A recent HBO Max documentary called ‘Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests’ has uncovered the frightening reality of discrimination in corporate America.
In the documentary, producers expose employers’ increasing reliance on personality tests in the recruitment process, giving way to unconscious bias and the exclusion of whole classes of people often categorized by disability, race, and gender.
The advent of personality assessment over the last century, whereby human traits are retrofitted into an insightful framework, has offered the current generation a tool for self-discovery within an often-confusing world. But as the documentary explores, are we acting upon these insights in an ethical and purposeful way?
In this article, we discuss how personality tests are used in hiring and whether they’re accurate and effective tools when used as predictors of performance in the workplace.
What are personality tests?
Personality tests are tools used to assess and classify human personality traits. The purpose of personality tests is to sort human personality into a labeled framework to help predict how people may respond in different situations.
According to The New Yorker, the idea that human beings can be sorted into psychological types is ancient. “In the Hippocratic tradition, people could be categorized as innately sanguine (optimistic), choleric (irritable), melancholic (sad), or phlegmatic (calm),” writes the article’s author.
In the early twentieth-century, personality tests were used to identify which soldiers were fit for war—who would be most likely prone to mental breakdown and who were the stronger leaders among the recruits. Later on, with the rise of office jobs, hundreds more personality tests were developed by business people, psychologists and lay people, and sold as human-resource tools to corporations to take the guesswork out of assessing a potential employees’ suitability for a role.
Today, personality tests are used in a large range of settings in addition to the human-resource sector, including career, relationship, and school counseling, psychological therapy and forensic settings.
And, with social media and smartphones fueling ‘Generation-Me’ in the 21st-century, individuals are also using personality test results to navigate the bewildering amount of choice they’re presented with in their modern day lives.
Tim Travers Hawkins, the film-maker behind ‘Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests’ was first introduced to the world’s most popular personality test the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in the online dating world when he noticed more than just a handful of potential suitors stated their MBTI personality type on their dating profiles.
This observation—that people would consider or disregard a meeting with a potential romantic partner based on the results of a personality test—sparked his interest into America’s obsession with personality tests across pop-culture, psychology, and corporate life.
Why are personality tests used for hiring?
To be successful in any given job, it’s usually understood that one would possess the hard skills needed for the job, being skills that come from specific knowledge. Hard skills are typically gained from education, training, and on-the-job experience where one can easily demonstrate their capability if put to the test.
On the other hand, soft skills are an expression of one’s innate personality—their empathy, adaptability, reflectiveness, flexibility and tolerance, to name a few—and have long been understood to benefit businesses. Many HR professionals now believe that soft skills are even more prized since the pandemic began, when universal uncertainty and increased stress levels are better tempered with good communication, adaptability and empathy amongst remote-working teams.
Unlike mastering hard skills such as using software programs, speaking a language, operating a SLR camera or driving a truck, it’s difficult to learn soft skills and they’re equally difficult to gauge in an interview.
This is where personality tests come in. By utilising personality assessments in the recruitment process, hirers hope to weed out candidates with less-than-desirable personality traits that supposedly hinder someone from performing well in a specific role.
For example, it’s assumed by most that to succeed in a sales role, you need to be extroverted because the role requires confidence, cold-calling and constant human connection. But this type-casting can be shortsighted; as a successful salesperson of 40 years says in an article by SHRM (the Society for Human Resource Management), “The best tool for a salesman is his ears—listening, not talking.” This brings up the issue of personal judgement, bias and interpretation in hiring.
While many HR professionals swear by the effectiveness of personality tests, there is no scientific proof that hiring partially or solely based on personality will get the best person for the job. The same SHRM article reveals that the MBTI isn’t intended to be used in the hiring process at all. It states that according to the publisher of the test, “People of many different types excel at the same job for different reasons,” and that “individuals should not be pigeonholed based on their personality preferences.”
Co-Founder of Vervoe, David Weinberg, agrees with these statements, adding that personality tests can have a valid place post-hire in the context of career development, but not as input to the hiring process.
“Think of any team you’ve worked with, in the past. Did everyone on that team have the same personality type? Do all managers have the same personality type? Do all engineers have the same personality type? Of course not. There are many personality types that can excel in any role, and if you typecast based on personality, you’re going to exclude a lot of great candidates,”David Weinberg, Co-Founder of Vervoe
Types of personality tests used for hiring
There are hundreds of personality tests on the market today, but less than a dozen are commonly used in pre-employment personality testing. Let’s delve deeper into some of these top personality tests for hiring.
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
Designed in the 1940s by a mother-daughter duo who wanted to make psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s ‘Psychological Type’ theory more accessible, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is completed by more than two million people each year, according to The New Yorker.
