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The Downsides Of Using Personality Tests For Hiring

Personality isn’t everything, and companies who rely on it to predict performance can run into trouble.

The Downsides Of Using Personality Tests For Hiring
[Photo: akova/iStock]

Finding the perfect candidate for an open role is hard work. In a competitive market for talent, companies are not settling for a standard application and interview process. They’re coming up with oddball questions, devising strange vetting methods, and “auditioning” candidates before giving them a permanent offer. They’re also making them do personality tests.

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The use of personality tests isn’t new. Executive coaches have used them, and so have career placement organizations, as Fast Company previously reported. However, recently, we’re seeing more companies sell “personality tests” as a recruitment method. SquarePeg, for example, asks job seekers and companies a series of questions on traits and preferences before referring them to each other based on their results. Traitify sells its own personality assessments developed by psychologists, marketed as a faster and more effective option to the Myers-Briggs test. Talify connects college students with jobs that are supposedly the best fit with their skills and interests, which are assessed through a . . . personality test.

But just how effective are personality tests as a tool for hiring? Neel Doshi–coauthor of Primed to Perform, How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Motivation , tells Fast Company that while it can be effective, there is a lot of danger to the practice when organizations don’t use it effectively.

When Results Hamper A “Growth” Mind-Set

The biggest problem with personality tests, Doshi says, is when companies weaponize them. That is–when the “results” of their test is used for justification on their progress (or lack of) at the company, whether it’s getting a promotion, being tasked with important assignments, or getting the green-light to lead an ambitious project. This kind of thinking discourages a “growth” mind-set among employees and implicitly encourages blame, leading to a toxic workplace environment. It can discourage employees from trying to improve and grow, and send a message that their “ability” to do something is static–rather than something they can hone over time.

As psychology professor Art Markman wrote in a previous Fast Company article–personality is a factor that can motivate people to act, but is not the only factor. Markman wrote, “A person who expresses a strong desire to take on a particular role is likely to learn new skills and habits that will allow them to succeed in that role, even if their personality characteristics would suggest they are not well-suited to that job. That internal motivation to succeed is often a stronger force than the motivation provided by personality characteristics.”

There Is An Incentive For Applicants To “Game” The Test

Doshi also notes that when you pose something as an assessment, there’s a very real possibility of applicants trying to “game” the test, which defeats the whole purpose in the first place. Because applicants believe that this is something they will be assessed on, they’ll be more likely to answer in a way that they think the company wants them to, rather than how they actually are.  “In a recruiting process, it’s not easy to get a truly accurate lead if the questions are part of an evaluation. You see time and time again where an organization will try to assess personality. The candidates tend to see it as tests, and they’re trying to figure out how to game the test,” Doshi tells Fast Company.

The Danger Of Bias

Proponents of personality tests will argue that they’re using it to combat bias. After all, it’s just more data that they can use to predict an individual’s performance, right?  However, Doshi argues that in actuality, companies run the risk of bias when conducting personality tests for hiring, particularly in regards to diversity of thoughts. For starters, certain personality traits are not relevant to job performance. But if hiring managers believe that they are, they might miss out on talents who don’t fit the personality type, but whose skills, motivations, and other attributes bring a lot of value to the company.

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This example is well illustrated in the technology industry. As Bloomberg journalist Emily Chang recounts in Brotopia: Breaking Up The Boy’s Club Of Silicon Valley, during the mid-1960s, the tech industry hired two psychologists, William Cannon and Dallis Perry, to determine what kind of individuals would make successful programmers. First, they concluded that such individuals needed to enjoy problem solving. Second, they concluded that good programmers “don’t like people.” Five and a half decades later, this stereotype continues to persist, even though product gaffes have shown, time and time again, of the dangers of not having emotionally intelligent developers who can understand their users’ concerns and point of view.

Using Personality Test As A Motivational Tool

Doshi believes that personality tests are best used as a “motivational” tool rather than a hiring tool. That is, once a candidate is hired, the personality test should be a way to have “safe conversations about your natural preferences at work.” Rather than trying to determine whether one is an introvert or an extrovert, the “test” should ask questions like, What part of your job do you find painful?

Businesses often jump to personality tests because it seems like a silver bullet, Doshi tells Fast Company. It seems easy and alluring to boil someone down to four factors–but when a company hasn’t taken the time to think about what they actually need to create a high-performance culture, they can end up running into more problems than benefits.

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About the author

Anisa is the Editorial Assistant for Fast Company's Leadership section. She covers everything from personal development, entrepreneurship and the future of work.

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