IT Employment

'Personality tests' are a dangerous hiring shortcut

Patrick Gray says basing hiring decisions on pseudoscience rather than old-fashioned interviewing and due diligence is downright unethical.

As HR budgets slowly unlock and the economy trudges into growth mode, stretched organizations are starting to think about hiring once again. Like any corporate function, HR is subject to a raft of snake oil-type products and services. One of the most nefarious of these is the various "personality tests" that are available.

Skills-based testing is entirely appropriate for IT. Hiring someone to maintain a vendor's products or write code around a specific application offers good reason to test the candidate's technical skills. The best tests measure critical thinking and learning rather than rote memorization and can be a valuable component in assessing a candidate. Personality tests, on the other hand, claim to distill the nuances of everything from human emotion, to leadership "potential," into a handy (and proprietary) scheme of a few letters and numbers or fancy graphs and magic quadrants.

Proponents of these tests will tell us that we should never combine an ABC personality with an OOO negative or that a QRZ level 12 has a shot as a future CIO, but an LMNOP is a hopelessly lost cause. These tests sell and surprisingly arouse little suspicion, since they offer what promises to be an amazing shortcut to the hard work of finding and managing talent. The sales pitch sounds like a late-night TV infomercial for the latest diet "wonder drug": rather than spend hours interviewing and getting to know a candidate, take a 50-question test and spare the heartache of vetting, guiding, and developing new staff.

Perhaps I'm a Level 8.7 Skeptic, but these tests are ripe with glaring deficiencies. I've interacted with fellow humans all around the world and have yet to find one who can be safely compartmentalized into a series of limited, and often predefined, categories. Even the idea of a "Type A" person, the hard-driving, aggressive performer, has rarely held up. I've met many self-professed and apparent "Type As" whose whirlwind of chaos resulted in little real work being accomplished, just as I've met outwardly laid-back "Type Bs" who aggressively targeted leadership positions and obliterated tasks under a veneer of calm nonchalance. Dismissing someone as part of some predefined tribe can be personally dangerous, and the path to executive positions is littered with people who dismissed a competitor based on ill-founded assumptions. Passing on an otherwise excellent candidate or considering advancement opportunities based on personality quizzes rather than observed behavior causes you to miss great candidates in the best case and could open you to ethical or legal repercussions in the worst.

Like weight loss, exceptional athletic performance, or learning a new skill or language, the best way to vet and successfully hire the best candidate is old-fashioned hard work. Interviewing, contacting references, and allowing the candidate to spend time with you and your staff will reveal far more information than any personality test. Furthermore, unlike skills-based testing, personality tests are often easy to "crack" by any mildly sophisticated person, who might be encouraged to answer in a way that makes them look like the dream candidate (the illusive HWHWDCA: The Hard-working-handsome-witty-doesn't-cost-anything employee).

The pseudoscience of personality testing seems little better than the early nineteenth-century "science" of phrenology, which claimed intelligence and personality could be determined through precise skull measurements. In both cases, each smacks of legitimate science, with measurements and numeric analysis, resulting in a series of outcomes based on those seemingly scientific measurements. While interesting trivia, personality tests should be utilized for little more. Assembling teams based on personality tests is questionable, and basing hiring decisions on pseudoscience rather than old-fashioned interviewing and due diligence is downright unethical.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

43 comments
Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

take your email out of the post mate, some type with few ethics will be passing it round to a lot of people with far less in short order...

sgr1236
sgr1236

The recruitment, selection, development and succession planning of people is not about assessments. It's about understanding an individual's capability as a combination of 3 broad sub topics: 1. What we know: Education and Job Experience primarily (selected assessments can help us to understand this better) 2. What we can do: Technical and Behavioural Competencies (selected assessments can help us to understand these better) 3. What we have achieved: Performance track record, achievements & awards, references and career progression. (A 4th includes ethics, integrity, values and EQ but this is a slippery topic and I don't have much experience in the accurate or meaningful application of these types of tools in the recruitment arena). The CV and the interview are often the starting point of the process and the more important the role, the more detail you pursue. I do agree that any HR person or line manager who uses MBTI, PI, PPA and the many other 'simple' tools out there as exclusive hiring decision making tools should be shot as soon as possible. It's lazy, unethical and inaccurate. But that's not the point. The 'simple' tools are useful in the right context at the right time in pursuit of the right objectives. Dissing the tools is a pointless exercise and doesn't further this debate in any way. I think we've murdered this topic now! Cheers everyone. Steve

