Personality Counts

Personality assessments are being used in new ways throughout the employee life cycle.

By Eric Krell Nov 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, November 2005

Personalities clash or gel. Jobs fit or they don’t. It’s inevitable.

Or is it? What if you could take out much of the guesswork involved in finding the right people to work together, fitting the right people to the right jobs and positioning the right personalities necessary for your company’s stage of development?

HR professionals are doing just that by using an old standby—personality assessments—in new ways. The tests themselves may be familiar, but their application—how, when and where they are used—has changed dramatically in recent years.

For example, South Deerfield, Mass.-based The Yankee Candle Co. first used personality assessments as a leadership-team exercise in May 2003. Since then, the organization’s application of the behavioral instrument has spread like wildfire.

“There are a lot of milestones along the employee life cycle, and we use this tool at every single one of them,” says HR Senior Vice President Martha LaCroix, SPHR. Yankee Candle uses personality assessments to assist with leadership development, individual development, team communications, conflict resolution, coaching and hiring.

Like Yankee Candle, other companies are using these instruments in new ways that span an employee’s entire life cycle with the organization.

What employers aren’t doing is using the tests to weed out applicants who are not a cookie-cutter match of the ideal employee. To the contrary, HR professionals are using personality profiles to analyze the organization’s “bench strength” and to find a variety of candidates who possess the diverse personalities and styles that the organization needs.

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Once used almost exclusively as an additional screening mechanism in the hiring process, companies now integrate personality assessments with skill tests, leadership evaluations, 360-degree reviews, and other performance management processes and systems. Some organizations link personality types to specific job classifications and, in some cases, to best-practice personality profiles of specific positions.

For example, Yankee Candle recently identified its best- and worst-performing store managers—based on performance initiatives—and asked each manager to complete a Predictive Index (PI) personality assessment from PI Worldwide. Armed with the results, LaCroix worked with PI Worldwide consultants to develop a best-practice behavioral profile of a top-performing store manager. The profile looks at work- related qualities such as sense of urgency, independence, motivational drive, communication style and attention to detail.

In light of the results, district managers give more free rein to store managers whose behavioral assessments match the best-practice profile, while lower-performing store managers are encouraged to try out behaviors that might lead to more-productive results.

Tying personality assessments to business performance, as Yankee Candle has done, is ideal, says Patricia Weik, Ph.D., a psychologist and senior consultant and director of research and development for RHR International in Wood Dale, Ill. “Can you correlate the results of personality assessments with harder business metrics? If you have a profile of a supposedly successful salesperson, does that profile link to sales revenue?”

The answer, from Yankee Candle and other companies that are weaving personality assessments deeper into their human resource processes, is a resounding yes.

Dennis LaRosee, senior vice president of Wellesley, Mass.-based PI Worldwide, sees “much better integration of the recruitment process, selection process, performance manage- ment process, succession planning process, in all sizes of companies.” Based on his experiences, organizations that invest in a personality assessment tool tend to be well positioned to apply the instrument throughout the employee life cycle.

Take training, for example. David Pfenninger, Ph.D., a psychologist and CEO of Performance Assessment Network (PAN) in Carmel, Ind. (with which the Society for Human Resource Management has a business relationship), says some PAN clients use the assessments as much for training and development purposes as they do to strengthen their hiring processes. And many clients use the assessments as less of a screen than as a tool to generate targeted questions for subsequent interviews, massage job duties based on a top candidate’s strengths, and customize training and development programs once a new hire is on board.

If personality assessments are being used more widely, perhaps that’s because they have gained wider acceptance. Pfenninger, whose company sells assessments in 32 different countries, believes the multi-factor (usually there are between four and six) dimensional model of personality assessment has achieved a state of global acceptance in recent years.

Application Expansion

The expanding use of personality assessments means HR professionals are making new use of these tools in a number of areas, especially those that follow:

Recruiting. Kent Burns, one of Management Recruiters International’s top-producing recruiters and a partner in one of the company’s Indianapolis franchises, uses personality assessments because they help him find diamonds in the rough.

