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Using Personality Tests as a Hiring Tool

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Screen job applicants without going overboard.

The first modern personality test appeared in 1919, when the U.S. Army sought to screen recruits who might be susceptible to shell shock. Since then, private employers have embraced these tests (often called assessments to de-emphasize the pass-fail nature of the exercise) to weed out job applicants.

Personality tests appeal to entrepreneurs who want to streamline the hiring process. Diagnosing an individual’s behaviors, attitude and beliefs can eliminate at least some of the uncertainty when evaluating whether someone will be a good fit.

But it’s easy to get carried away by these tests. If you grow too attached to administering assessments, it’s tempting to reduce a candidate to a series of test scores rather than a fully dimensional human being.

With hundreds of consultants now pitching their own proprietary assessment products, personality testing has become a $400 million industry, complete with its share of charlatans. If a test is administered and interpreted sloppily, you can make poor hiring decisions and even face legal trouble.

How testing and hiring mix

Most personality tests measure a range of traits, although some assessments evaluate an individual’s aptitude in a single area such as management or sales. Here are some ways that second-stage businesses can use testing as a hiring tool:

  1. An insurance broker seeking genial but aggressive salespeople might test candidates for extroversion and resilience to match the traits of top sales producers already on staff.
  2. A private security firm might test applicants for mental stability and stress tolerance to identify individuals who may lack the fortitude to handle the job.
  3. A retailer might test workers for their honesty, especially if they’re going to handle money or merchandise in an unsupervised environment.

Increasingly, personality tests are available as Web-based instruments. This saves you from administering a test on-site.

Many assessments involve multiple-choice questions or true-false statements. When applicants take the test online, their scores can often be tabulated within minutes and e-mailed to a hiring manager, along with an explanation of the results.

At their best, these tests can help you gather information that you’d never get in a conventional job interview. It’s unwise to treat any single test result as a make-or-break hurdle. Yet assessments can serve as a key element in the larger process of getting acquainted with individuals’ behaviors and competencies as they relate to the job opening.

Can you spot liars?

When your business grows and you’re spread too thin, you may make hiring decisions for lower-level positions based on gut instinct — along with a quick appraisal of a candidate’s credentials. Or you may delegate this process and hope your hiring managers prove shrewd judges of character. But with nearly one-third of business failures linked to employee theft, it’s prudent to screen potentially dishonest individuals.

Prior to 1988, you could have legally screened applicants using a lie detector. But a federal law vastly limited private employers’ ability to administer polygraphs. This spurred the development of so-called "integrity tests" that attempt to evaluate one’s honesty through a battery of questions and exercises.

With hundreds of new tests now on the market, it’s hard to generalize about their effectiveness. But it helps to know what types of integrity tests are available.

"Overt integrity tests" don’t try to hide the fact they’re digging for cheats. They test one’s attitude about dishonesty. By answering a series of questions, applicants might reveal a willingness to rationalize their misdeeds or an acceptance of co-workers who steal.

While these tests vary, sample questions might include, "Do people tend to steal at work to get back at their boss?" or "Do you think it’s possible to go an entire month without telling a lie at work?"

Other tests consist of statements; applicants simply circle "yes" or "no" for each one. Examples:

  • There are legitimate reasons for a person to take merchandise or money without permission.
  • Honesty and hard work pay off as much as they did in the past. Applicants who try to fake their answers can get into trouble. For example, those who insist they can go a month (or even a week) without lying may lower their score, because most honest people realize it’s necessary to fib from time to time in work-related encounters.

Examples of overt integrity tests include the Personnel Selection Inventory (800-221-8378) and the Trustworthiness Attitude Survey (800-930-4747). Both of these offerings have valid research to indicate their scores can often call attention to individuals with questionable integrity.

Give tests fairly

Before administering an assessment to applicants, protect yourself legally. Ask the testing company for data that supports the accuracy and reliability of its results. Some companies will proudly trumpet the "validity coefficient" of its test or give you reams of statistics that represent "validity scales" that supposedly prove the usefulness of the instrument.

Clarify the numbers to ensure you understand them. Confirm that the validity studies were conducted recently and relate to the same test you’re thinking of using. Many testing services offer dozens of variations of their products, so ensure they have validity research that relates to the specific instrument you want to use.

Relying on research by the companies that do the testing may not strike you as particularly convincing. Ask if they have any independent proof that there’s a high correlation between, say, their tests and the subsequent rate of employee theft.

Also determine whether the tests have ever been successfully challenged in court. Avoid test services that promise great results but also mention a lengthy history of legal skirmishes.

Integrity tests have their limits. They should not replace other due-diligence steps that you should take in hiring employees who’ll handle money, such as contacting references, verifying educational credentials and running a criminal background check.