PYDSS517
PYDSS517

I've studied personality tools for a couple of decades and have found them to be very helpful in understanding how other minds approach problem solving and goal attainment. Two very effective tools are the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs (based upon Jungian psychology). Developing an understanding and respect for how others experience reality can only help us communicate more effectively with the world.

blarman
blarman

Personality tests help you to get a feel for how someone will fit into the corporate culture, but not necessarily how they will perform on the job. Skills tests are a better fit here. But like several other posters, dismissing personality tests out of hand is presumptuous to say the least. I have taken four different types of personality surveys, including Meyers-Briggs, etc. and my observations are the following: #1. They do change over time. If the score is more than 2-3 years old, you should probably disregard it. #2. They are more instructive to show how to deal with others than how to perform tasks. They highlight and identify strengths and weaknesses in your approaches to people and projects and provide comparisons to others. They can help you see why you both aren't on the same page. #3. Personality DOES affect work performance. Personality has been shown to be a strong indicator of focus on projects. Some people don't care about how it gets done, they just want a solution, and these people tend to migrate to management positions. Most techies, however, are detail-oriented people who care about how to get from A to B. These two groups frequently clash because they fail to try and meet halfway. Understanding this basic fact can do much to facilitate communications and compromise. Personality tests are a tool in the toolbox just like a wrench or screwdriver. They are useful for making adjustments, but they aren't going to form or shape the mettle (pun intended) used for that cog in the machine.

njoy_d_ride
njoy_d_ride

Indeed, these tests are dangerous. Most HR departments that use them probably do so simply because they don't know squat about the skill set they are supposed to be hiring for.

Uglyfishhead
Uglyfishhead

If my work history and references aren't enough, then I won't work for morons who can't make a decision or who want to box me into an area in which I have no interest--because interest and drive never show up on these tests--and it is easy, easy to cheat on them as well. And making them mandatory--or sharing them PUBLICLY!!!--is a form of violation. I would walk first.

llandau
llandau

My experience leads me to believe there are two types of tests here. One being the type such as Myers-Briggs that helps identify how a person works -- IE - Type A or Type B -- Knowing this can help me approach my boss with information in a way that works best for him/her and me. Type A will recieve things better one way than another. Knowing how best to work with someone who already has the job is ok. Using it against them to disrupt their work is wrong. The other type of personality test are those that try to trick you no matter what. I have taking a fair number of these. I remember one was almost 10 full pages. I was able to take it home over a week-end and return it the following monday. I noticed that certain questions were asked again and again but worded slightly different. One question regarding stealing from the work place was asked 5 separate times. None were on the same page. Each had various questions inbetween. I made sure I answered each of these questions the same way. If you answer differently then the evaluaters start making judgement calls on you decision making.

gymtrainer
gymtrainer

I've been a recruiter for many years and I tell my candidates the key to taking these tests. "You love your father and mother but you love your father a little more"

Gochoa3664
Gochoa3664

I can take the same test 3 times at different times and come up with different scores. How I answer some of the questions depends on my mood at the time. Its a waste of time and money for everyone.

sgr1236
sgr1236

@Tony Given most people in the world can't read, what does the thumb suck, wave it in the wind number of 99.99% mean!? I'm really disappointed in the quality of debate here. I assume that TechRepublic is read by educated people and yet almost all the posts above simply diss assessment out of hand. What is your purpose? Are you sitting bored in an office somewhere, passing the time, dissing other people/ideas? If so, why don't you create something of your own and let it stand in the breeze of this baseless criticism. Apply your minds to the topic, not your poisonous rhetoric.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

Most companies 'want' to hire A+ workers but set up procedures to get compliant clones instead. Newflash: 40% of the high school students with IQ over 140 are at risk of dropping out. Most standardized tests ignore these folks but if you can hire one and let him or her run with a project, you're a lot farther ahead of the game.

mastman01
mastman01

Since psychologistsand others have come up with these tests and know the "appropriate answers", why hasn't someone posted the answers online? Maybe someone could make a few bucks selling the answers? If knowing how to beat the test becomes well known the test would become meaningless.

sgr1236
sgr1236

Since my post last night, the same noise has continued unabated. Besides your one off bad experiences, what else do you know about all these tools you so glibly dismiss? Imagine if I applied your logic to restaurants: who can't remember a bad restaurant? So now we never eat out again? Of course not, you write it down to experience and find a better restaurant next time. To dismiss testing out of hand is short sighted. It adds great value in the right (skilled) hands. The stories above describe crass abuse, especially the Walmart example.

