When the Piedmont Family YMCA in Charlottesville, Va., was recently recruiting for a new finance director, time was of the essence. The organization was on the brink of an audit, and the executive team didn’t have a firm handle on the financial records or processes.
The HR team members knew what hard skills would send a resume to the top of the pile, but they also wanted to quantify the softer side of what they were seeking. They asked final candidates to take a personality assessment.
“We had to hire for skill, but the personality test allowed us to hire someone with just the right amount of enthusiasm and collaboration to balance out their analytical parts,” says Sarah Wiegman, the organization’s former HR director.
Because the approach proved successful, the organization expanded its use of the personality assessment to finalists for all open positions.
Advocates of assessments claim the tools can reduce turnover by identifying candidates who are better fits, while limiting unconscious bias on the part of hiring managers. Organizations that have been quick to integrate assessments often report that capturing a more complete, or “whole person,” snapshot of a candidate can mean the difference between hiring someone who thrives over the long term and someone who aces the interview but then founders in the role.
Critics argue, however, that assessments may be keeping great candidates from advancing in the hiring process, by measuring and prioritizing traits that don’t strongly correlate to success in the specific position.
For example, the DiSC assessment is popular because it’s inexpensive and easy to use, says Phyllis G. Hartman, owner of PGHR Consulting Inc. in Pittsburgh. But she notes that the DiSC website states that it’s not recommended for pre-employment screening “because it doesn’t measure a specific skill, aptitude or factor specific to any position.”
Even Wiegman is quick to point out that these tools are only as valuable as the HR professionals wielding them.
“If you bring someone into a team because you think you need someone who’s a real driver with their personality, and what the team actually needs is someone who can inspire and influence people to want to make changes, well, the assessment helped you find what you wanted—but you still have a bad hire,” she says. “What good is that?”
A Growing Trend
Technology’s recent disruption of all things work has meant an exponential rise in the number of assessment offerings—as well as the methodologies and algorithms underpinning them.
SquarePeg, for example, asks job seekers and employers a series of questions around personality traits and behavioral preferences before referring matches to one another. Traitify, which was developed by psychologists, sells its digital assessment tools to companies looking for a faster, more effective alternative to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which isn’t intended for use in screening job candidates. Pymetrics promises to use neuroscience games and black-box artificial intelligence to accurately assess what a company’s top performers have in common, and then find candidates with similar personality traits and behavioral tendencies.
A 2017 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that nearly one-third (32 percent) of respondents were using personality and behavioral assessments when filling executive-level roles, and 28 percent of respondents deployed them for middle-management openings.
Fixed vs. Fluctuating
In the burgeoning market of assessments, employers that are being marketed to on all fronts must first gain command of the lingo. A behavioral test measures factors that are observable—such as verbal ability or reaction times, says Alexander Swan, assistant professor of psychology at Eureka College in Eureka, Ill., who has conducted research on assessments.
“A personality test, on the other hand, measures characteristics of a person, such as being intuitive,” he says. “Are you outgoing and sociable, or do you prefer to spend most of your time alone? We can measure the level of extroversion through a personality assessment.”
Personality tends to be fixed and stable, while behavior is more changeable.
“As an example, if Jane derives energy from people interactions and not from detailed work, she might have learned to implement processes to help assure her attention to detail and to allow her to succeed in that area well enough for a position that requires some detail work,” says Leslie Andrus, SHRM-SCP, HR director at Seraphic Group in Charlottesville, Va.
So, for a position that requires some detailed work, discounting her from the candidate pool based solely on an assessment would be an error. But if the position required little to no interaction with other people, that’s a larger red flag that her personality might not be a great fit for the role.
Charles Gerhold, lead consultant at 3D Group, a management consulting company in Emeryville, Calif., warns, “Don’t be foolish and ignore the role that development can play in shaping someone’s behavior. You’ll do that person a disservice and limit their career.”
When companies implement personality assessments, he recommends that they also pair those findings with some sort of “behavior capture,” whether that means a situational interview for external candidates or 360-degree feedback for internal candidates seeking a promotion.
“Structured interviews with good behavioral questions can be really revealing of how a person actually behaves,” he says. “And the best predictor of future behavior is truly past behavior.”
What to Ask Vendors
There are hundreds of personality and behavioral assessments on the market, all promising to help improve the hiring process. To narrow the field, Charles Gerhold, lead consultant at 3D Group, suggests asking vendors these questions:
What research does the assessment draw on?
Some assessments are more tech-focused than science-based, Gerhold says, including some that use artificial intelligence to scrape applicants' social media accounts to make personality proclamations about the candidates.
"But a good test is based on very sound theory, like the Five-Factor Model taxonomy, that's reliable and proven over time," he says. "A lot of research goes into building a good test."
(The Five-Factor Model looks at openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.)
If the vendor seems more excited by an assessment's tech features than the science behind it, that's a red flag.
How will the results be interpreted?
"If the results are super-easy to understand, especially at the leadership level, you're probably getting as much value there as you would from a horoscope," he says.
