Better Think Twice Before You Implement That Fancy Personality Test

We were hiring an executive and the CEO wanted him to take a personality test. I pushed back. I said that we knew his qualifications already.

We knew his working style (having talked candidly with some of his reports and peers). And if we are really afraid he isn’t being honest in his personality with us, why wouldn’t he do the same on a personality test?

We still gave him the personality test, of course. It’s what the CEO wanted, and you can only fight that so much.

Besides, I hoped that he would do well and that would be the final nail and we could make the hire. But in the back of my mind, it never felt like the right move, especially after we got the results back.

The problem with “testing” personality

This was no usual hire. It was a critical position. And it wasn’t a typical candidate.

I knew his former boss. I knew a few of the people who worked for him. I had off the record conversations with these people too.

That may be a no-no to some in HR, but I had to know. It was that important.

And we knew. He was “the” guy. When I hit his compensation number, I figured that we had him in the bag.

Then the personality test came into play.

When the CEO determined we needed to do one, I did my research and went with the best. If you’re familiar with the scene, you would probably know their name. We went through the validation process with them to make sure it would work for our organization.

After the results came in for the candidate, I was deflated. He was a low match for the company and the job. We ended up not hiring him, and I still think it was a major mistake.

It’s a perception problem

Now, that isn’t the fault of the assessment firm that we used. They definitely didn’t want us to use their test as a single point of failure in the hiring process. They even say so. The way we handled it was sloppy.

What I worry about is if we actually had hired him. At the first sign of trouble, would we have been looking back on his results to see if it was predicted? Would we have not given him the benefit of the doubt that we would normally give a new hire or would we have just cut him loose sooner?

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Even if we did hire the person, how many assumptions would we have built into our interactions with him based on the personality test rather than his demonstrated abilities?

That’s why I worry about the increased use of personality tests in hiring. I worry, not that personality test makers are evil and out to screw people, but that the people doing the hiring will be more strongly influenced by the test than other (and honestly, more pertinent) factors such as experience.

Culture conundrum

I believe in the importance of culture as much as the next guy, but trying to figure it out about a person before they are embedded in their team is a tough thing for any one factor to cover.

And other than your gut feeling, there isn’t a lot of data to go with the evaluation of whether someone will fit in culturally. So when we see that a personality test could help give us a seemingly objective view of someone (and an angle that many hiring managers believe is more important than any other factor), you can see why they are gaining traction.

But how important is culture when one is really looking at an individual’s performance?

Let’s say someone was a 50 percent fit for skills but a 90 percent fit for culture versus a person that was a 90 percent fit for skills but a 50 percent fit for culture. I know too many people who would take the former over the latter even though there is really no 100 percent validated way to evaluate for cultural fit like there is for skills and ability.

Fighting against the ocean

It may be a trend that can’t be stopped but I implore HR professionals to use caution in using personality tests in the hiring process. Consider the fact that any personality test can color the view of the person that wasn’t there before, whether it matters for the job at hand or not. Also consider that those doing the hiring are human and can’t distinguish the importance of a slick personality report in comparison to the greater organizational need.

Lastly, do a self-check. If a personality test is only one piece of the hiring process (as almost every person says), tell me what would happen if someone were a 100 percent match for everything except the personality test? How much hesitation is there in making the affirmative decision to hire the person? How does that compare if the situation were reversed (the person is a 100 percent match on personality but lacking in another area)?

Here’s a hint: if you get different responses to those questions, proceed with caution. That’s a lesson I could have used in another time and place.

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11 Comments on “Better Think Twice Before You Implement That Fancy Personality Test

  1. First off – behavioral tests are an asset in hiring, there is no doubt about it, but they need to be used with the knowledge and the support of a consultant/assessment provider who will walk with you through the hiring process, debrief on results and remain available even after the initial “purchase.” Lance you bring up some excellent and important questions to consider at the end of your post!
    Many times in my work as an assessment provider, I find myself really being a ‘hiring coach’ (especially for upper level hires) to help leadership process all information gathered – background, references, experience, ‘feelings,’ assessment and interview results to make smart and successful hiring decisions. 

  2. Lance,
    I appreciate your motive in this piece and detect your usual passion to raise dialog on things that matter.  But in this case, there are rather too many mis-perceptions and errors.  Sorry to say that, but it’s a fact. 

    Companies do mis-use personality and other tests, of course, and that hurts everyone. But the jury is no longer out on the fundamental issue: assessments will give better information and better results than non-assessments. That’s just a proven fact. Experience is not a good predictor of future performance; look at the compelling, repeated evidence not the occasional anecdote. What matters in a job – and we do know what matters in a job – are intelligence, competency, and preferences (or cultural fit).  We absolutely do know how to accurately assess all of those. 

    Your basic caution to think carefully is right – it’s always right, in any and all activities and hiring is no exception.  Careful and informed thinking will cause employers to use assessments – assessing the person AND the job (not always done, but should be).  And when they do, hiring will be vastly improved. Among the huge volume of evidence are the results of companies that use assessments

  3. Lance —- I appreciate your article about personality testing.   It has been used for a long time in Europe. Having an MS in Clinical Psychology I want to offer another perspective.   There are many firms out there selling this “tests”.   There is a legal concern.   99% of these tests have not been developed by psychologists and have no reliability or validity.   There have not been used and accepted as true personality tests on the same population as the professionals in business that are the ones that have to take the tests.    If these people are not hired they can always tell a lawyer that they were given ____ test and I guarantee you that the company will suffer liability.    I get angry at consulting firms that sell these tests to unsuspecting clients.    Some will even tell you that their test has been developed by a psychologist — but that is only half the problem.   See above.
     
