Firms testing their employees’ personality traits
BUSINESS MONDAY, February 5, 2001
By Susan Lindt
Intelligencer Journal Staff
It’s a matter of dollars and cents. Make that dollars and sensibilities.
Personality profiling, the latest buzz term to hit local businesses, might just turn a strife-torn workplace into a kinder, gentler office.
While the application seems new, business consultant Ira Wolfe said “personality tests,” as they’re sometimes called, have been around for years.
Wolfe, owner of Success Performance Solutions, uses assessment software to test individuals looking to improve their “soft skills” or people skills. Once overlooked by employers in favor of more practical talents pertinent to the job, people skills are being weighed by employers more heavily than ever these days.
“Have you ever seen the comedian Robin Williams perform? He’s very motivated, very high energy,” Wolfe said. “but there are certainly environments in which you don’t want Robin Williams working for you.”
Wolfe said the benefits of such tests can be multifold. For one thing, employers can assess job candidates for how well they would fit the job description, corporate culture and managers’ style. Employees can use test results to adapt their personal style to that of clients and co-workers. Employers who want to foster better teamwork can align teams based on employees’ strengths as they pertain to a given project.
“Businesses are beginning to realize that it’s very expensive to hire and fire somebody,” Wolfe said, adding that today’s persistently low unemployment has also forced employers to find ways to improve “diamond in the rough” employees rather than competing with other businesses to attract new ones.
The nation is buying into personality profiling. Wolfe said 35 percent of fortune 500 companies used some type of assessment in the late ’90s. Today, that figure lingers at 65 percent. A year 2000 study by American Management Association showed nearly half of 1,085 employers polled use at least one assessment in their interviewing process.
“More and more, in this tight job market, companies are investing in people, especially management-track people,” said Colleen O’Sullivan, who develops executive training programs for AchieveGlobal, a Tampa, Fla-based corporate training and development giant. “It’s in their best interest to help (employees).”
Loren Martin, president of Terre Hill’s G. Earl Martin Inc., a wall and ceiling contracting firm, said his is not the typical company using assessments. But he attended an academy offered last year by Wolfe on coaching and mentoring because he thought it might be useful in hiring and getting the most of current employees.
“The construction industry is probably not on the cutting edge of a lot of these concepts.” Martin said.” But there is more pressure on employers to deal with things that were personal issues 10 to 15 years ago. We’re finding people today are just really stressed out. They have issues that spill into the workplace and influence a person’s job and ability to succeed.”
Wolfe said the tests also give people a better understanding of others – even those who haven’t been tested – because it quantifies simple, observable behavior. Those who have taken such tests gain more insight into what makes others tick. What may seem like an annoying trait in a co-worker might just be a different style. And quantifying personality styles can cut tension in the workplace.
“The starting point is to understand yourself,” Wolfe said. “The next piece is to understand other people’s behaviors and pick up their characteristics. The third piece is, if you know where they are and you know where you are, how do you adapt to them?”
But just how well can a software program interpret what’s happening inside a human brain? Wolfe stipulates the tests only assess observable behavior – such as introversion versus extroversion or how someone reacts to stressful situations. Given that, Wolfe said even skeptics are surprised at the results.
“I can’t think of anyone who said after we were done, “This is trash,'” Wolfe said. “At first a lot of people say, “Well, this isn’t me.’ But I tell them before they decide that, ask someone who knows them well about the points they disagree with. Ninety-nine percent of the time they end up agreeing with it.”
Take Suzanne High, a marketing associate at Lancaster’s North Star Marketing Inc. She said she was skeptical about the assessments Wolfe administered to North
Star employees. But when the results came back…
“Wow! It was 100 percent accurate,” High Said.” I was approaching it a little more seriously than a horoscope, but there were things there about me that I didn’t even think about before.”
In fact, most North Star employees had the same reaction to their results. For some, the process gave legitimacy to what others may perceive as negative qualities.
Leah Davis, Vice president of client services at North Star, said she’d heard co-workers refer to her behind their back as “money hungry.” While the term didn’t seem very flattering at the time, her assessment showed her primary concern is the bottom line — a quality many employers would find valuable.
“I could not put my arms around the term ‘money hungry,'” she said. “But I am very bottom-line oriented and now I have a justification for why I am how I am.”
As a result of the assessments, Davis said North Star is rethinking employee incentives because not everyone is motivated by the bottom line.
“some employees might rather have time off to do mission work or take a vacation,” Davis said. “The assessments allow us to customize bonuses so we’re meeting the needs of different employees.”
But did overall results paint a recognizable picture of Davis? You bet.
“It’s so right one, it’s scary,” she said. “Some of what the tests show is so subliminal, you don’t see yourself in it at first. Everyone said, “This is so us.’ And now we can start to identify clients and friends and where they fall on the charts. It makes it easier to understand where they are.”
North Star owner Kay Groshong hired Wolfe to administer assessments and work with employees over the next year to build teamwork and as part of the company’s ongoing emphasis on professional development. Now employees banter about the results, but she said they also take them to heart when dealing with each other.
“The way the world is anymore, you can’t just depend on what you learned in college to get by, “Groshong said. “This gives our employees an opportunity to grow. We have a group of terrific people who have established teamwork. This is another step forward in having a common language to understand everyone’s viewpoint.”
While getting the results can be enlightening, utilizing them, apparently, is quite another. After all, it’s fighting Mother Nature at her best. But Wolfe said with awareness and practice, some behavior can be tempered.
North Star marketing associate George Mummert said he has been through batteries of personality and psychological tests over the years when applying for various jobs. Though he maintains a respectable amount of skepticism about the results, he admits his tendency to show the same personality traits over and over.
“People have told me for years that I give out negative body language, he said, leaning back in his chair, arms tightly crossed over his chest. “Now I try to be more aware of that.”