The use of personality tests for job recruitment is a contested topic, and lots of questions surround these assessments. Are they biased or neutral? Which tests should be used? How much weight should be put on them?
“In the academic space, there’s been a continuous argument between the personality psychologist and the social psychologist, how much influence one has versus the other, so it’s not even remotely surprising that there’s a debate in terms of their utility,” said Heather Myers, chief psychology officer at Paradox, a conversational recruiting software company.
Personality and Pre-Employment Assessment Companies
Yes, personality tests can introduce bias into the job consideration process — if the wrong tests are used or if they’re administered improperly. But when using proper and vetted tools, they can be a fairly neutral way to narrow down a candidate pool. (Hint: Some of the biggest names in personality testing are not meant for this purpose).
Built In spoke with researchers, business leaders and psychologists to clear up the confusion about the use of personality tests for jobs and to answer all of your questions about how to appropriately use them in the recruitment process.
Personality Tests: Both Sides of the Debate
Julie Kae frequently gives presentations as a part of her role at Qlik, a SaaS company focused on using data and analytics to improve decision-making. Most people who know her professionally assume she’s an extroverted person, but Kae says in reality she’s the opposite.
“I’m not sure I’d get my job if a personality test were administered,” said Kae, vice president of sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion at Qlik and executive director of Qlik.org, which focuses on global sustainability through technology.
Kae said public speaking is her “left hand.” It’s not her “right hand,” or dominant skill, but she’s strengthened her abilities in this area through coaching and practice. Personality tests tend to only acknowledge people’s natural tendenices, she said, which is problematic since a candidate might be eliminated from consideration without recognizing their learned abilities.
“The personality test is something that might flag a candidate who might otherwise thrive in a position that they're hired to fill.”
“Your personality test doesn’t share anything about the strengths that you’ve built in your left hand. It describes what you’re good at naturally in your right hand, but it doesn’t share anything about what you’ve been able to accomplish with your left hand,” said Kae, referencing right hand dominance in this example. “You might be dismissing somebody from an opportunity that your company would very much love to have this individual work in, simply because you’re not even learning or taking the time to find out what skills that person has developed with their left hand.”
In hiring for open roles, Qlik relies on a five-person interview process after the recruiting team does an initial scan of the application. The company does not use personality tests and is considering removing names from resumes during review to prevent biased decision-making.
“We’re trying to remove anything that might present bias into the recruiting, the hiring process,” Kae said. “The personality test is something that might flag a candidate who might otherwise thrive in a position that they’re hired to fill.”
Yet, some supporters of administering personality tests say these assessments are some of the least biased tools that can be used in the job recruitment process.
“Unlike an interview where an interviewer may ask a candidate one question and ask a second candidate another, personality assessments ask the same exact question of everybody who encounters it and scores those answers in a consistent way. There’s a structure to it, a consistency to it that lends reliability to the process,” said Robert Lewis, vice president and chief assessor at APTMetrics, a human resources consulting organization with assessment-centered talent management solutions.
Other factors — for instance GPA, entrance exam scores and school attendance — commonly used to decide if a job candidate should move forward, especially for entry-level jobs, are much more biased, says Matthew Spencer, CEO and co-founder of Suited, an AI-powered, assessment-driven recruiting network for finance and law firms. “The shrinking of the pool based on those factors was not only leveraging data that wasn’t particularly predictive of long-term success, it also had a ton of systemic bias that was creating negative impacts in and around diversity,” he said.
Spencer co-founded Suited in response to the challenges he was seeing in the talent marketplace during his role as chief human capital officer at investment bank Houlihan Lokey — the assessments out there didn’t feel relevant to the company. Suited uses artificial intelligence to identify more than 10,000 potential statistical relationships between candidate traits and job performance. Spencer believes personality testing is much less biased than the resume review.
“Resumes are backward-looking ... they tend to be better predictors of past privilege than what we’re really trying to get to, which is future potential.”
“The biggest reason to do this is recognizing that the current system is broken, that there is so much systemic bias that’s wrapped up in the resume,” Spencer said. “Resumes are backward-looking. We find that they tend to be better predictors of past privilege than what we’re really trying to get to, which is future potential. If we’re relying on markers that have all those systemic biases in them, it’s no wonder that we’re leading to these perpetual diversity issues and continued challenges in terms of creating real equity in the hiring process.”