Make sure every applicant for a certain type of job clears the same checkpoints, including passing whatever test you choose to administer. Avoid changing the rules for some candidates. Any evidence of subjectivity in giving tests can come back to haunt you in court.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in employment decisions, including the administration of pre-employment tests.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 amended Title VII by prohibiting the discriminatory use of test scores. It reads, "It shall be an unlawful employment practice … to adjust the scores of, use different cutoff scores for, or otherwise alter the results of employment-related tests on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin."

Put simply, Title VII does not stop you from using personality tests. But it prohibits you from using tests to intentionally discriminate against minorities. It also makes it illegal to administer tests that have an adverse impact on minorities and are not related to the position in question or consistent with business necessity.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents employers from conducting medical exams or medical inquiries unless it’s part of a conditional job offer. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that a psychological test is a medical exam for purposes of the ADA if it gives evidence that can expose a mental impairment or disorder. The ADA may also kick in when an applicant is rejected for a job because of a test and alleges that the employer discriminated on the basis of a perceived disability.

The upshot: Federal laws have sharply limited what’s legal to ask in pre-employment tests. Even indirect questions about sexual preference, mental health or religion are off limits.

If you retain credible consultants to help you select the right tests, you’re probably on safe legal ground. Some lawyers actually encourage employers to use appropriate pre-employment tests.

With lawsuits for negligent hiring spreading across the United States, employers are often forced to defend their employees’ harmful actions (such as theft or assaults). You can be liable if you did not take reasonable steps to investigate an applicant’s penchant for, say, stealing or committing violence. Plaintiffs might argue that the hired employee’s behavior was foreseeable and that testing could have helped you predict problems. Administering pre-employment tests to screen applicants can reduce your exposure to negligent hiring claims.

Set hiring targets

Aside from integrity testing, the most common assessment tool for fast-growing businesses involves "predictive matching." In these tests, applicants’ personalities are measured in terms of their compatibility with the personalities of their would-be supervisors or the star performers at the company.

It’s key to identify your hiring priorities. List the attitudes and behaviors that an ideal candidate would exhibit, based on the personalities of co-workers and your organizational culture. If you encourage an unstructured, creative work atmosphere, for instance, choose tests that screen for rigidity, conformity or order. If you’re not a big believer in command-and-control leadership or organizational charts, you may not want to hire someone who prefers defined hierarchical relationships.

Examples of predictive-matching tests include the widely used Predictive Index System from Praendex (800-832-8884) and the Manager Performance Predictor from Friedland & Marcus (800-931-1107).

If you already have superstars on staff, interview them before you interview job applicants for similar positions. Why? Star performers can tell you what characteristics they bring to the job that make them effective. Armed with this information, you can test candidates and measure to what extent they possess the same star quality.

This approach is becoming increasingly popular among consulting firms. Rather than foist an off-the-shelf questionnaire on applicants, consultants study your stars, pinpoint their personality strengths and then design a test to diagnose to what extent applicants bring the same arsenal of traits and talents to the job.

Another way to use pre-employment tests to target the right kind of candidates is to develop so-called "psychometric" hiring models, in which personality models help you choose only those individuals who are best qualified to meet the functional requirements of the position. Some testing or consulting firms will prepare such a model and customize a test accordingly.

How tests can backfire

Though testing applicants for honesty, sales aptitude or compatibility with your best employees can make sense, some personality assessments simply aren’t designed to help you hire winners.

For example, personality-type indicator assessments are among the most popular test instruments. They can reveal whether individuals tend to exhibit a preferred style of interaction that can either enhance or undermine their interpersonal relationships.

Understanding an employee’s "type" might help you foster collaboration and boost teamwork among your staff, but it won’t provide much insight when you’re weighing job candidates. Well-known tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (introvert/extrovert, intuition/sensing, thinking/feeling, judging/perceiving), the Keirsey Character Sorter (idealists, rationals, artisans and guardians) and Social Styles Inventory (driver, analytical, amiable, expressive) should be used only to improve team performance, raise self-awareness or plot a career path.

Some broad-based personality tests such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) are inappropriate in the hiring process because they probe areas that stray far from job-related concerns. Any test like the MMPI that plumbs an individual’s mental health or religious beliefs can present legal problems if it’s used in hiring.

It’s often wise to administer tests at an early stage of the application process as a preliminary screening mechanism, especially for lower-level jobs. Warning: If you review the results before meeting someone in person, it might taint your perception of the individual. You may prejudge the individual and deny or downplay evidence that contradicts the test findings.

Writer: Morey Stettner is a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H. He is the author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and "The Art of Winning Conversation" (Prentice-Hall, 1995).

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