'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.