Job Candidate Personality Testing: What Can a Hiring Employer Expect?
If they are mathematically sound, legally defensible, and predictive of a person's job performance-is it any surprise that personality tests are more and more a part of hiring? No one knows for sure how many employers use tests, but the number is growing, according to professionals in the field of psychological testing.
Pre-employment tests can cover several areas. Basic intelligence tests, skills tests, and multifaceted observations are all part of the suite. This article specifically discusses personality tests. These explore a person's basic motivations, attitudes, and temperament.
If personality tests are in your hiring future, what can you reasonably expect? What shouldn't you expect?
First, plan on learning something about testing. Tests are not all alike and there are many to choose from.
"The biggest misinformation we experience in the marketplace," says Robert Hogan, Ph.D., a well-known test designer and psychometrician, "is that a test is a test is a test. There is very poor awareness of the differences in quality among tests." Hogan is the author, together with Joyce Hogan, Ph.D., of four workplace personality tests. They run Hogan Assessment Systems in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A quick look at the history of psychological testing provides a clue to the confusion. The only tests that you should consider for a hiring program are those that are mathematically reliable and valid. This is a rigorous process that can take a test designer a number of years and hundreds or thousands of measurements.
Yet this field is relatively unregulated, although is it also highly litigated. There are new tests coming into the market all the time. They may or may not have the research data that you should require. It is a case of "buyer beware." Don't be shy about requiring evidence of the research. A reputable testing organization will have no problem producing it.
A second issue is that some tests are sold for the workplace but were designed for another purpose. Some of the oldest, best-known, and best-researched tests were developed to detect pathology in the general population. While they might be excellent predictors of tendencies towards violence or dishonesty, they are generally not predictors of a person's "bright side"-the collection of visible personality characteristics that make normal people different from one another. The bright side also has to do with the ways in which personality predisposes a candidate to be a contributor.
Also, some personality tests have been designed with questions about a person's religious beliefs and sexual practices, which run the risk of being viewed as discriminatory. You must be able to show that your use of testing is fair and does not adversely impact a protected group, in case an unhappy applicant challenges you. The surest method for meeting this requirement is a formal job analysis.
So, three questions you should ask before a test comes under serious consideration for hiring purposes are these:
1. Is it mathematically reliable and valid?
2. Was it designed specifically for use in the workplace?
3. Has it been fully tested by the test designer for possible adverse impact? In other words, does the test give the same results independent of one's race, gender, ethnicity, or other background factor?
Tests are not a stand-alone event. The consensus of those we consulted is that tests have much potential for increasing the quality of hiring, assuming you make testing part of a well-designed and well-managed hiring process. And while you're designing the hiring process, you'd best install a measurement system for your organization's employment experience as well.
David S. Miller is a principal with a consulting firm that has helped the management teams of utility companies. During the past five years, many had to reestablish themselves during deregulation and restructuring. His firm, Human Resources Strategies and Solutions, in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, has worked with numerous downsizing situations.
Consider the rigor of the hiring process they used. One utility had 145 candidates for 25 jobs available in engineering management. Miller and his team instituted a multifaceted process, of which testing was one part. First, they reviewed the candidates' technical skills. Miller says of the initial cut, "Skills data narrowed it down to about 100. We needed to go farther. We were also recruiting from the outside, to increase the talent pool."
So they required applicants to take an online personality test. "We needed to level the playing field," says Miller. "Testing delivered that."
Next, they used behavioral interviews based on the test results. Two-member teams conducted the interviews. One team member was always a highly experienced HR professional. "That was the tipping factor," says Miller. "There is no substitute for that."
Then they administered a critical thinking test to differentiate among candidates' problem-solving capacities. By this stage, the most desirable candidates were becoming obvious and some executives were now competing with each other for those individuals. Therefore, no interviewing team was able to make a job offer without consulting with the rest of the group. "We tried to make decisions that were good for the whole, not just one of the parts," says Miller. At this final stage, they also considered diversity issues-both of people's backgrounds and their relative professional strengths.
He says that tests "knocked out the extremes," meaning the people who were very clearly wrong for the jobs. He used both the Hogan Assessment Systems Personality Inventory and the Watson-Glaser test.
Both Hogan and Miller mention that employers have to keep records of organization employment experience-preferably before and after tests are introduced.
Assuming the test is well selected and correctly used, employers will be able to prove the value of testing to themselves. "If they (employers) keep records before and after they begin testing, they'll see a decrease in negative business indicators-turnover, accidents, insubordination, drunkenness-and an increase in positive business indicators-lower turnover, fewer accidents, etc.," says Bob Hogan.
Miller thinks measurements need to be developed as a part of the overall mission. "First, you've got to gain alignment around a vision," he says. "Then develop key performance indicators as a part of that effort."
Can testing produce a clear thumbs-up/thumbs-down indicator? When the issue is basic honesty for a security guard or a retail worker, the answer is often yes. When the issue is which candidate to select among a similarly qualified pool of professionals, it is far from clear.
"We were interviewing a lot of engineers with MBAs," recalls David Miller of the diligent management selection process he conducted for utilities. Testing, he says, "served a winnowing process. But it's not necessarily going to help you make the final cut." This problem is greater when the candidate pool is uniformly qualified. Says Miller, "When you boil people down to paper, they all begin to look alike."
Some might say that the application of personality tests gets more complex in higher level hiring. Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., author of Psychological Testing at Work (McGraw-Hill, 2002), is a psychologist based in Commack, New York. He thinks that pre-employment testing is most useful for entry-level positions. "For many kinds of entry-level positions, pre-employment personality tests are very useful in screening out potentially undesirable employees. Integrity testing, for example, has a very high success rate," he says. "Personality tests that measure extroversion are quite useful, as are those that measure conscientiousness, anger-proneness, or low stress-tolerance."
So how important are interviews and the resume? According to Hoffman, who has written extensively on psychological testing and has designed tests as well, "There is no single rule to apply as to how to weight various relevant factors in the hiring process. For certain types of jobs, standardized psychological tests, including personality tests, are probably more important than how the person comes across in the interview." As pointed out earlier, these jobs are often entry-level. At higher levels, more experienced candidates are likely to apply. Personality testing still has a role at that level--but that role in the hiring process is not as clear-cut.
Hoffman notes, as do many experts, that the candidate's relevant work experience is still the single most significant indicator of suitability for many positions.
So let's say you want to use personality tests. For the relatively small fees that most of these cost-between $40 and $125-the value can seem attractive indeed. You're prepared to select them carefully, you've considered how to integrate them into your hiring process, and you're prepared to measure the outcome. Many people still have a big question: Can job applicants "fake" their personalities? How foolproof are the tests?
We explore this possibility in another article on this site: "Faking It: Can Applicants 'Outsmart' Personality Tests?"
Author: Kathleen Groll Connolly