Jung developed four dichotomies in his theory of ‘Psychological Type’. These are: Introversion/Extraversion, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling, Judging/Perceiving. The test concludes how a person tends to experience the world through the lense of each one of these four dichotomies, resulting in a total of 16 MBTI personality combinations.
The current US version of the MBTI consists of 93 forced-choice questions, whereby the test-taker must choose from two different definitive options.
Research on the test’s reliability is ongoing. While many agree it can effectively reveal a person’s innate preferences, it’s thought to lack in predicting an individual’s future success in a job.
The Caliper Profile
The Caliper Profile measures the innate tendencies of candidates based on 23 different personality attributes that relate to the common office workplace, including aggressiveness, ego-drive, risk-taking, urgency, leadership, thoroughness, assertiveness and time management.
It was created over 60 years ago by David Mayer and Dr. Herb Greenberg, who despite PHD-qualified, couldn’t land a job because he suspected his blindness caused him to present as ‘different’.
The test is structured in various formats, whereby most commonly, the test-taker is asked to choose a single statement that most aligns with their views. It also includes true or false and multiple choice questions, and a degree of agreement scale.
Behind the scenes, test-takers are evaluated by the ranges in which their scores fall, resulting in a full view of both positive and negative attributes that offer insights into what drives the person.
Predictive Index (PI) Behavioral Assessment
The Predictive Index Behavioral Assessment measures four primary personality constructs– “Dominance”, “Extraversion”, “Patience” and “Formality”.
The original iteration of the test was inspired by the psychological studies of bombing teams in the United States Army Air Corps in the 1950s. The aim was to take those findings and apply them to office workplace behaviours of the time.
In this simple assessment, test-takers are presented with two lists of adjectives. With the first list, they’re asked to select the words that describe the way others expect them to act. Using the second list, they’re asked to select the words that describe them in their own opinion.
Each chosen adjective is associated with one of the four key personality constructs to help predict future behaviours in the workplace.
The DISC assessment, like some of the other personality tests we’ve explored, is built around the four-style behaviour model that’s derived from the Hippocratic tradition. DISC is the acronym for the four primary behavioral traits the test measures: “Dominance”, “Influence”, “Steadfastness” and “Conscientiousness”.
Another popular choice, over one million people across a range of organizations use the test every year to custom-build their workplaces.
The assessment is structured with a series of short multiple choice questions designed to measure the natural responses of test-takers.
While test-takers leave with one of the four traits as their primary result, the test also measures how all four traits interact with one another and influence behavior. Companies often use the DISC Assessment as a pre-employment tool to predict a person’s behaviour in the context of teamwork, and is also used as a career development tool to strengthen interpersonal skills amongst teams.
The problems with using personality tests for hiring
While personality tests can be useful in certain contexts, when used to make hiring decisions, they come with particular pitfalls, the most problematic being the inescapable reality of subjectivity.
Unlike hard skills, which can be tested, measured and reviewed by degree of capability, personality types are subject to emotional judgement in an assessor, which have been conditioned by factors such as upbringing and society.
Dr. Kim Perkins, an expert on positive organizational psychology aptly uses the analogy of the typical software engineer. She describes their stereotypical traits: “attention to detail, analytical ability, stamina for coding… someone who’s a thinker, prefers data to people, is cool and objective, maybe even a little blunt.”
“Due to our cognitive biases—our desire to see the complex world as a simple, cohesive story—the more someone displays traits that contradict the engineer stereotype, the harder time you will have trusting their engineering skills”Dr. Kim Perkins, Organizational Psychologist
This bias not only applies to the assessor, in this case known as the employer, but also to the candidate who takes the test. Many personality tests such as the MBTI fall under the category of self-reporting inventories whereby test-takers are required to rate how well a question or statement applies to them. This method leaves room for purposeful or unconscious deception by the test-taker.
One study found it possible for people to give false responses to personality tests in an effort to appear more socially desirable to the assessor, while another study suggests that people control their responses in the direction of what is politically correct on a racialistic scale.
In the case of a job application, a person may wish to engage in this type of deception to curry favor with hirers and increase their chance of landing a job.
The alternative to using personality tests for hiring
There are many pre-employment assessment tools that are effective in producing a clear picture of the capabilities of a potential employee. After all, whether a person is introverted or extroverted, is no measure of whether they can succeed in a role they might be perfectly skilled to do.
Skills testing software like Vervoe which includes behavioral and situational questions, offer a new and exciting technological advancement that accurately tests candidates’ ability to do the job.
Vervoe predicts job performance using skills assessments that showcase the talent of every candidate without introducing human bias to the hiring and interview process. Start a free trial of Vervoe today.