Reducing Bias in Recruitment
Personality tests can introduce bias into the recruiting process when they are used to “type” someone. Even big-name companies often say their tests shouldn’t be used in recruitment because they don’t indicate how successful someone will be in a certain type of job. They are better for team building and leadership development. If companies narrow candidates down to “types,” they run the risk of hiring the same type of person over and over again.
Katy Roby Peters, global head of marketing at digital learning company Valamis, has taken a variety of well-known personality tests for her own personal knowledge and growth, yet she feels that job recruitment is not an appropriate use for the assessments.
“I find it really invasive because it’s someone trying to group you into a category of who you are,” Peters said. “The definition of personality is it’s your individualism, your individual way of thinking and what you believe. So, the very nature of personality tests goes against personality.”
“The definition of personality is ... your individual way of thinking and what you believe. So, the very nature of personality tests goes against personality.”
No one has created a perfectly unbiased personality test, but experts in the field say the key to reducing bias is to use assessments created by data scientists and crafted with your company’s needs in mind.
“First and foremost, you have to be extremely thoughtful about the assessment that you’re developing. Ensure it’s job relevant. Ensure that it’s not going to be inserting bias into the process,” Spencer said. “All of those things should be developed with professional standards and by experts.”
Also, tests must be administered consistently. Lewis said if you have different applications of personality tests for internal versus external job candidates, document the reasoning behind those differences and still be consistent in administering the tests within each of those two groups.
“Plan to have reasonable accommodations for folks,” Lewis said. “If you do that, then you’re being inclusive, and you’re sourcing talent from as many diverse pools as you can.”
Candidates should be told why a test is being administered and how it will be used, said Joe Mullings, chairman and CEO of The Mullings Group, a talent acquisition firm specializing in medical and health technology and life sciences.
“We use the testing as a guideline, not a pass-fail,” Mullings said. “We also recommend that the person who’s going through the interview process with you is respectfully explained why we use that as a guideline … to make sure that our organization fits you, not that you fit our organization.”
Examples of Different Types of Tests
The Big Five, one of the most common types of personality assessments, was developed in the 1980s through an empirical study of language across cultures. The five widely recognized personality traits are often referred to by the acronym OCEAN: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
“Not all personality assessments are created equal. You want a tool that’s pretty consistent across languages, across cultures.”
Traitify by Paradox’s Big Five Personality Assessment uses an image-based test to create a profile of an individual’s work-related behavior by measuring those five traits.
“Not all personality assessments are created equal. They’re not all the same. They’re based on different ideas,” Myers said. “You want a tool that’s pretty consistent across languages, across cultures.”
“We use Clifton because Gallup’s got a lot of experience in those types of tests over the years. It’s a relatively reasonable price point for getting some objective data out of who that person is up to that moment in time,” Mullings said. Wonderlic provides baseline information on cognitive intelligence, he adds.
Mullings said these assessments are not “go or no-go gauges,” and the company is open to coaching people in deficit areas if they join the team.
At CoinFlip, a bitcoin ATM network, job candidates are evaluated with assessments from Criteria, which helps the company better understand employee personality, emotional intelligence, risk aversion and word processing.
“It’s a little bit of a hot topic in terms of what these assessments are and how they’re used to essentially choose who you’re going to hire, who you’re not going to hire. But, traditionally we look at it as a data point,” said Kris Dayrit, president and co-founder of CoinFlip. “We just want to make sure that they’re a good fit for not only the team but for the company. With that, not one thing excludes them from possibly being a candidate. We want to look at it as a big picture.”
ProQuo AI is a brand management platform that assesses 16 different drivers that make up people’s relationships with brands. ProQuoAI has started applying these drivers internally to evaluate its job candidates.
“The interesting thing about that, and why we’re able to apply it not only to brands but across our business, is because it’s built from a theory of social exchange,” said Brooke Dobson, head of partnerships and president of the Americas at ProQuo AI. “It can also be used to understand relationships between people within our organization, relationships between us and our clients, us and the people that we’re interviewing. You can apply that relationship framework.”
This is how the assessment works: Six to eight people evaluate a person across the 16 drivers with “agree” or “disagree” statements. Companies have different needs at different stages of a business, and the assessment helps the company fill in the gaps of missing competencies based on what the company needs at a given time, Dobson said.
