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Wrong Personality for the Job

How not to select personnel

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

If it wasn't for the coffee, I'd have no identifiable personality whatsoever. ~ David Letterman

The job interview is a poor method to select people to work for you and with you. Validity is particularly low – nay absent – when the interview is unstructured, that is, when the interview unfolds organically and differently in each case (see here). Just when you think things couldn’t get worse, they do. This is a guest post written by Dr. Anna Hartley, a postdoctoral research scientist who works on personality judgment and measurement. Recently, Anna found herself at the receiving end of a telephonic job interview. The interview was structured and it focused of self-reported personality. The interviewer would not consider job related abilities and skills before some (unspecified) personality bar had been cleared. Anna tells us what happened in her case and she provides an insightful analysis of the episode, which, as you will see, was not without ironies. While you may enjoy the tale, you will have to brace yourself when your own moment to provide a personality repor’ arrives.

Here's Dr. Anna Hartley:

On Predicting Some Employees None of the Time: When a Personality Psychologist Fails a Personality Screening

Last week I interviewed for a Survey Research Methodologist job at a large company that does polling of various sorts. I am a Ph.D. who was trained as a personality and social psychologist with a heavy quantitative background. The job would require a considerable amount of survey development and design, and sophisticated statistical analyses, so it appeared to be a good fit.

The interview process started on an ominous note. Typically, when a company is interested, someone from Human Resources will cheerily email you telling you that they are impressed with your qualifications, and that they would like to speak with you further. In contrast, for this job, I got an automated email from the company that informed me they would “proceed with my application” and that I should call a toll free number to schedule my first phone interview. Rather staid, I thought to myself.

I called the toll-free number, and was put on hold for 15 minutes. I noted to myself that the recruiting process left something to be desired, but I also wasn’t complaining since it was an interview nonetheless.

When I finally spoke to a representative they informed me that the company has three telephone personality screenings they perform before they would interview me about my skills and qualifications. As someone who researches personality, I was intrigued. What could these “personality questions” entail? They scheduled my first interview.

When the interviewer called me, she informed me that this would be a structured personality interview, and that I could only answer yes or no (to yes/no questions), and short answers (to questions that required a response).

The interviewer began, “Are you the most responsible person you know?”

Me: “Maybe not the most responsible, but I’m extremely responsible.”

Interviewer: “Please only answer yes or no.”

I paused. I consider myself to be very responsible, but I also have some colleagues who manage to get everything done on time perfectly, while also juggling parental and spouse duties, and still publish four papers a year. As responsible as I am, I consider those people to be more responsible than me.

Me: “No.”

Interviewer: “Are you in the top 5% of most responsible people in the world?”

Top 5%!? That seemed high. If I’m not the most responsible person I know, how could I be in the top 5% of responsible people in the world? And who are these beacons of responsibility, anyway? President Obama? I made a note to myself to Google “most responsible people in the world” when the interview was over.

I responded, “No.”

Interviewer: “On a scale of 1 to 5, how responsible are you?”

Ahh, a chance to redeem myself and show that I really am responsible.

Me: “4.” I didn’t want to answer 5, because that would mean that I was perfectly responsible, which seems impossible as a human.

Interviewer: “Are you the best?”

Me: “Can you clarify? The best at what?”

Interviewer: “Please just answer yes or no.”

Dammit. This wasn’t going well.

Me: “No.”

Interviewer: “Do you work very hard?”

Thank god, something I could give an honest answer to that didn’t make me look bad. “Yes.”

Interviewer: “What do you think are the most important moral qualities in others?”
Things were improving! This was a question I actually had empirical research on. I had just written a paper on the moral traits people consider the most desirable in others. I was starting to feel like I was redeeming myself.

I responded,“Honesty, fairness, and generosity.” I also felt that those were moral qualities I cared strongly about.

The interviewer continued. “Are you perfect?”

At this point I was getting annoyed. I had the urge to reply, “Pobody’s nerfect.” I chuckled internally, but I got ahold of myself, and answered honestly.

“No,” I responded.

