- Personality assessments are sometimes used to evaluate job applicants, though their use has been criticized.
- While personality assessments can indeed be valuable tools, not all tests are appropriate or helpful.
- In order to be effective, personality questions should be work-related and contextualized.
- Personality tests should also possess evidence of reliability and validity prior to use.
Co-authored by Andrew B. Speer and Matt I. Brown
Personality at work matters. We see its impact when one employee reacts with poise when faced with unreasonable customers, whereas another expresses visible frustration, or when some people persist in meeting difficult goals, whereas others give up.
People around the globe tend to describe human personalities in similar ways, which can be organized into common traits—for example, extraversion or agreeableness (Goldberg, 1993). These traits have been found to be predictive of a range of life and work outcomes (Roberts et al., 2007). As a result, personality testing is frequently used within organizational contexts.
However, not all is good with personality testing. Some recent documentaries and popular press articles describe personality assessments as unfair and ineffective tools for workplace use. Despite some legitimate issues with using personality assessments to hire job applicants, these accounts fail to address how personality is used by many organizations to make fair and valid hiring decisions. In this article, we offer guidance on how to evaluate the use of personality assessments in hiring contexts.
1. Focus on personality traits that are necessary for the job.
According to well-established professional standards from the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (1978) and the Principles for the Validation and Use of Personnel Selection Procedures (2018), the key to using personality assessments is to first identify which traits and qualities are important to the job. This is achieved through a process known as “job analysis,” which essentially boils down to systematically studying what a job entails.
This is done by observing workers, interviewing employees in the company, and reviewing work materials to determine the ins and outs of the job. This process helps determine which traits are most relevant and results in greater accuracy in identifying high quality applicants (Tett & Christiansen, 2007). For example, job analysis would help determine that compassion might not be very important for an accountant but is important for nurses.
Many attacks on personality testing do not discuss the importance of job analysis, instead often addressing assessments that have practically no science-based evidence for use in organizational settings, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The MBTI was developed by two non-psychologists and classifies people into personality “types” rather than the contemporary practice of measuring continuous personality “levels.” Although this personality assessment is fun for many to take (“I’m an INTJ!”), it is not recommended for making hiring decisions. Not only are people difficult to sort into discrete personality “types,” but there is practically no scientific evidence to link scores from the MBTI to important behaviors at work (Pittenger, 1993).
There are, however, a large number of other available personality assessments that are explicitly built for the purposes of applicant hiring. The key is being able to identify traits specific to a job and then focus on those traits when making hiring decisions. Good assessments are capable of this, and good assessment vendors will suggest job analyses to determine which traits should be measured.
2. Ask personality questions that are job-relevant.
In addition to targeting job-relevant traits, personality assessment content should ideally be “work-contextualized.” Work-contextualized personality statements are framed within work environments. Rather than asking “I like to tidy up,” which applies to behavior generally across contexts, a work-contextualized statement might be “I like to keep things tidy at work.”
Such distinctions are simple yet important, as behavior is a function of individual traits that occur in response to environmental stimuli; people exhibit personality differently across situations. For example, one of us is rather organized and hardworking when it comes to work-life but a disheveled procrastinator when it comes to the household, a reality his spouse wishes were reversed.
When personality assessments ask about work-related behaviors specifically, this enhances their job relevance and results in assessments that are more strongly related to work outcomes. A study by Shaffer and Postlethwaite (2012) summarized research and found that contextualized personality assessments are approximately twice as predictive of job performance as non-contextualized assessments.
Where managers and organizations can get themselves in trouble is in using personality assessments with questions that are personally invasive, offensive, and job irrelevant. For example, questions such as “I believe there is a God” and “My sex life is satisfactory” are found in some clinical assessments to detect psychological disorders. With a few rare exceptions, these clinical tests are not ideal for use in hiring.
What's more, using a personality assessment meant for clinical purposes can place companies at legal risk of violating state or federal laws protecting specific groups, such as those who are disabled, religious, or of a particular sexual orientation. Instead, personality assessments designed for hiring assess behavior in typical, and ideally work, situations.
3. Ensure that assessment scores actually identify top performers.
Most of us have taken frivolous online questionnaires that produce output declaring what television or movie character we are. This mostly harmless fun is fine in low-stakes settings where being more like Jon Snow or Joffrey Baratheon won’t affect major life events.
