The Cult of Personality Testing at Work
Since the start of my career in HR, I’ve been incredibly interested in the intersection of people’s personalities and the workplace.
Like probably a few of you, the Myers & Briggs personality inventory was my first push into thinking about this in a more structured way. (For those wondering, my personality type is INTP, and I've tested pretty consistently that way.)
There are many methods for assessing personality types.
The DISC Assessment, for instance, measures a candidate's behaviors and attitudes in four areas: dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness.
The Big Five Personality Traits measures a candidate's personality based on five dimensions: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
I’ve probably looked at hundreds of methods in my career, as people pitched new ways of understanding how to improve collaboration. When used for their given purpose, they can be useful tools. But if you're tempted to use them for other purposes, proceed with caution.
Can Personality Testing Help Improve Remote Work Collaboration?
Last month, The New York Times covered the issue of how personality tests are being used at work, with an eye on whether they can help us navigate the new work environments.
But how these tests are used is a lot more important than whether or not they can help.
Closing the digital divide is a difficult challenge, but in this unusual work environment, personality assessments can provide a unique and valuable way to build stronger connections by adding context to relationships between different touch points.
In its easiest application — personality testing as a way to get to know your colleagues better — the results can be particularly useful, especially in work environments where teamwork and close collaboration are essential.
Although some tests might oversimplify complex individual traits, improved versions aim to identify subtle attitudes and behaviors in the workplace. While I can’t recommend a specific test, nearly anything that’s been validated is useful for this purpose.
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Can Personality Testing Help Make Impactful Employment Decisions?
It’s one thing to use personality tests to improve collaboration with a person physically removed from you. It’s another to use them for more than that.
On that note, I am more skeptical about using personality tests to make important workplace decisions, such as hiring, promotions, development or dismissals. I can’t say this strongly enough: approach these tests with a lot of caution.
One reason for my cautious approach is that it can be difficult to assess the claims made by vendors who sell these assessments.
Plum, one of the companies mentioned by the Times, is a well-regarded provider that aims to enhance diversity with its approach. The company seems intent on supporting decisions that result in a more diverse workforce. This is certainly commendable, but Plum isn’t responsible if you make a decision that impacts the workforce in an adverse way, even if it isn’t intentional.
Ultimately, organizations that use personality test software are responsible for thoroughly vetting how they evaluate talent. If it were me, I would have both a lawyer and an I/O psychologist review these programs before using them.
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Are Personality Tests Even Ethical?
It doesn’t make me feel good that most of the examples used in the Times piece shared that people’s careers were used as test subjects for some of these assessments.
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A best practice for any type of assessment in HR is that the test is first and foremost valid and reliable. A valid personality test measures what it claims to measure, while a reliable test produces consistent results.
Employers who choose to use personality tests in their decision-making must train administrators to use the tests consistently and fairly to improve reliability. And administrators should understand the test's purpose and how to interpret the results.
Without these pieces in place, you’re in a bad place, even if what you’re doing isn’t illegal.
Personality tests can produce inaccurate results if they are not designed and administered correctly. They can also be biased if the questions are not job-related or do not have a business necessity. Candidates and employees can also fake their answers to present themselves in a favorable light. This can lead to inaccurate results and a biased employment decision.
Ultimately, organizations should have confidence in an assessment before deploying it. And uncontrolled A/B testing isn’t a good methodology, nor is it right for employees, candidates or employers.
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So, What's the Alternative?
Even with proper vetting and implementation, I’m still not 100% sold on using personality testing for critical employment decisions. There are other ways of evaluating candidates and employees.
For example, skills assessments measure a candidate's proficiency in specific job-related skills. Cognitive ability tests measure a candidate's mental abilities, such as problem-solving, analytical reasoning and critical thinking. Work samples evaluate the ability to complete tasks that simulate the job's requirements. All of these can provide more objective data to help employers make informed employment decisions.
While I may be skeptical, we also need to put personality testing in the right context.
When you are seeking out assessments that are predictive of success at work, could personality tests do any worse than unstructured interviews, nepotism or personal preference? It’s a low bar, but probably not.
Personality testing does serve a useful purpose. It can provide valuable insights into an employee or candidate's personality traits, work style and communication skills. And that's how it is best utilized. Because it also has considerable limitations, from limited scope and inaccurate results to potential for discrimination.
Ultimately, employers interested in personality tests should use them in conjunction with other assessments and evaluations, and follow best practices to ensure fair and objective decisions for all.
About the Author
Lance Haun is a leadership and technology columnist for Reworked. He has spent nearly 20 years researching and writing about HR, work and technology. Connect with Lance Haun: