Pros and cons of psychological testing

You've always hated standardized tests, and now your prospective employer wants you to take one—this one measuring your personality. In this week's Tech Watch, Bob Weinstein discusses your options.

What do you do if a potential employer asks you to take a personality or psychological test as a condition of employment?

Sorry, there is no simple answer. To prevent employees from packing their bags when a competitor dangles a fat salary in front of their noses, many high-tech and Internet companies are resorting to personality tests to retain their workers. It beats chaining them to their desks.

Testing is a world unto itself. Simply put, the average personality test identifies traits based upon a profile of ideal traits for a particular job.

But, should you have to take the test? It depends upon the conditions under which the test is given.

Tests and what they tell you
Every test is different, according to Jeremy Robinson, who heads executive coaching company the Robinson Capital Corp in New York City. Robinson, who has a master's in social work, says tests can be noninvasive or invasive. Noninvasive tests, such as the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Interest Inventory Test, measure candidates’ interests, skills, and personality types. These tests are fairly innocuous, according to Robinson. But, invasive tests, such as the IQ, Rorschach, and Thematic Apperception Tests, are designed to ascertain whether candidates have psychological disorders.

Mike Caggiano, an e-business consultant in McLean, VA, has mixed feelings about personality tests. Although he has used them in the past, he’s found them difficult to use for technical consultants because the techies have eclectic personalities. Just to be contrary, some of them may purposely give the wrong answer.

The issue, according to Caggiano, is determining the specific trait for which you’re testing. Personality tests are also time-consuming, even if they’re administered online. “By the time they’re evaluated, a candidate may have taken a different job,” he said.

Despite their drawbacks, Caggiano would still administer the tests after candidates are hired. “The issue is the logistics of giving the test,” Caggiano said. “I can see using them as a team-building exercise for identifying success.”
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Tom Burke, a labor employment specialist at business and technology law firm Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, LLP, in Los Angeles, questions the efficacy of all personality tests. “I have serious doubts about whether or not they achieve their goals,” he said. “Certain inquiries are invasive under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Under the California state constitution, for example, you must balance privacy with business needs. Employers must justify why they are asking certain questions.”

Burke said 18 states have limited job testing. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) deems certain tests inappropriate. In short, personality or psychological tests must be validated according to the job qualifications.

With questions over the legalities of testing, Burke insists performing background checks, verifying resumes, and conducting thorough interviews accomplish the same end. Yet he concedes that certain tests tailored to specific jobs may have clear benefits to both employer and candidate.

Should you take it?
What should you do if asked to take a personality or psychological test? “Ask questions and find out who owns the information or data,” Robinson said. “It demonstrates you’re in charge of your career. Technically, you own the information and should get it when you leave.”

What if the employer refuses? Try getting an agreement to jointly own the data as long as you get it back should you leave. It’s your call if the employer refuses; it just depends on how badly you want the job.

Burke suggested that if the test is a condition of employment, you have a right to know what the company is testing for. “Diplomatically, ask if it’s standard procedure, or if they are looking for a certain type of person,” he said. “You can’t blame a company for wanting to screen out undesirables.”

But Caggiano warned about repercussions of refusing. “If the company says the test is voluntary, don’t take it if you feel strongly about not doing so,” he said, “especially if there are dozens of other great jobs in the wings. But if it’s a condition of employment, and you really want the job, you have no choice.”

In short, refusing to take a voluntary test could backfire. “If a company is considering two people with great credentials and one refuses to take the test but the other agrees, you could lose out. The company may think you’re hiding something,” Caggiano said. “It’s behind-the-curtain stuff you’ll never know about.”

Bottom line? The testing quagmire is more tangled than you realize.
Are you suspicious of your organization’s use of personality tests? Do you know what your organization does with the information it collects? Is the test worthwhile? Share your experiences and opinions in an e-mail or begin a discussion below.