“We’re trying to build a tapestry and fit in holes,” she said. “That’s so important to building our culture, that we’re not just finding carbon copies of the people that are already in our business, but that’s helping us to build a culture that is really diverse, not just in terms of people’s background, but also in terms of their personality traits and where they’ve come from and where they’ve been.”
How Much Weight Should These Assessments Carry?
Pretty much all personality assessment companies make it clear that these tests should not be the sole factor in whether or not a candidate continues in the evaluation process and is ultimately hired.
“It’s one piece of information that’s used in that process,” Myers said. “You use it to prioritize people and to ask better interview questions. You don’t use it to choose your top, highest scoring candidates. I think that’s a very bad way to use it.”
ProQuo AI said the 16 drivers account for about a third of the weight of its final hiring decisions. Candidates typically go through a four-step interview process, which includes a task interview presented to a group, and everyone involved in the entire process will evaluate the candidate on the 16 drivers.
At CoinFlip, Dayrit says the assessments just serve as a data point for consideration. He uses the tests to look for red flags, too — did the candidate even complete the test? Were they honest in their answers?
“I think it just puts a little more light on an individual on how they think and how they work with others,” Dayrit said. “It’s not a closed door when, let’s say, they don’t do well on it. Sometimes people just don’t do well on tests and just do better as they communicate.”
Lewis said the weight of these assessments often depends on whether a candidate is internal or external. The tests tend to have more weight with external candidates since the company will know less about them compared to internal candidates.
Best Practices for Administering Personality Tests
Generally, companies advise the earlier the better to administer personality tests in the job recruitment process. Personality tests can tell a lot about a person in a short amount of time, Lewis said.
“Personality testing is probably most effective when you don’t know anything about the person at all,” he said.
It’s important that those evaluating the assessments understand how they should be used and the processes behind how they work.
“I would say challenges are just making sure that your hiring managers are trained on proper use. If they’re trained on proper use, then they’ll know that you should never use that alone to make a decision. It’s always a piece of information in conjunction with other pieces of information,” Myers said.
“Personality testing is probably most effective when you don't know anything about the person at all.”
Myers adds that it’s important the company you work with for these tests has strong reliability and validity statistics and provides a manual. Plus, the assessment should allow you to follow candidates over time and make adjustments if you’re seeing any concerning patterns about who is ultimately being hired.
Strong assessments will also be built to show how consistently candidates are answering questions to prevent anyone from trying to “trick” the tests, Lewis said. Letting candidates know that the test will check verifiable biodata (for instance, age or years of employment) to measure accuracy can help yield honest answers, Myers said.
On top of that, to get candidates to give honest answers instead of trying to answer what they think the company wants to see, Mullings says to explain how the assessments will be used and the importance of getting accurate results. “It’s all on how you’re presenting in this part of the interview process,” he said.
Should You Use Personality Tests for Job Recruitment?
Personality tests can help narrow down a job candidate pool by providing data about a person that can’t be easily found in an initial application review.
“I think the most important things that can be learned are things around the ways that they’ll tend to behave in certain situations. The way that they like to receive feedback is another one,” Myers said. “I find it can be really useful beyond the simple hiring context for the learning and development context.”
Peters cautions though that people need to be conscious of any of their own biases that might be influencing how they evaluate job candidates.
“I think people need to be more aware of how their bias can affect how they recruit,” she said. “I think a personality test might weed good candidates out. It’s really limiting. It really eliminates opportunities for people that are different.”
As a learning company, Valamis doesn’t use personality tests for recruitment and has the belief it can help people gain competencies on the job, if they are motivated, Peters said. She also pointed out that since Valamis is an international company, personality tests aren’t particularly helpful with understanding the cultural differences between employees applying from different parts of the world.
“Hiring for a global team, culture affects personality,” Peters said. “Our headquarters is in Finland. That culture that shapes the personality has a very big difference with the U.S., even emotional responses like facial expressions. I struggle to think a personality test would address cultural differences.”
Personality assessments should not be used to try to hire people who are exactly like everyone else at the company.
“I think really making a very cohesive workplace, finding similar likes and also adding a variety of different personalities into that, will definitely bring more value,” Dayrit said. “It’s not all about putting everybody who’s the same together. It’s really about creating a diverse workplace where people can communicate and talk and really work together.”
Before deciding to add personality testing to your company’s recruitment process, research the assessments that would be the best fit for your company’s needs and come up with a clear plan on how the assessments will be used, in partnership with data scientists who can ensure the information you’re collecting is as unbiased and accurate as possible.