Garrett Williams
Garrett Williams

I've taken a few of these tests, and I ALWAYS find several questions that can be interpreted at least two different ways, often opposite.

l_e_cox
l_e_cox

There are some people who know what they are doing with these tests. And a lot who don't. Further, there are some tests that are more useful than others. But at this point in planetary social development, I go with the guys who avoid them. The basics of personality, where it comes from, and what to do about it, is too poorly understood by most people, including the "experts" (psychologists). In other words, if you're going to test for something, then you need a proven technology to understand and deal with the results. If you test for skills, then you know that you can send low-scoring people to retrain. But if you are trying to use testing to weed out compulsive liars or psychopaths, what do you do when you find one? Workable technology does exist, but it is not yet widely accepted. So until we have confidence that we can handle what we are testing for, might as well leave it up to the "instinct" of the interviewer.

ZazieLavender
ZazieLavender

I absolutely despise these tests. I remember applying for a very basic position as a cart pusher at walmart and had to take one of these tests. I took one the first time and "failed" it...so I waited for the result to expire. The manager did kindly inform me that they expire after a year. I came back the next year and literally had the manager...who WANTED me for the job help me out a bit even and I scored perfectly as you please. These "Personality tests" are absolutely bogus to say the least, and they create a bigger HR nightmare than one might think. It's pretty pathetic that a hiring manager has to assist applicants to get by this system if they've shown true capability for the job. Heck, after I applied they scheduled me for a good old fashioned interview immediately after and I got hired. :) This just Shows just how ineffective it is.

Grumpa777
Grumpa777

Personality Tests are INDICATORS of how People Types (PT) normally, usually, almost always, sometimes REACT in certain situations. They are not hard, cold, solid to the core facts you can take to the bank. People of certain PTs will almost always... respond to a situation in an almost always... predictable manner ** IF ** external factors are entirely removed from the situations. Add external factors like job pressure, old girl or boyfriend shows up, a combat environment, you get the idea, and all bets are off. It sounds as if some people put too much emphasis on them. They are excellent tools, but they shouldn't make up the entire toolbox!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Very useful tool, probably would have been a complete disaster if I'd have took the role.

Ballpoint Penguin
Ballpoint Penguin

I interviewed with one company, and they thought I fit the technical profile. They scheduled an interview, and asked me to take an online personality test. I took it after work one night, and the next morning they called to cancel the interview. According to them, the test indicated that I was not a suitable match. Aggravating? Yes, rather. Questionable? I don't know. C.M. Parkinson in one of his articles suggested that the best job advertisements are the ones that lead to one applicant who matches up with the qualifications. This might be just one more filter to cut down on the number of interviews (which eat up management time and resources). But I can't tell if this is an inappropriate filter or not.

sgr1236
sgr1236

The opinions above are understandable but the arguments presented miss the point. There is much academic research about IQ, EQ, personality, behaviour, integrity, cognitive ability, technical competency and so on. To use one personality measure to make a hiring decision is naive. So far, we agree. But to dismiss the entire multi million dollar assessment industry and psychology profession with one 'snake oil' sneer reveals a high level of ignorance. The issue is balance: assessing candidates or staff for hiring or career planning purposes requires a combined assessment of current and past performance, relevant technical and behavioural competencies, possibly selected psychometric measures, interviews by different people and reference checks. How much detail you collect or how many measures you choose depends on the level, importance and salary of the future role. Simple tools like PI and PPA (apparently dismissed by the author of this conversation) have their place if they are used circumspectly and correctly. PI, for example, has a 56 year pedigree but yes, it can used badly by poor practitioners. The same way IT people, engineers and doctors can abuse the professional tools placed at their disposal. Snake oil is an unfair dismissal of useful tools used by skilled practitioners. It's like saying the iPod is useless because I don't know how to use it.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

