Personality Tests: An increasingly popular tool for employers looking for the right hire
By Paul Luke
Relax, job seekers, this won’t hurt a bit: We’re just going to shoot our eyeballs into your soul.
More employers are turning to personality tests to probe the corners of job seekers’ minds and confirm whether they’re as wonderful as they say they are.
Employers’ growing reliance on personality tests is driven by a desire to avoid the costly error of hiring the wrong person, says Dan Monteiro, president of Vancouver-based Catalyst Training Services, which provides personality tests to organizations of all sizes.
Catalyst’s more than 100 clients range from Cascade Aerospace and Neptune Terminals to Seaspan and Whitewater West Industries.
“My perception is that the use of assessments is growing,” says Thomas O’Neill, a University of Calgary psychology professor.
“We’re moving beyond an era where it’s all about the technical skills. As work becomes more complex it’s about whether you can work well on a team, whether you can communicate well, whether you’re a lifelong learner, whether you can innovate.”
Craig East was nudged into the world of personality tests some 20 years ago when he had to write one to hold onto his job.
Employment tests are usually given before a person is hired. But East’s boss at the time insisted he complete a test called Prevue Assessment to keep his existing job.
East, sensibly, didn’t argue about the topsy-turvy sequence.
“I did better on the test than I thought I would have,” he says. “I got to keep the job.”
The experience helped make him a personality test proponent. Today, as chief financial officer at another firm, Langley-based Primex Manufacturing, East makes sure anyone applying for a senior position takes a pre-employment personality test.
The aim is to ensure the applicant’s personality will fit the demands of the job he or she wants, East says.
“We’re not all good at all things. We all have strengths and weaknesses,” East says. “Hopefully, you hire a person whose strengths outweigh their weaknesses.
“This (testing) tool helps you manage the risk that hiring decisions are emotional rather than rational. More firms should be using them.”
Savvy hiring professionals are alert to the dangers of what O’Neill calls the “human subjective bias” in job interviewers.
“The interview, even when it’s done well, and usually it’s not, relies on all of the subjective biases and stereotypes that we might have but are not very good at correcting for,” he says.
Employers’ growing use of personality tests is forcing job seekers who thought they had the application ritual down cold to jump through an unfamiliar hiring hoop.
It’s a hoop that will worry some candidates because, unlike with interviews or resumés that can be improved with studying or polishing, there is little they can do to prepare for a personality test.
Despite the growing popularity of tests among employers, job seekers are often caught off-guard when they’re asked to complete one.
“In many instances, people are not even told they’re going to be tested in any way, so it comes as a surprise,” says assessment expert Deirdre Pickerell, vice-president of Aldergrove-based Life Strategies, a career and organizational development firm.
“I think it is likely normal for anyone to be apprehensive about being given a test they know nothing about.”
To ease the possible shock, Pickerell says it would be appropriate for applicants to ask at the beginning of the application process if any tests will be conducted.
Psychologists say applicants should be comforted by the fact that they’ve been informally preparing for these personality tests their whole lives. They’ve been acquiring the bundle of traits and behaviours that may be just what a job needs.
Vancouver-based personality assessment expert Carol J. Sutton says the tests try to predict job performance by measuring how applicants prefer to work and how well their personality would be matched to a particular role, work environment or team.
A test can make the difference between getting a job and not getting one based on what it suggests about future performance.
“This is about work fit. It’s just one more way to get to know somebody,” says Sutton, who runs CJS Communications.
Personality tests can also make the difference when it comes to creating a team that works together productively.
“People who are hired into senior positions entirely based on their technical merits, without taking into account their other skills, are often the people who turn out to be bosses from hell,” Sutton says.
Personality tests give jobs a voice in the hiring process, adds Sutton.
“If the job could talk, what would it ask for?”
USE WITH CAUTION
Monteiro says employers should regard personality tests as another screening tool in a kit that includes interviews and background checks.
Reference checks are still an indispensable part of hiring, he says.
(In Canada, there is no law governing what former employers can say in response to reference checks, but comments must be true and free of malicious intent.)
Personality tests should never be given more than 25-per-cent weighting in a final decision on whether to hire, Monteiro says.
“Too many people make (hiring) decisions based just on assessment tools and that’s a recipe for disaster,” Monteiro says.
On the other hand, a personality test can provide measurable confirmation of an interviewer’s gut instinct that something about a candidate is not right for the job, Monteiro says.
“A good assessment tool may not be able to hire superstars but it should be able to keep out a bad hire,” Monteiro says.
Tests can be used to ensure the right people are hired for the right jobs at all levels of an organization, Sutton says.
“You don’t just want to relegate this to the most senior levels,” Sutton says. “It’s appropriate anywhere that the employer is enlightened enough to do it.”
Even those who defend personality tests warn that they can be misunderstood and misused by employers. Many are poorly designed.
“There are hundreds of tools on the market that are garbage,” Pickerell says. “There are also hundreds of tools on the market that are reliable and valid.”
Sutton says some human resources managers may mistakenly try to screen applicants with tests designed for different purposes, such as personal growth, team-building or conflict resolution.
DIFFICULT TO CHEAT
One criticism of personality tests is that applicants may try to paint too glowing a picture of themselves, says Christian Codrington, director of regulatory affairs and member value with B.C.’s Human Resources Management Association.
“When we’re asked to self-assess, we generally overestimate ourselves,” Codrington says.
This raises the issue of whether people can fool or outsmart tests by faking answers. Various online sites, for example, promise to help job seekers do better on personality tests.
Deborah Powell, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph, says you can fool tests — up to a point.
“It is possible to increase your score a little bit if you know what they’re looking for — but that’s the tricky part. It might not always be obvious,” Powell says.
“Some of the more sophisticated tests have lie-detection built in.”
Tests may ask the same question in a dozen ways as they probe the truth, Monteiro says.
“If you’re not consistent, you will trip up.”
Experts says employers will become suspicious if they detect contradictions between a face-to-face interview and a personality test.
Applicants can put their best foot forward simply by being honest, Sutton says.
“The more you try to outsmart these assessments, the weirder your results are going to look,” she says.
O’Neill says fakers may hurt themselves — especially if they get hired.
“If you don’t have a good personality fit for a job, do you really want that job?”
PERSONALITY ASSESSMENTS: HOW THEY WORK
The Canadian Psychological Association says most job personality tests are based on a list of 50 to 350 statements.
The tests, or assessments, are designed to indicate job suitability and performance. They measure job-relevant traits such as sociability, diligence, co-operation, innovation, truthfulness and willingness to learn.
“Research suggests that conscientiousness is helpful in nearly every job,” the association says.
“The usefulness of other traits, such as risk-taking, desire for novelty and assertiveness, likely depend on the specific job requirements.”
Experts prefer to call these tests “assessments” rather than tests because there are no right or wrong answers.
“Comprehensive personality assessments can normally be completed within one hour, although most are shorter,” the association says.
Those taking the tests indicate the degree to which each statement accurately reflects their typical behaviours, thoughts or feelings, it says.
For example, applicants may be given statements such as: “I sometimes make mistakes” or “I like helping people.”
They are then asked to choose one of the following: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Unsure, Agree, Strongly Agree.
One way in which assessments minimize “faking” is through forced choice questions. The test makes statements such as, “I am the sort of person who tries out new activities, considers others’ feelings, solves problems or likes to set long-term goals.”
It will then ask test writers to commit to whether these statements are most like them or least like them.