. Further, administrative agencies are more likely to find no probable cause if an employer has good documentation and solid reasons to support why it chose one candidate over another. Personality tests, when used in a consistent manner, can provide evidence that you relied on specific criteria in the hiring and promotion process.

Personality Tests as a Management Tool

Personality tests may also assist in evaluating and coaching current employees. Two employees may perform well independently. However, when one supervises the other, their relationship may be likened to that of oil and water. A personality test may reveal that the supervisor is dominant and the subordinate is passive. The supervisor may be a “bottom line” person with no patience, and the subordinate may be more thoughtful but only performs well with specific directions. Exposing the rest of the iceberg may help you identify how to reduce conflict and accommodate your employees’ personalities, thus making them more productive.

Personality tests can also be used to identify individuals who are performing well in their current position but would likely fail in a higher one. The Peter Principle holds that every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence, meaning employees tend to be promoted until they reach a position in which they cannot work competently. They are promoted so long as they work competently. However, eventually, they are promoted to a position in which they can no longer do so, and there they remain, unable to earn further promotions. A properly administered personality test may minimize your risk of placing a competent employee in a position in which he no longer can function competently.

Going Against Doctor’s Orders

Several years ago, I represented an employer in a multimillion-dollar discrimination case. The claim was filed by a branch manager who was fired after several of her subordinates who were key to the success of the branch complained that she was an absentee manager. I interviewed a number of the employees, and a clear psychological portrait of the branch manager emerged. She was defensive, vindictive, impulsive, introverted, dishonest, and lacked the ability to follow through.

As the case progressed, the employer disclosed that it had used an industrial psychologist to interview the manager using a personality test, and the psychologist had recommended against hiring her. In fact, the psychologist identified key character flaws throughout the interview and testing process. For example, he concluded that she exhibited dishonesty traits because when he talked to her about hobbies, she overstated her interest in gardening. Follow-up questioning disclosed that she knew little about gardening.

The psychologist’s notations, which were made four years before the lawsuit, were eerily similar to the comments I noted from my interviews with the branch manager’s subordinates. Not every employer is going to want to invest the money in an industrial psychologist, despite his keen ability to predict future conduct. However, you can use personality tests as a less-expensive means to secure a virtual crystal ball and look into a candidate’s future before it’s too late.

Bottom Line

Personality tests are not a panacea or a substitution for your independent evaluation of an employee’s (or applicant’s) credentials, references, and performance in an interview. However, many employers swear by them and have used them with great success. Personality tests can help you view candidates from a broader perspective and understand how they may fit in your organization. Given the tremendous direct and indirect costs of hiring bad employees, you should seriously consider adding personality tests as another arrow in your quiver. Finally, be sure to vet the various personality tests the same way you would vet a candidate, and review the credentials and references of the companies that provide testing services.

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