...but not for hiring decisions. We administer a Meyer's Briggs test after employment to help identify strengths as well as put the person where they will do best. Using such a test for weeding out applicants is almost as bad as choosing them on the basis of race. It is a useless metric in determining the person's value to the company besides being arbitrary and should be illegal.

mckinnej
mckinnej

Couldn't agree more! I pity the organization that bases their hiring on these things, which are more useful as discussion and thought provokers, not decision tools, since they are more akin to astrology and numerology than science. A team put together this way would probably be a dysfunctional and sadly humorous cast of clowns predestined for failure. Might as well draw names from a hat.

nmenkin
nmenkin

I will never forget the time, many years ago, when an employer insisted that everyone in the company take a "leadership test" designed to show the management and leadership potential of each employee. I made it clear from the beginning that I considered the whole thing to be bogus and a rip-off. I was informed by my boss that it was indeed mandatory and that I was rightly scared of the test because he felt it would show that I was, as he had previously told me, that I was not management material. So, I went along and took the test, which included an assessment of each employee by all the other employees. Three weeks later we were all herded into a conference room for the unveiling of the results. The coordinator of the test preceded the unveiling with a fifteen to twenty minute explanation of the chart we were about to see. Guess what? When the chart was revealed, I was the only one of ten employees that hit the mark exactly as the perfect manger and the manager was the only one who tested as having no leadership qualities; even the porter rated higher in management potential and he was a high school dropout! So much for personality testing! Toss them in file thirteen where they belong!

info
info

On one of these at a job interview, I came across the question, "Would you steal from your employer?" as well as, "Would you report a family member if they were stealing from their employer?" I answered honestly, but was later told I didn't get the job based on my test scores. Since I know a little about psychology (and I was a bit miffed for not being hired) I contacted the company that made the test. Turns out, they consider answering 'Yes' to those questions to be bad because it shows you to be a risk for theft. Answering 'No' puts you at a high risk of being considered a liar... Yeah...Those tests HAVE to be good... /Sarcasm off

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

I can think of a couple fourtune 500 companies that issue these tests as mandatory. Sometimes going so far as to say that if a person "fails?" the test then the manager can't hire the person. This is supposed to protect the managers from themselves and I find it disrespectful. It suggests that your managers are incapable of hiring the right people.

sgr1236
sgr1236

Hi Tony, fair point, but how do you edit an old message?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

that's not what they are being used for though is it. It's not even best fit, as if you let all those currently employed take them against the fit criteria 80% wiould be sacked on the spot.... Just like most other tests done when looking for a candidate, basic reason for being is requires no little to no effort on the recruiters part, and they can be pointed at when they get it wrong again...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

If that was your advice to me I'd figure you were some sort of berk and put the phone down. An idea may be, you should give the candidates a test to see how to advise them....

eye.tea
eye.tea

I've taken the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory (not the free online versions but the real 200+ question one that costs real money to submit and get a personalized interpretation) a couple of times, and I don't recall it going into emotional issues, involving my parents or otherwise....

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

100 - 99.99 = 0.01, for the mathematically inclined.... Your first post on the thread, was along the lines of , 'you thickies aren't qualified to debate this', which possibly explains the lack of quality you are perceiving. Mine was that they are surprisingly accurate (like many engineers, I'm a bit dubious about the pseudo-science that surrounds this sort of thing). The poison wasn't reserved for the topic, but for the sad wanker's who keep voting me down, but don't bother saying why... Many many years ago when I took three test's along with a technical interview for a job. I passed technically I passed (top 10 %) in terms of literacy. I passed ( top 5%) in terms of numeracy. I 'failed' the personality test in that it said I wasn't enough of a yes man' Perhaps these results' are not unrelated.... Seeing as you are the expert, what does actually mean to fail one of these tests? Because make no mistake about it they are being used as pass / fail, in the same way as not knowing that 99.99% is slightly less than all... If you want to change our perception of them, you need to talk to the criminals not the victims...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

as 99.99% of the people who assess the results of them....