Personality is complex, and understanding how someone's personality will interplay with the culture and a specific position is even more complex.
"The test—and its results—should both be nuanced," Gerhold says. "You want technical manuals attached, and people who are trained to help answer your questions and interpret the results."
How are the results validated?
Particularly for high-volume recruiting, it's worthwhile to assess all-star employees and make sure the traits that the tool is targeting align with those held by your top performers.
Gerhold recently helped a large hardware store chain do just that, by asking its top 350 employees to take a personality assessment and having managers give independent performance ratings.
"They were able to validate what personality traits predicted top performance, and they could then use the assessment to screen out 10 percent to 15 percent of candidates who wouldn't be a good fit," he says. "A local validation study can save you so much time, while increasing the quality of your hires."
What does pricing look like?
Like most tech tools, pricing structures can vary considerably, from cost-per-use to monthly subscriptions. Before you invest too much time in parsing nitty-gritty differences, ask for a basic breakdown of pricing to ensure that it aligns with your budget.
"For a smaller company that wants to have the final two or three candidates go through a rigorous assessment for a leadership role, it might cost $5,000 to $10,000," Gerhold says. "That's a significant investment, but what's the cost to the company of hiring a bad leader?"
While some argue that such assessments can reduce hiring bias, federal regulators say they can have a discriminatory effect. In 2018, Best Buy and CVS Caremark reached agreements with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to stop using their personality assessments after investigations found that the tests likely adversely impacted applicants based on race and national origin. In 2015, Target agreed to pay $2.8 million to resolve a charge that its use of personality tests during pre-employment screening violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The major legal risk from these tests, when used in hiring, is disparate impact discrimination claims,” says Jonathan Crotty, a partner at Parker Poe law firm in Charlotte, N.C.
“Applicants or the EEOC can contend that the tests are biased against people in protected classifications—such as race or gender—under federal anti-discrimination laws,” he says. “That means making employment conditional on achieving certain test outcomes would result, over time, in fewer applicants in the protected classifications being chosen than if the tests weren’t being used.”
A vendor’s assurance that the tool isn’t biased won’t cut it as a legal defense. For an assessment to be safely implemented as a hiring tool, it must be statistically validated—or a company leaves itself vulnerable to unintentional bias, Crotty says.
“For example, men and women may score differently on a broad statistical basis on personality tests, based on the way the questions are written,” he says. If these differences are statistically significant, using the test “could violate the EEOC’s regulations on tests and selection procedures.”
If the test has a disparate impact—disproportionately screening out a certain type of person—the employer has to be able to justify its use on the basis of business necessity.
“But for things like personality tests, it can be hard to show that it was that important in the selection process,” he says.
Gerhold cautions against rushing into selecting a vendor. In addition to asking whether the assessment has been validated, employers should ask by whom and on which populations.
“Are the mean scores similar or the same for men and women, for those over and under 40, for people of different races and national origins?” he suggests asking. “If not, using the assessment isn’t ethical and your company could get in serious trouble.”
It’s worth noting that there are many assessments that have been proved to hold steady across different protected classes. The Hogan Personality Inventory Assessment is one better-known example. For a study published in Personnel Psychology, Deniz Ones, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, pooled hundreds of studies that looked at personality assessments and bias. Overall, her research shows, there were no consistent race and ethnicity differences on the measures.
“But just like any product used by HR professionals, there are professionally developed tests that are excellent and there are ones that have been put together with little psychometric and statistical expertise,” she says. “It’s buyer beware.”
A strong—and fair—test takes both psychological and psychometric expertise to develop, Ones notes, and the process to develop and refine the test can often take several years. “The questions and the test itself must go through a series of statistical hurdles and checks on fairness before they can be finalized,” she says.
Where to get Help
For HR professionals who need help understanding the technical documentation that assessment vendors provide, here are some options:
- The Buros Center for Testing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln offers free or fee-based reviews.
- The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology has a consultant locator on its website.
- Local universities may have an industrial-organizational psychologist on staff.
Bias vulnerability can originate outside of the assessment tool as well. Gerhold says he’s seen employers set the bar so high for certain scores that they screened out virtually all of the candidates. And while that might not affect one particular class of candidates, it means culling the candidate pool unnecessarily—leaving perhaps the best potential hires on the sidelines.
“For example, with the Five-Factor Model, one of the traits is conscientiousness,” he says. “If you set that at the 90th percentile, you’ll screen out people who might excel on the job. That doesn’t make sense. Set it at the 50th percentile so you’re screening for enough.”
Andrus at Seraphic Group uses the Behavioral Strategies Assessment, which includes a questionnaire, an essay, a two-hour validation session, and a debriefing with the hiring manager and HR professional. When interpreting behavior scores, she tries to keep a recent experience top of mind. One job candidate was flagged as a potential fit for the role, but it was noted that he’d likely have a certain issue that would require coaching.
“So we hired him and coached him on the issue—and he overcame it and is now a great asset,” she says. “With every hire, that’s really the case at some level.”
Kate Rockwood is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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