Some of Burns’ clients will consider only candidates with a high “on-paper” pedigree, but those organizations are beginning to hurt for talent at certain levels—a need Burns expects to intensify as the U.S. candidate pool contracts. When Burns finds a talented executive without a Top 25 MBA or other A-player credentials, he summarizes the individual’s skills and his client’s position to a PAN consultant, who then recommends a battery of online personality tests for the recruit.

If the recruit’s results confirm Burns’ instincts about the candidate, he relays the results to his client with the assurance that the candidate will perform on par with executives who own shinier resumes.

Using personality assessments to confirm HR professionals’ instincts is a benefit of these tools, explains James Hazen, Ph.D., a psychologist and founder of Applied Behavioral Insights in Wexford, Pa. “You know you like them,” says Hazen. “Now you can determine exactly why that is and use that criteria for selection, development and retention.”

Hiring for fit and diversity. Yankee Candle does not use personality assessments as a way of weeding out applicants, LaCroix stresses. Rather, the company uses the tests to ensure a good fit between applicant and position. “We’re not looking for a certain type of personality pattern,” she notes.

Hazen sees more companies that, like Yankee Candle, are using assessments to ensure a good fit. In fact, he sees more hiring managers sharing the results of these assessments with final-stage candidates to gauge their comfort with the job fit and, in some cases, to collaborate on ways to adjust job responsibilities to create a better match.

A personality assessment helped Rebecca Vinton recognize that an employee was not a good match for the job. “I called my counterpart [at company headquarters in Belgium] to discuss a production manager who was struggling in his new role,” reports the recruiting and training manager at Carmeuse North America, a Pittsburgh-based producer of lime. “I told her, ‘When I look at this person, I see a high C, followed by a D,’ ” Vinton recalls, referring to the employee’s “conscientiousness” and “dominance” scores. “She said, ‘Why, of course! That’s why this person is always asking for more information, which is actually a sign of resistance to change.’ ”

After Vinton’s discussion with her colleague, the high-C manager was reassigned to a position that better matched his behavioral strengths.

Benchmark Assisted Living, in Wellesley, Mass., uses personality tests to ensure a good fit by hiring candidates whose personalities fit the needs of the business and complement those of existing executives. Jill Haselman, senior vice president of organizational development and culture, uses the PI to strengthen—and diversify—the company’s hiring process. The organization uses assessments to ensure that its executive team—currently dominated by growth-minded entrepreneurs—includes executives with personalities that can help manage the company as it moves into more mature stages five to 10 years down the road.

“We want to make sure that we’re not adding leaders in [personality] areas where we’re already heavy,” Haselman explains. “We want to make sure we have the right qualities to guide us through the unique challenges of our next stage of growth.”

Onboarding. Personality tests also are being used to help new hires more quickly reach a comfortable and effective working relationship with existing employees.

For example, all final-stage executive candidates at Yankee Candle take an assessment. Later, LaCroix sits down with the new leaders and pores over important information about their direct reports—including their performance objectives, performance reviews and personality assessments. Doing so, LaCroix says, “doesn’t substitute for their own judgment and assessment of the talent on the ground, but it gives them a place to begin.”

LaCroix also shares the new executive’s personality profile with the person’s direct reports and peers.

At Carmeuse, Vinton uses personality assessments to help managers lead new and existing staff members through change. When a department recently added a host of new hires, she gave everyone a four-dimensional personality assessment and then held a meeting to discuss how different personality types process information differently and, ultimately, adapt to change differently.

Conflict resolution. It sounds contradictory, but effective personality assessments can depersonalize conflicts between employees. While personality is a highly unique, complex concept, most assessments distill key characteristics of personality into broad motivational categories that can be easily understood and communicated. Disputes become less about personal attacks and more about identifying ways to work around innate motivational differences and styles.

Thus, the focus of resolving a conflict centers on how to communicate differences rather than on what is being communicated.

“The objectivity of the tool and the fact that it purports to measure these intrinsic truths about ourselves makes the discussion less personal,” says LaCroix, “and rarely sparks any defensive posturing.”

Coaching. HR managers at Yankee Candle use personality assessments to help line managers coach their direct reports and to help subordinates coach upward. HR also guides line managers on how to use the assessments with peers. Some of those peer-to-peer interactions have progressed into full-fledged coaching relationships.