However, in contexts where assessments are used to make decisions, such as who will be hired for a job, assessments should adhere to well-established psychometric standards for use. In the simplest terms, good personality assessments should be reliable, such that scores consistently measure some attribute, and they should be valid, such that assessment scores actually reflect the targeted attribute in question.
If you take a test and one day it says you are achievement-oriented, and then a week later it says you are lazy, that would be a test with low reliability. If the test is designed to assess achievement orientation but test scores do not relate to achievement-oriented behavior (e.g., persisting when work gets hard, meeting deadlines), then test scores do not have evidence of validity.
One of the most straightforward methods of establishing assessment validity is showing that assessment scores correlate with important work outcomes. As an example, if those with higher assessment scores have better performance at work (e.g., they sell more cars), that would be evidence of validity. Personality assessments are often used because they relate to outcomes like turnover, job performance, and engagement at work.
That said, personality assessments are not flawless. People often assume that assessment scores are expected to predict an outcome with perfect accuracy. Unfortunately, this is not reality. Opponents of hiring assessments are quick to point out anecdotes when assessments make incorrect decisions—someone they knew failed an assessment and yet was wonderful at the job, or someone who scored great on an assessment then failed miserably when hired.
The simple truth of any hiring procedure—interviews, skills and abilities tests, decisions based on cronyism and nepotism, resume reviews or reference checks, and of course, personality assessments—is that they are probabilistic. If an assessment is valid such that it correlates with performance at work, those with higher assessment scores have a higher probability of performing well than those with lower scores.
There are no guarantees though, and this speaks to the complexity of human behavior. Job performance is an amalgamation of behaviors exhibited in response to varied, changing situational work demands occurring over time. Humans are complex, and we shouldn’t expect to predict behavior with the same ease as predicting the temperature tomorrow.
Thus, because these assessments are probabilistic, personality assessments will invariably make incorrect applicant decisions. There is no getting around this.
On the other hand, if a personality assessment is psychometrically valid such that it exhibits even a small relationship with job performance, hiring decisions will on average be more accurate when using the assessment to hire applicants than if the assessment was not used. This is why hiring assessments are on the whole beneficial, even if they do not have a perfect correlation with work-related outcomes (e.g., Hunter & Schmidt, 1983).
Personality assessments, when developed and implemented with care, are valid, fair, and useful tools for identifying talented job applicants. These tools can be especially useful when faced with hundreds or even thousands of potential candidates.
In situations like these, personality assessments provide a standardized way of quickly and easily comparing candidates to one another, allowing for more consistent and more efficient decision-making. In the absence of standardized assessment (whether personality assessments or some other method), it may be challenging for organizations to efficiently assess applicants.
Probably more relevant, and even against best intentions, a lack of standardized methods results in hiring managers being left to their own idiosyncratic preferences and judgments. Anyone who has been around enough hiring knows that too often hiring managers rely on superstitions (“I won’t hire anyone who doesn’t like country music”) or vague and unarticulated criteria (“I know fit when I see it”).
Personality testing is by no means perfect, but it does offer a standardized method to assess important applicant attributes, and when done correctly can be useful for organizations.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Civil Service Commission, Department of Labor, & Department of Justice. (1978). Uniform guidelines on employee selection procedures. Federal Register, 43, 38290–39315.
Goldberg, L. R. (1993). The structure of phenotypic personality traits. American Psychologist,48, 26–34.
Hunter, J. E., & Schmidt, F. L. (1983). Quantifying the effects of psychological interventions on employee job performance and work-force productivity. American Psychologist, 38, 473-478.
Pittenger, D. J. (1993). The utility of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Review of Educational Research, 63, 467–488.
Principles for the Validation and Use of Personnel Selection Procedures (2018). Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 11, 2–97.
Roberts, B. W., Kuncel, N. R., Shiner, R., Caspi, A., & Goldberg, L. R. (2007). The power ofpersonality: The comparative validity of personality traits, socioeconomic status, and cognitive ability for predicting important life outcomes. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 313–345.
Shaffer, J. A., & Postlethwaite, B. E. (2012). A matter of context: A meta-analytic investigation of the relative validity of contextualized and noncontextualized personality measures. Personnel Psychology, 65, 445-494.
Tett, R. P., & Christiansen, N. D. (2007). Personality tests at the crossroads: A response to Morgeson, Campion, Dipboye, Hollenbeck, Murphy, and Schmitt (2007). Personnel Psychology, 60, 967–993.