    I also do not think these tests tell you any more than a very thorough interview would.   I suspect that companies use them as an easy way out to tell them what they should be testing for themselves in a through interview and reference checking.
     
    So beware!

  4. Here is an unvalidated formula that has worked well for me over the years in weighing difference part of the evaluation process.
    Ranking A, B, C
    30% of the grade is past work experience
    30% of the grade is the interview
    30% of the grade is testing results of soft skill
    10% references unless they are bad and then they are 100% 

    If the candidate is weak in one particular area you need to figure out why. Not that the weak area is correct. 

  5. Lance,

    I think you’re making an important point here.

    The tendency for people in our market to look for quick answers without attending to the fundamentals is the source of a lot of the awful results we get. The hope for an ‘easy button’ often blinds us to the fact that many really important things just aren’t easy.

    My guess is that personality assessment tests are implemented just as you describe a majority of the time. While a well run assessment program can deliver powerful advantages, most are not well run.

  6. I enjoyed this article.  It read like the CEO just decided on a whim he needed a personality assessment on this candidate.  Because of the research you did, and describing the process as “sloppy” it doesn’t sound like assessments are typically a part of their hiring process.  From my experience, people typically hire for hard skills and fire for soft skills.  Resumes and interviews don’t uncover all the information, especially the soft skills and intangible assets a person brings with them to the job, that are arguably more important than experience.      

  7. I do behavior assessments.I agree that the personality test should be used as only a part of the process.   What I like about ours is that it not only shows who the person SAYS he is but also who he REALLY is deep down.  I think that’s a distinct advantage over other tests.  When I say to a new customer ‘sometimes people interview differently than who they actually turn out to be”…I get lots of “yeah, tell me about it…I don’t want to make THAT mistake again”…  I tell them the evaluation can help them understand the person they see in front of them and who the person is deep down (and hopefully the two profiles are very similar!)… For certain jobs (sales, for instance) many studies have shown that the “Hi-D” and “Hi-I” personality styles (one or both) are critical for most kinds of selling positions.  I have had many clients confirm that one.  (Highly technical sales may be different…more of a consultative/teaching sale sometimes…but somebody eventually has to ask for the close!)   As to legality – the only legal requirement that I am aware of is that all candidates must be tested the same. You have to give it to all candidates at the same point in the hiring process or give it to none. I don’t test for ‘culture’ so have nothing to add on that!  Personally, I think the people who didn’t hire the guy in the article probably made a mistake.  If his former co-workers and others that they talked with (which, by the way, I see nothing wrong with, tho he said HR would have a fit — what’s the difference between informally talking with people who know the guy as opposed to getting references that only ‘glow’ about someone?) gave the guy high marks and his experience fit what they needed, they probably put too much emphasis on the personality test.

  8. I think you may have made a mistake in not hiring this person. How can you say you went through the validation process with an N of 1. What did this vendor tell you would validate the instrument? I’m shocked.

  9. Hi Lance,
    I think it is extraordinary to think that personality testing is used to filter candidates. There has been so much debate around this issue; surely the message has got through? It is sad to think one’s personality could one day be considered not good enough for a particular job.
    On the question of culture fit and performance I would argue that there is a strong link. If a person fits in with the prevailing culture of their workplace he or she is more likely to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of  engagement. If people fit in wit the culture then they are more likley to feel comfortable with the way they are required to go about their work and more likley to share common values and beliefs. This means they can put all their resources into doing their work and getting the job done to the best of their ability. If people are not a culture fit then they must adapt to the workplace culture. This requires constant effort and focus and uses up mental effort that could be otherwise directed at doing the job. Our brains have a finite capacity. The more effort spent on accommodating others and supressing our natural tendencies and behaviours the less effort we can spend on other things. Then add to this the constant frustration and stress caused by having to go about your work in a way that is less desirable. I personally would rather be in a work environment where I share the same values, behaviours and beliefs. I also know that if I lack the skills I can just learn these, and more importanlty, I will be motivated to do so because I am engaged. If people reflect on their past work performance I guarantee that their best outcomes happened while they were in an organisation where they felt there was a synergy and a good culture fit.
    I will leave you with a final thought – would you perform at your best if you belonged to football team or any other sports team that was culturally at odds with your values, beliefs and behaviours? 

  10. Great, honest article. I do “personality” assessments myself & give great store in them. I would however NEVER hire to cancel a hire of someone based on their personality. 

    Interviewers can frame questions to get to the basic personality tendencies of someone once they understand that there is no perfect personality — each tendency has a pro and a con to it. 
    Which leads me to ask, How does any personality type become a ‘bad fit’ for a company? You are looking for starters & entrepreneurs? So you don’t want people to finish projects or to maintain success? 

  11. I only had to take a personalty test during the interviews for one job. It was a cut-down version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Profile. That it was even being used in the late 20th century was bad enough–the test is flawed on several levels and seems to peg normality as being a sexually repressed, white Catholic male. Much, much worse was the idea that a test that’s supposed to be evaluated by a highly trained mental health pro, ie, psychologist or psychiatrist, was in the hands of an HR person.

    Fortunately, there are more appropriate tests that are fine as long as they aren’t misused. Myers-Briggs, for one.

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