Are Personality Tests Actually Useful in the Workplace?
Tamara Sykes first took a personality test two years ago, when she was applying for a digital marketing role at a national organization. Sykes had gone through the first interview, and was told she was one of the top five candidates for the position. The interviewer positioned the personality test as “the last step of the process,” said Sykes, now in public relations at Postali, a digital marketing firm based in Columbus, Ohio. “I thought it would be a chance to show my strengths and why I was the best fit for the role,” Sykes said.
She took the test, and waited for the results. And then waited some more. Two weeks later, the company called not with the results, but to tell Sykes that someone else had landed the job. She has no idea how, or even if, the test results affected her candidacy. “They never said, ‘this is what we’re looking for, this is why we’re having you take a personality test,’” she said. Sykes, who was heavily searching for a job at the time, at first took the rejection personally, but no longer does. “Maybe something in there made them think I wasn’t the best fit for the role,” she said.
What is personality testing?
Her experience encompasses a bunch of what’s true about workplace personality tests. Employers administer them frequently, whether it’s during the interview process or after someone’s been hired. Many times, candidates or even employees never see the results of the test. And many times, that void of information leaves job candidates feeling a bit confused: Was it something they said?
What the Assessments Are Really After
Personality assessments enjoy a long history, from astrology to phrenology (the reading of bumps on the head) to present-day tools such as the Enneagram, WonScore, Culture Index, and StrengthsFinder. “The name is a bit misleading, as, at their core, these tests aim to identify how personality traits, be they assertiveness, optimism, extroversion or introversion, and the like, will manifest in workplace behavior,” said Laura Crandall, an executive coach and management consultant based in the Boston area. “That’s really what companies are looking for — how you are likely to behave,” Crandall said. “When we think about personality, we think about personality traits, and the tests try to indicate the traits will show up in your behavior,” she said.
The tricky thing about personality tests? They’re not crystal balls. “They’re just lenses,” Crandall said. “If you’re going to use them, they need to be reliable and valid.”
Reliable and valid tests can help predict job fit as well as job success. A profile, for instance, can predict whether a job candidate is an extrovert or introvert. An introvert might do well initially in a high-touch sales job, but, over time, the stress of working in a job that doesn’t take advantage of one’s natural inclinations could lead to stress and job burnout.
“We do know that stress over time yields poor performance,” Crandall said. The best personality assessments, she added, “help see how good of a match you are for a job and how good a match it is for you.” They can also help balance teams, for instance one heavily weighted to a single personality characteristic. Adding someone with a different set of traits could very well complement the team, bust it out of a rut, and result in better work, Crandall said. Overall, she’s a fan of the instruments: “I love a good assessment,” she said.
Not Michele Olivier. Earlier in her career, Olivier worked for a global recruitment company that believed strongly in the power of personality assessments, especially as a tool to bulk-screen candidates. At one point, Olivier was instructed to supply return-on-investment figures for tests the company had been using. “I thought that was a really good question,” said Olivier, now a management consultant based in Ohio. She and her team started looking, but found nothing. “There was no perceivable ROI,” she recalled, “and we fed that back up the food chain.” She was then asked to find a test that would deliver quantifiable return on investment. Once again, “we could not find anything that was actually genuinely scientifically sustainable,” Olivier said.
That’s one reason why Olivier is not a fan of personality assessments. Another is that the person is evaluating themself. “It’s self-reported data, which is always exceedingly problematic,” Olivier said.
Olivier understands why firms want to use assessments — to try to perfect hiring, a process that remains as much of an art as a science. “I desperately want to love these tests because I personally think that resumes and interviews are terrible,” she said. “I applaud any organization trying to find a better plan.”
Another Tool in the Hiring Toolbox
Serial entrepreneur Rob Nickell began using Culture Index, a personality assessment used to recruit, hire, and manage people, precisely to become better at hiring. “Staffing and getting the right people in place has been a focus of mine ever since I’ve been trying to grow and build the first company I ever started,” said Nickell, co-founder and CEO at Rocket Station, a Dallas-based virtual business-services firm with 800 employees. “Like most people, I failed miserably at that process for a really long time.”
When he was first starting companies — Rocket Station is his fourth — Nickell used an array of tests sporadically, “mostly just to confirm and justify my thought process,” he said. In 2017, after Nickell saw a presentation from Culture Index, Rocket Station began using the assessment to sort through job candidates and efficiently manage people once they’re hired. The assessment displays columns of qualities (“resolute,” “determined,” “anxious,” “careful,” “adventurous,” to list a few). Candidates are told to select the adjectives that best describe them, and then select those that describe the qualities they must possess to do their jobs. The test takes about 10 minutes, and job applicants complete it before the job interview.
Nickell and his management team took the assessment; the results, along with some coaching from the Culture Index consultant, help Nickell manage more effectively and help the team work together more efficiently. “By having everyone understand the process and each other’s profiles, you have more empathy and better communication,” he said. The empathy, he added, helped him manage the company better through the pandemic, as he understood how to manage the different reactions (fear from some, excitement from others) among his employees.
Rocket Station gets 4,000 job applications a month. Nickell said the test helps narrow to 1,000 the number of people who will move on through the application process. (Two percent of applicants are eventually hired.) Because it works as a screening tool, the assessment helps Rocket Station hire better and also saves money. Nickell said the cost to use Culture Index runs in the five figures, and the savings run into the millions. Its efficacy, he added, lies not only in the test but the support surrounding the test. Rocket Station’s Culture Index consultant helps HR write job descriptions and helps customize the assessment according to job function. “I wouldn’t get rid of the program for anything,” Nickell said.
What does all of this add up to? Personality assessments are a tool, and their value lies in how they are used.
“When we’re hiring someone, we’re trying to get a sense of whether this person will be a good employee and if they’ll fit the culture of the organization,” said Ann Marie Ryan, a professor of organizational psychology at Michigan State University. “The more aspects of a person we can look at that are job-relevant, the more likely it is we’ll do a little better in job screening,” she said. “Personality assessments can be another piece in that toolkit.”