Leadership development. Carmeuse has begun to weave personality assessments into its leadership development program. High-potential employees are currently taking assessments, the results of which will be analyzed to distill success factors. Those factors will help guide training and development as well as coaching initiatives.

At Pitt Ohio Express, a Pittsburgh-based trucking company, Vice President of HR Penny Pilafas and her colleagues are currently forecasting how key roles in the company will change five years from now. Pilafas started the analysis by projecting which jobs, skills and personality attributes her own function will require in 2010. She’s currently administering personality assessments throughout her function and plans to compare those results to the 2010 projects. The gap analysis will guide the way she and her managers train incumbents during the next three years so that they evolve as their roles change.

Staffing needs assessment. At Benchmark Assisted Living, Haselman also is using personality assessments to guide executive development. The company is progressing from a start-up into rapid growth, and Haselman wants to make sure the business has the executive talent it needs to sustain its momentum. So the organization is conducting an analysis of PI profiles of the top 14 executives to identify which stages of company growth (start-up, rapid growth and maturity) each leader is naturally wired to support.

A Heady Business Case

Companies’ use of personality assessments can form an ongoing cycle in which HR tweaks its hiring processes, improves processes for onboarding and developing new hires, and evaluates current bench strength to determine the types of personalities the company is missing—and should therefore target in future hires.

In light of this “life cycle” perspective, Haselman was able to build a sound business case for multiple uses of personality assessments. Shortly after she joined Benchmark Assisted Living four years ago, the company’s current president asked her to review the PI. She was quickly sold on the tool’s potential value—“The science behind cultural fit is extremely important and goes right to the bottom line,” she enthuses—and assembled a three-pronged business case to present to the organization.

The first two parts of Haselman’s business case, reducing turnover and developing high-potential employees, proved ripe for measurement. The benefits of the final component, conflict management, are more difficult to quantify, although Haselman tracks the tool’s application in this area in a unique way.

Turnover is high in the senior-housing sector, routinely surpassing 80 percent. Benchmark’s turnover rate was hovering at about 60 percent when Haselman joined the company and, shortly thereafter, began using PI Worldwide’s assessment tool. This fall, the company’s turnover rate dropped to 29 percent. She attributes the improvement to “hiring the right people,” a process she says has been strengthened by using the PI.

In the three years since Benchmark Assisted Living has been using the PI to help develop a pool of about 100 high-potential employees, only two of those employees have left the company. Haselman and her staff use the assessment on these future leaders to set personal objectives and craft development plans that close the gap between their natural behaviors and motivations and the way in which their colleagues view them. Haselman believes closing that gap marks a crucial step in employee development.

Haselman also made the case that the tool would help bolster the organization’s conflict management efforts. It has, she says, but the evidence is more anecdotal. If there is an issue between two employees, Haselman sits down with them and leads them through a comparison of their PI results.

“It stimulates a conversation,” she says, “along the lines of, ‘I’m a Mack truck, get out of my way, let me do it. You are a laid-back, methodical, structured, detail-oriented person. Of course we’re driving each other nuts. How do we work better together based on our styles?’ ”

When the session concludes, Haselman places a record of the meeting and the participants’ PI assessments into each of their personnel folders. The assessments have “become a part of our cultural language,” says Haselman.

Her comments are echoed by LaCroix at Yankee Candle, who says personality assessments have helped “create a common, nonjudgmental language.” For example, rather than complaining that a “supervisor is out to get me,” an employee is more likely to note that their behavioral styles naturally conflict. Or, rather than saying that a direct report failed in a new role, an executive is more likely to investigate the mismatch from a personality-trait perspective and then reassign the direct report to a role that provides a better fit or to adjust the position’s duties.

“The assessments have been really powerful because they take conflict away from being personal and make it about personality,” says Haselman.

That seemingly contradictory quality, depersonalizing personality, is commonly expressed by fans of personality assessments in the workplace. LaCroix emphasizes that personality assessments are simply “an additional piece of information,” but also says they are “part of the fabric of the company now.”

Both points are true, and that paradox illuminates the most important trigger of a personality assessment tool’s value: how the information is used. Human resource executives who apply that information correctly and broadly can help open the rest of the organization’s eyes to better ways of harnessing its talent.

Eric Krell is a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers HR and finance issues.

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