Are Workplace Personality Tests Fair?
Despite decades of research, validation, and business case studies, the mere mention of using personality tests in the workplace seems to spark controversy. Lawyers, government agencies, social advocacy groups, job applicants, and even human resource professionals dive into the discussion with a passion. And in what seems to be an almost annual ritual, The Wall Street Journal recently published “Are Workplace Personality Tests Fair?”
A quick scan of the comments posted on the WSJ website suggests a slam dunk “NO” to fairness. If you happen to be a job applicant trying to get hired, any discussion about fairness seems to be off the table.
It is painfully obvious that job applicants detest the process. I’m not surprised. Have you ever met an applicant who didn’t feel he was qualified for the job? From an applicant’s perspective, not getting a job offer or even an interview has more to do with the results of a personality test and not a long list of other critical factors such as experience, attitude, abilities, and skills.
On the other hand, some managers and recruiters are biased and hire accordingly. Others hire the applicant willing to accept the lowest wage offer. But if that is their approach, then their interviewing and other screening tool are equally biased if not more so. It’s not the assessment that creates the bias but its interpretation distorted by the prejudice of the user (intentionally or unintentionally).
In defense of those who oppose the use of pre-hire testing, not all pre employment tests are created equal. In addition to different quality standards, “personality tests” is a very broad category. Under this umbrella, people include behavioral type, personality traits, honesty and integrity, general abilities, cognitive skills, motivation, values, attitude….as well as handwriting analysis, lie detectors, and many more. [Note: many of the questions cited in the Wall Street Journal article are examples of questions asked in honesty and integrity tests, not tests for personality job fit. The article made no distinction.]
Despite the skepticism and criticism, validated employee assessments can be predictive when the right assessment is selected for the right reason. This predictability adds an element of objectivity to employee screening, an otherwise inherently subjective and biased process. The more objective and data driven a process, the more fair it can be.
Let’s move on to discrimination.
Do personality tests discriminate? Absolutely. That’s the sole purpose of employee screening and selection isn’t it? Screening tools, whether it’s the resume review, phone screen, interview, or personality test, discriminate between the most and least qualified candidates. For sure, some assessments discriminate against people of color, gender, ethnicity, and so on. But test publishers who follow best practices also validate for adverse impact (discrimination against protected class) to remove as much bias as possible. Whether companies and individual managers and recruiters follow the best practices is a different story. A properly constructed and validated assessment does not recognize gender, age, color, or ethnicity. Can you say the same for the resume and interview?
The risk of discrimination is much higher when judgment relies on the eyes and ears of human beings.
Relying exclusively on the resume and interview is hardly a best practice when it comes to employee screening and selection. The resume has become a glorified marketing brochure for the candidate. The interview is a proven poor predictor of success and bias pervades the entire process. In addition to personal prejudice against race, gender, religion, ethnicity not to mention the subtle influences of tattoos, piercing, and hair style, the mood and attitude of both the manager and candidate is highly subjective. Even the physical setting of the interview can positively or negatively the outcome of an interview.
The moral of this story is that the entire employee screening and selection process needs improvement. There are few people who deny this. The inclusion of the right employee assessment(s) into the hiring process adds credibility, objectivity, and fairness. Used properly a “personality test” improves hiring outcomes. Employee testing allows companies to collect scientifically based data on the qualities, attitude, and abilities of their talent pool.
Can assessments and the hiring process be improved? Yes, without a doubt. But many problems to date can be traced directly back to misuse of the data, selecting the wrong test, discounting the results, and ignoring the data.
The assessment industry is growing. Even better news is the industry is improving. Thanks to demand and government regulation, many assessments are more validated, more reliable, and more predictive than ever before.
It is not the use of personality testing that must be avoided. It’s the misuse of assessments by companies that needs to stop.