Interviewer: “On a scale of 1 to 5, how perfect are you?”

Was this a trick question? I had just said that I wasn’t perfect. And perfection seems like a binary quality: You’re either perfect or you’re not. Who is a “little bit perfect”?

Me: “A 3.8.” I figured I’d better be conservative while not shooting myself in the foot.

The questions continued like this for 25 more minutes. Then the interviewer informed me that they would score my responses and inform me within 3-5 business days whether they would proceed with my application and begin the next round of personality and skills screenings.

Three days later I got an automated email from the company rejecting me for the job. The email said I was not a good fit for the job or the company. They never asked me about my qualifications, skills, education (a Ph.D. from Brown), or relevant experience (10 years). I can’t say I was particularly upset about not getting to work for this wonderful company, but I was left curious and a bit confused.

I work in a lab that studies moral character. Often, we administer self-report measures about morality. When administering surveys like this, we have to control for socially desirable and dishonest responding. For example, someone who answers “yes” to the question “I have never told a lie” is almost certainly trying to appear moral and is being dishonest. Similarly, someone who answers “yes” to the question “Are you perfect?”—one of the questions I received during my interview—is almost certainly trying to appear socially desirable. The main way our lab controls for this issue is by using a measure called the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR; Paulhus, 1994), but there are many other ways to control for dishonest or socially desirable responding.

I responded the way I did during the interview because I was being honest and genuine, and also because I am aware that most personality assessment researchers try to control for socially desirable responding. Thus, it’s difficult to predict what was going on with this company’s personality screening process. I can think of two possibilities.

The first is that the staff at the company are unaware of the concept of socially-desirable responding, and want people who really do see themselves as (or at least will claim to be) perfect, the best, and the most responsible people in the world. This would be surprisingly ignorant, but it’s a possibility.

The second, perhaps more concerning possibility is that the people at this company are aware of socially desirable responding, but actually want people who are socially desirably responders (people who answer yes “are you perfect”, “are you the most responsible person you know”) because they see these people as “doing whatever it takes”. In their minds, these people are ambitious, eager, and will do whatever it takes to succeed, even if it means exaggerating a little (a lot). This possibility is particularly morally repugnant and more unappealing than the first because it means the people at this company are informed enough to know the literature on socially-desirable responders, but are ignoring what it’s saying: that personality assessments from socially-desirable responders are not valid because these people don’t answer the questions honestly. But perhaps dishonest, yet ambitious people are the type of employees this company is looking for.

My colleagues and I recently submitted a paper that showed that the most desirable quality in others is morality, and particularly honesty. People care deeply about a person’s morality when forming general impressions of that person, and whether they like, respect, and feel like they truly know that person—more so than other desirable qualities, such as warmth, competence, or sociability. (Hartley, Furr, Helzer, Jayawickreme, Velasquez, & Fleeson, under review; see also Goodwin, Piazza, & Rozin, 2014). Knowing that a person is moral indicates whether we should approach or avoid, and whether we should pursue an interpersonal relationship with that person.

Sadly, it appears that many companies (or at least this company) don’t seem to follow the same logic during their hiring processes. Considering some of the developments in the business world involving morals (the Volkswagen Diesel Scandal; the Financial Crisis), maybe companies should be emphasizing morality more, and the “do whatever it takes” attitude less.

Anna Hartley is a postdoctoral research associate in the psychology department at Wake Forest University. She received her Ph.D. in psychology from Brown University. Her website is

Anna gave a radio interview regarding her job interview on The Matt Townsend Show on BYU Radio. Listen here.

Goodwin, G. P., Piazza, J., & Rozin, P. (2014). Moral character predominates in person perception and evaluation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 106(1), 148.

Hartley, A. G., Furr, R.M., Jayawickreme, E., Helzer, E., Velasquez, K., & Fleeson, W. (under review). The power of morality on liking, respecting, and understanding others.

Paulhus, D. L. (1994). Balanced inventory of desirable responding: Reference manual for BIDR version 6. Unpublished manuscript, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.