nmenkin
nmenkin

Just for the record, I was referring to a Myers-Briggs (check your spelling) test. Also, I am now the CFO of my own extremely successful IT Consulting firm and my old manager is back to being a stam staffer at a competitor of my old employer having been fired for guess what...incompetency and plagiarism. Also, to clarify, I am no spring chicken and have seen many a fad come and go since I started as a full-time worker in 1965 and started in computers in ...ready for it ....1975! I believe that gives me a fair amount of authority on the subject! One reason our firm is so successful is that I couldn't give a hoot about personality. We look for the most qualified person for the job and let it roll. Let's face it, some of the best IT people have some fairly quirky personalities. Clients are looking for teams that can get the job done. We fill that by having always completed our projects ahead of schedule and under budget and in thirty-one years have not failed a client. It takes time but a careful review of resumes and references and a good long conversational type of interview is the only way to go. Yes, every once in a while someone slips through but by staying in close contact with our subs and clients we have nipped any problems in the bud and to my knowledge long before a client even realizes that a potential problem even exists. So my original hypothesis stands. There are no shortcuts; being a manager requires hard (and smart) work.

mdwalls
mdwalls

Some of these tests are "better" than others, where better must be interpreted in light of your organizational needs. The best can give useful insights into things like learning styles or organizing abilities that can help the individual and the organization in bettering performance. Good managers help employees work from their strengths while improving on their weaknesses. But these things should ***never*** be the primary basis for hiring or promotion decisions! Honest social scientists who develop them will tell you that.

DesertJim
DesertJim

It cost us a fortune in recruitment. Agencies wouldn't touch us due to the reject rate, we got about less than 1 % of successful candidates into a job, good people that we knew from experience were excluded, it seemed to discriminate against experience and we ended up with too many people of the same "type". I agree with "A team put together this way would probably be a dysfunctional and sadly humorous cast of clowns" however the company was and still is very successful

Ballpoint Penguin
Ballpoint Penguin

At one point (during the dot-bomb of 2001) I was interviewing for Sam's Club, and I had to take a personality test. They asked whether I'd turn in someone who stole a pen out of inventory. I'd answered no, and they asked me about it. I said, "I'd confront them and give them a chance to turn themselves in first. THEN I'd turn them in." So I answered honestly, but they didn't blindly take the result and asked me to amplify. That strikes me as being the right way to use these tests. (And they hired me.)

mwclarke1
mwclarke1

I try to avoid companies that only rely on too much on automated practices like these. I am at a point in my career that I must be selective of the company I work for, I usually am turning the interview into if I am wanting to work for you or not :-) I run into one of these companies that want to only have take some sort of testing not skills based, etc and I just decline.

JamesRL
JamesRL

When I was a "new" manager at my current employer making my first hire, I was encouraged to use it. It certainly was not a pass/fail type of test. It was supposed to give you insight into the personality of the person taking the test. And it wasn't supposed to replace a good guided interview process. We used behavioural interviewing techniques with scripts provided by company, but tailored for the interview by the hiring manager. When I used the personality test, I actually had one of the most difficult hires I've done. Two very good candidates, both easily capable of doing the job. So I did as HR asked, and I had them do the test. What a waste of time. It really didn't help at all. The results were like a horoscope, entirely up to the readers interpretation, very subjective. To break the tie, I worked with someone to come up with a simple 15 minute test, related to skills they would have to use day in and day out on the job. That test helped define the winner. I never used the personality test again, and not long after the company as a whole stopped using them.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

You get an edit option as well as reply. Why it's date and time you have to click on, youll haev to ask the pople who designed the site. I'm still opting for pre-frontal lobotomy as the explanation myself...

blarman
blarman

It's kind of a shame that they used the personality test to disqualify you prior to even having an interview. That to me is egregious misuse of the personality test. It's clear that you were technically qualified. It's also equally clear that the company you were applying to placed particular screening emphasis where they wanted "yes-men". I wouldn't view this as a failure on your part, but incompetence on their part. On the other hand, if a company places that much emphasis on getting "yes-men", you're probably better off not having joined them.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Snap back no matter what ? Treat it as constructive? Slope off in to a corner and say bad things about the person who criticised you behind their back because you are sad little wimp! Please answer honestly...

sgr1236
sgr1236

They're very good, I thoroughly enjoyed mine. Thanks for the tip. Keep yourself well.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

was them telling me why as though I could have done better, if I'd tried harder or something. No probably about it, would have been a total disaster, for me and them. Sychophant is not in my skill set...

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