Do Personality Tests Work for Screening Candidates?

We received a great question from one of our clients that we did not immediately know the answer to: “Do personality tests work?”  This question puzzled us so we decided to do what most of us do with a puzzle, go to the internet. The search for information yielded some interesting results that I want to share with you. One very surprising result was the number of hits for pages created on “how to beat a personality test”. This month’s CIO letter will review the pros and cons of Pre-Employment Testing. Pre-Employment Testing, as the name implies, refers to all the testing that is done prior to delivering an employment offer. This includes personality, drug, aptitude, intelligence & emotion quotient testing; and criminal background, education and reference checks. We found significant amounts of misleading and biased information regarding Pre-Employment Testing online. Organizations who sell these services produce most of the information on the subject. There are hundreds of different types of pre-employment assessments ranging from honesty & integrity tests to management evaluations that measure career competency. There are also clinically oriented psychological profile tests and assessments, which are diagnostic in nature. We can’t cover all areas of Pre-Employment Testing in this letter as the subject is so expansive. Instead, the areas we will cover are aptitude, intelligence, personality and a behavioural testing. On the surface, this type of screening appears to valid; take your top people (the employees you most want to replicate), look at their test scores and use those to build a baseline or ideal profile. Use this profile to create a candidate filter. However, when you step back to look at highly successful individuals, use will note they possess great diversity of profiles and personalities. Just look at successful CEOs and their varied personalities.  Jack Welsh and Steve Jobs are both viewed without dispute as successful yet their profiles and approaches are very different.  Screening using these methods may eliminate the next Steve or Jack because an individual like them won’t fit precisely into a mould. This would be a tragic loss for any company. Research has shown that cognitive aptitude tests are much more accurate predictors of job performance than other widely used employee selection techniques. For example, a comprehensive evaluation of peer-reviewed studies regarding the predictive validity of various selection techniques concluded that aptitude tests are twice as predictive as job interviews, three times as predictive as experience, and four times as predictive as education level. Behavioural testing provides for a more predictable outcome when screening applicants for employment when used in conjunction with behavioural interviewing techniques. By using validated employment tests and assessment tools, a company can add objectivity, especially regarding management evaluations, and remove unintentional bias. Job fit is very important and many companies use behavioural interview questions to match the candidate with the job. You want to know that a management candidate has good communication and interpersonal skills, but you also want to know about their overall leadership skills and management potential. What about the candidate's customer service skills, his sales skills or his emotional intelligence? Doesn’t the interviewer have enough to focus on without going into so much detail in the short time allocated to complete the interview? Well, that is the whole point behind the use of pre-employment assessments. Most of the articles that you have probably read pertain to the use of psychological profile testing and assessment. There is a major difference between non-invasive pre-employment testing assessments and clinically oriented psychological testing assessments. Most of the assessment instruments involved in litigation are "restricted use," meaning psychological assessments that generally should not be used in the business environment. Personality tests are least accurate since they only measure different attitudes about items. A general attitude about something is not able to predict accurately how a person will react to various business situations. These tests cannot predict behaviour because behaviour is context sensitive. People act differently in different environments. For example, in a support role when there is a backlog of issues people will react differently on a sunny Friday afternoon in the summer than they will on a rainy Monday morning in the middle of winter. There is an attempt to associate success with specific personality types. In fact, personality requirements are different for different jobs. Rarely do any of the tests customize their recommendations by job type or environment. It is simply, "this person may (or may not) succeed." In actuality, people are not as cut and dry. Furthermore, there are generational changes that occur over time. Thus, if an organization uses the same profile for 10 years the predictability may drop. About 65% of all employers use some sort of pre-employment screening. Organizations must review their testing annually and determine what success looks like in using testing. Many of our clients swear by them while others have mixed results. So to answer our question: “Do Personality Tests Work?”, there is no definitive conclusion , but rather it boils down to a company’s decision.  If  your organization uses this type of testing, the key is not to rely on the test as the sole screening criteria to hire a candidate, but rather as an additional tool in the hiring toolbox.