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Personality Tests

​Personality tests are not new. But the proliferation of easy-to-administer web-based testing services has made personality tests more ubiquitous. Are they right for your organization? You need to consider both the potential benefits and the possible legal risks.

Useful or Not?

An applicant may be highly skilled at answering interview questions and securing a job. But what if, when it comes to actually performing the work, it becomes clear that he or she is not a good fit? By the time you make this determination, you've devoted a lot of resources that can't be salvaged and you still have to find someone who can do the job and work well with your existing staff.

Personality testing is intended to help prevent this type of situation. If you decide to try personality testing, the test might include questions similar to these:

Would you describe yourself as a self-starter?

Would you say you are subject to many mood changes?

Which do you find to be more motivating, additional time off or the possibility of promotion?

Would it bother you if you were asked to help a fellow employee get up-to-speed on a task?

The personality testing industry is experiencing growth between 10 percent and 15 percent annually, according to personality test provider Hogan Assessment Systems. That boom suggests that many employers have found it useful. Yet a management professor and organizational psychologist at Michigan State University told The Wall Street Journal that while "it's intuitively appealing to managers that personality matters, [the link is] much lower than the field has led us to believe."

You will have to make your own determination as to whether personality testing will be useful to your organization.

When to Test

If you do give personality testing -- also commonly referred to as "behavioral assessment" -- a try, after you've checked out competing testing services and chosen one, the first decision you'll need to make is when to conduct the test, before or after the in-person interview. There is no universal right answer.

In principle, the advantages of having the job candidate take the test before the interview are, 1) if the test delivers a strong negative result, you can decide to end the process and skip the interview, and 2) the test might give you issues to explore with the job candidate in the interview.

The case for having the job candidate take the test after the interview is that you can conduct the interview without being prejudiced by the test results and then use the results simply to cast additional light on insights gained from the interview.

Regardless of the sequence, be mindful of using the test in a way that may give rise to a

discrimination charge.

"If a person's results are affected by the fact that they have an impairment and the results are used to exclude the person from a job, the employer needs to defend their use of the test even if the test was lawful and administered correctly," Christopher Kuczynski, an attorney, summarized the position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

For example, a test could "flunk" some candidates with mental health problems such as bipolar disorder and clinical depression -- conditions that could be deemed to be disabilities.

EEOC Weighs In

You should know the use of personality tests can come with some legal risks. If used improperly, you could be hit with discrimination claims and enforcement action from the EEOC. The EEOC has published more detailed recommendations for how to use the personality test in a nondiscriminatory way:

  • Administer tests without regard to race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age (40 or older) or disability.

  • Ensure that tests and other selection procedures are properly validated for the positions and purposes for which they are used. The test or selection procedure must be job-related and its results appropriate for the employer's purpose. While a test vendor's documentation supporting the validity of a test may be helpful, the employer is still responsible for ensuring that its tests are valid under the EEOC "Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures."

  • If a selection procedure screens out a "protected group" (that is, the classification categories listed in the first bullet point), you need to determine whether there is an equally effective alternative selection procedure that has less adverse impact and, if so, adopt the alternative procedure. For example, if the selection procedure is a test, the employer should determine whether another test would predict job performance but not disproportionately exclude the protected group.

  • To ensure that a test or selection procedure remains predictive of success in a job, you should keep abreast of changes in job requirements and should update the test specifications or selection procedures accordingly.

The EEOC also states that you "should ensure that tests and selection procedures are not adopted casually by managers who know little about these processes."

A personality test "can be an effective management tool," the EEOC concedes, but adds the following caveat: "No test or selection procedure should be implemented without an understanding of its effectiveness and limitations for the organization, its appropriateness for a specific job, and whether it can be appropriately administered and scored."

Regulatory considerations aside, keep in mind that if you use a test that's very long and cumbersome, you risk making strong job candidates think twice about coming on board. That's because the test could convey the impression that you have an overly intrusive management style.

To Test or Not to Test?

If hiring remorse has been a serious problem in your organization, personality testing might provide the missing information you need to minimize regret and maximize success. Clearly this is a decision to weigh carefully with the help of your employment law attorney.

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