27 September 2023

Applying for jobs? Here’s why some employers give personality tests

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Meg Watson* says personality tests in the recruitment process are nothing new, but they’re becoming a lot more common.

“Do you consider yourself an eccentric person?” This is one of a series of questions that stumped Bailey, 21, in a recent online job application.

He was applying for a job at a national retail chain, so Bailey was expecting to talk about times he’s dealt with customers or worked in a team.

Instead, he says, an online form asked about his eccentricity, his political views (“Would you consider them unusual?”) and what he does in his spare time.

“[It felt like] stuff that someone who runs a cash register doesn’t really need to be telling people,” Bailey says.

“It was like I had gone to a personality review website and decided to do a quiz.”

After completing the application, Bailey received an email.

It wasn’t a rejection or an invitation for an in-person interview.

The subject line read: “Your Personality Results”.

Bailey was sent a list of “insights” about his personality (gleaned from his answers to the questions) and some “coaching tips” too.

“It was like they were telling me how to be a better human being,” he says.

He hasn’t yet heard back about the job.

Why are workplaces doing personality tests?

If you haven’t encountered this before, it will probably sound kind of strange but, personality tests, as we know them, have actually been used in workplaces since the 1930s.

Today, personality testing is a multi-billion-dollar business — and these assessments are increasingly common in recruitment.

The goal? Social psychologist Nick Haslam says it’s about “trying to predict who will perform best in a particular job”.

“[Personality tests analyse our] consistent patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving,” he says.

And, importantly, good personality tests have “solid scientific evidence” behind them.

Professor Haslam says that decades of research in personality and organisational psychology has shown that some traits can indicate:

  • Who is more likely to be effective and successful at work
  • Who is less likely to engage in undesirable workplace behaviour
  • Who is likely to be most suitable for particular kinds of roles (like a sales job or a leadership position)

How do the tests work?

There are all sorts of tests out there and companies and consultants often like to put their own spins on them.

But Jesse Olsen, a senior lecturer in management at the University of Melbourne, says the best assessments are based on a model called the Big Five personality test.

“It tests for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (or emotional stability),” he says.

“You have to indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree with certain statements.

“For extraversion it will be something like, ‘I am the life of the party’.

“Or for a consciousness item it might say, ‘I’m very organised.’”

Companies then assign value to these traits, depending on the research about each and also the role being offered.

Professor Haslam agrees this is the most reliable kind of test but he says a lot of workplaces use things like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) instead, which is very “problematic”.

The Myers & Briggs Foundation, which invented that test, explicitly states, “It is unethical and, in many cases illegal, to require job applicants to take the [MBTI] if the results will be used to screen-out applicants”.

“All [16 categorised types of people] are valuable,” the foundation says.

“No type is better, healthier, or more desirable in any way.”

So what is an “ethical” approach when it comes to personality testing?

Criticisms and potential problems

Experts are divided on how and when even the “good” personality tests should be used in workplaces.

“In general, I would not use a personality test for [hiring] selection,” Dr Olsen says.

This is because our behaviour isn’t just shaped by our personality, he explains.

Our learned skills and situational context are also important.

For example: “Even if you’re naturally not that extroverted — you don’t spend your spare time going out partying or socialising — you can still be really good at interpersonal stuff.”

Dr Olsen thinks it’s better to judge applicants on their skills (using a resume) and their observed behaviour (in a structured job interview).

“Some people will say, ‘Well, why not use personality tests in conjunction with those things?’

“But I think it can make a bit too much noise.”

It can be tempting, he says, to neatly sort people into categories, without seeing the full picture.

Dr Olsen also says personality tests have the potential to discriminate against people with psychological issues or disabilities.

There has been a lot of discussion about this in the US recently.

In the past decade, a number of companies have been sued over personality tests that included questions about communication skills and mood.

This raises questions about how much information an employer has a right to and what attributes are actually relevant to the job.

As Lydia X. Z. Brown from the American Center for Democracy and Technology recently asked, “Do you have to be optimistic to stock shelves at [a store] or file papers away in an office?

“Optimism and positivity are personality traits for which I’d undoubtedly score low, as a person who has depression and anxiety.”

On the flip side, Professor Haslam points out these tests are arguably “less biased” than other recruitment methods in some respects.

“A personality test won’t judge you based on how you look, your gender or ethnicity, or the school you went to,” he says.

‘It’s starting to get exhausting’

For Bailey, these tests are just one more “exhausting” hurdle to jump in pursuit of an entry-level job.

“Some places want an extensive cover letter. Others want certain examples of things you can do.

“And every time you do it you’re asked so much, you send it out … and then nothing happens,” he says.

“You put all these applications out there and don’t hear a single word back.”

It can be pretty demoralising, especially when you’re just starting out.

Whether they help recruitment or not, personality tests can make it feel a little more … personal.

“I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if I was not financially stable, or even mentally stable, answering these questions all the time,” Bailey says.

*Meg Watson is a journalist at ABC Everyday

This article first appeared at abc.net.au.

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