How Reliable Are Personality Tests?

Opinions range from ‘useful’ to ‘totally irrelevant’ to ‘legally risky’

By Dana Wilkie Sep 11, 2013
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When journalist and blogger Vivia Chen took a personality test two years ago that law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP required of applicants, one of the questions was, “Do you like flowers?”

Her test revealed she was “tense, pessimistic, and a work-in-progress on issues of maturity and responsibility”—a surprising conclusion, Chen wrote about the results, that left her skeptical about the value of such assessments.

She isn’t alone in her doubts about the accuracy and usefulness of personality tests, which U.S. companies use to hire employees, promote them and move them into jobs for which they’re ostensibly best suited.

"Clearly, an applicant’s affection for flowers is not connected to the knowledge, skills or abilities necessary to be a successful lawyer,” Charlotte School of Law Associate Dean Beau Baez wrote in the Jan. 26, 2013, issue of Cornell HR Review.“It is this type of question that skeptics use to prove … the total irrelevancy of psychological testing.”

Those who promote personality tests point out that this tool should be used in conjunction with reference- and resume-checking, initial screening interviews and in-depth interviews that include behavioral questions.

Miranda Hanes, consultant for the corporate solutions team at Tulsa, Okla.-based Hogan Assessments, claims that feedback from companies and employees taking the Hogan Personality Inventory indicates “we’re hitting more times than we’re not.”

“I’ve never delivered a feedback where someone said, ‘This is absolutely not me,’ ” Hanes said.

Why Companies Use Tests

Organizations began using personality tests for hiring, promoting and employee development to evaluate characteristics that could factor into a person’s job performance. For example: Is she patient? Is he a team player? Does she listen well? Is he respectful? Such tests measure choice, preference, values, behavior, decisions, attitudes and job-related interests.

Well-known personality tests include the Predictive Index, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the NEO-Personality Inventory and the Personality Characteristics Inventory. Even eHarmony, the online dating site that claims to be responsible for so many successful marriages, announced in January 2013 that it will use its personality-matching expertise to couple employers with employees.

The cost of personality tests varies. The Hogan assessment, said Hanes, ranges from $30 to $400. The more expensive tests typically are used for C-suite hires and can produce up to 82 pages of information about the applicant.

Development Dimensions International, a talent management firm, reports that about one-third of employers use personality tests for hiring and promotions. A 2011 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 18 percent of 495 randomly selected HR professionals used a personality test when hiring or promoting employees. Of these, 71 percent said the tests can be helpful in predicting job-related behavior or organizational fit.

‘Gaming’ the Test

Van Moody, author of the soon-to-be-released The People Factor (Thomas Nelson, 2014), said it’s relatively easy to fudge answers to make the applicant seem perkier, more honest or more diligent.

“Ten to 30 percent of applicants tweak things like resumes and other interview things because they’re trying to make themselves look as attractive as possible,” Moody revealed. “A test presupposes I’m going to answer honestly. If I lack the integrity to tell the truth, then all that data is flawed.”

A 2007 study published in Personnel Review found that one-quarter to one-half of job applicants fake answers on resumes and tests and during interviews.

Baez wrote that individuals with “high cognitive abilities will have the intellectual skill necessary to identify the answers” on a personality test “that will maximize their chances of getting a position.”

A quick search on the Internet uncovers advice on how to fake personality tests.—one suggestion is to “Be cool. If you get angry or take criticism badly, don’t admit it. Grit your teeth and say you welcome criticism—and that you always learn from it.”

Some assessments are designed to spot misrepresentations. For instance, test takers who answer falsely tend to do so in predictable ways or come across as overly positive. Sometimes, companies will include nonsensical questions to see if the candidate is paying attention. Moreover, questions don’t always measure what the test taker assumes they do.

“We ask questions the way we do so as not to be too forthright with what we’re measuring from a job context,” explained Hanes, adding that the Hogan assessment often repeats a question in slightly different ways to detect patterns that can reveal false answers.

Alan King, president and COO of Workplace Options, a work-life services provider, acknowledged that some personality tests are “designed in ways that mitigate gaming.”

“However, mitigating gaming does not eliminate it and underscores why tests should be viewed as one of many HR tools and not the sole arbiter of likely performance and cultural fit,” King said. “All personality tests are subjective. There are no absolute measures of personality, and, God willing, there never will be.”

Personality vs. Integrity

So how much faith should HR pros put in personality tests?

King said the answer depends on one’s definition of the word.

“Faith that the tests provide a highly reliable understanding of who that person is and how they will respond to various situations? Zero percent faith. Faith that the tests provide a useful view of an individual that can join with other factors to help assess their performance? Seventy-five percent-plus.”

A 2007 review of academic literature published inPersonnel Psychologyfound that correlations between personality and job success fall in the .03 to .15 range, which the authors noted was “close to zero.”

“To put these correlations in perspective, personality tests used in employee selection account for approximately 5 percent of an employee’s job success, while the other 95 percent of their performance is unaccounted for by personality,” the authors wrote.

Moody said a more reliable approach might be measuring integrity, not personality. Integrity tests, which some companies couple with personality tests, tend to measure honesty, responsibility and reliability. They “ask questions about your family, what’s sacred to you, about your relationships with your children, how would you feel if someone you trusted did x to you,” he said.

“A person can have the degree, but if they don’t have character and integrity, they will tear up an organization and do a lot of damage. We saw that when the housing bubble burst and in scandals on Wall Street—all done by very competent people, but the issue wasn’t their competence, it was their character.”

What’s an HR Pro to Do?

This doesn’t mean HR practitioners should ignore personality tests, experts said, but that they should review them with caution.

For instance, to protect against applicant faking, employers can give retests to see if candidates are consistent in their answers. Or they can ask separate questions that require quick responses.

Hold off on these assessments until there’s a short list of candidates, Baez advised. Using personality tests to thin out a large pool of applicants can be legally tricky.

“If [the assessments are] not constructed properly, the potential legal ramifications of these tests can be massive,” Baez wrote.

There might be disparate treatment under Title VII discrimination laws, for example, if an employer gave personality tests just to Hispanics because he considered them inherently untrustworthy. And some of these tests may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if they identify a medical condition. Baez wrote about one company that asked candidates whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:

  • People do a lot of things that make you angry.
  • There’s no use having close friends; they always let you down.
  • Manypeople cannot be trusted.
  • You are unsure of what to say when you meet someone.

When applicants pointed out that the questions might identify mental illness, which the ADA prohibits, the company agreed to remove them from future tests.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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