Personality Testing Means Business
In a nutshell, employers are trying to anticipate why you do what you do at work. That’s the reason you may be required to take a personality test before being granted an interview or offered a job.
An integrity test may or may not be part of the personality assessment. Here’s what each measures:
- Employment personality tests measure choice, preference, values, behavior, decisions, attitudes, and job-related interests.
- Integrity tests rate honesty, responsibility, and reliability for the job.
Test development expert Dr. Williams throws more light on the overall reason personality tests have become a favored business-assessment tool:
“Employers administer personality and integrity tests because they try to avoid making a bad hire, which means they want to know as much about a potential employee as possible.”
How many companies require job candidates to take personality tests? Estimates are all over the place, currently topping out at 40 percent. Despite sketchy data, the personality-discovery star is rising. Don’t be surprised if you face an online employment personality test in your not-too-distant future.
What You May Not Know about Personality Tests
To borrow from an anonymous saying, “If you can stay calm, while all around you is chaos in the pressure of a pre-employment personality test, then you probably haven’t completely understood the seriousness of the situation.” Personality tests, love ’em or loathe ’em, guard the gateways to your future.
A rundown of six important things to understand about your future encounters with personality tests follows.
Asking questions before the test
Although you can’t blow off a request to sit for an employment test and get hired, you can ask a few questions to spread a small safety net under your candidacy. Try these feelers:
- I read about a rash of lawsuits over hyperintrusive personality tests that originally were developed to spot mental illness, such as The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and its knock-offs. Can you tell me the name of the test I’ll be taking, whether the test provider has been involved in any legal challenges of the test, and, if so, what was the outcome?
- What kind of test(s) are you asking me to take? Personality, integrity, performance, or other? What is the title of the test?
- Have you done a formal validity study to determine whether the test actually predicts job performance?
- Can I get any feedback regarding test results? How about areas I didn’t do well in? At least I’ll know what areas need improvement.
- Will I still be considered for the job if I don’t do well on the test?
Expect to hear “no” more often than “yes” to these questions, but any one of them is worth a try. If the interviewer is dismissive, at least you’ll know the kind of company you’re dealing with — if you think they’re tough now, wait until you’re hired and the honeymoon is over.
Anyone can write a personality test, but is it validated?
Would you be surprised to learn that literally anyone can author a personality test? It’s true, and virtually anyone does, from creative homemaker and college psych major, to advertising writer and company hiring manager. From their fertile minds come questions such as these:
- Do you prefer riding in a car to riding a motorcycle?
- Can a white drummer kick with a black band?
- Do you sometimes get bored, or do you always find life interesting?
Yes, anyone can write the questions, add up the answers, and declare statements about what they mean. The problem is that, without basing the items on a strong theory of performance — and doing validation research to compare test scores to job performance — the statements are virtually meaningless.
To prove valuable, psychometric tests must be statistically validated. Valid means the test works. Validation studies involve giving the test to hundreds of people and statistically comparing their scores to job performance. You need testing on enough people over enough time to give users confidence that the tests actually predict what the test-makers claim — that they work as advertised.
“Once a company knows what it wants to measure and has chosen a legitimate hiring test, the company studies its own employees to prove test scores are associated with job performance, turnover, training, or other essentials of a successful organization before judging the test to be validated,” Dr. Williams explains.
That’s why psychometrically trained professionals are assigned to identify the kinds of psychological traits that lead to the selection of an achieving, profitable workforce. Statistically supportable personality tests typically are written by experienced professionals who take courses in statistics and test design and hold doctorates in some aspect of applied psychology.
Personality test scores are self-reports. They represent how someone wants to be seen by the world. Scores on personality tests have almost no relationship to actual skills.
Finding out what a test measures
If you can discover the title of the personality test you’ll be taking, you may be able to identify the traits measured by the test. In pursuing a test chase, look for test reviews published by the Buros Institute of Mental Measurements at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, a gateway for serious and validated testing information.
Be sure to read the FAQs on the Buros website (www.unl.edu/buros) to learn about
- Locating tests in Buros’s Mental Measurements Yearbook, a regularly updated reference containing test reviews. It’s available to read free in many large public and university libraries.
- Accessing Tests in Print, a bibliography of commercially available tests in the English language.
- Using Test Reviews Online, a service that provides access to the same test reviews that appear in the Mental Measurement Yearbook series. You can download each test for a modest fee.
Most popular general traits
When you have no inclination or time to do a test chase, don’t give up — Dr. Williams has your back. The widely quoted industrial psychologist reports university research showing that only about three general personality traits are associated with job performance:
- Conscientiousness about the job
- Ability to get along with people
Of the Big Five personality traits (which may go by different names, depending on whom you talk to), Dr. Williams says these three traits are most commonly associated with good job performance:
- Neuroticism (low)
Expressed another way, good workers care about their work, get along with others, and are emotionally stable.
Who’s most likely to use tests
High-level executives in any industry rarely are asked to undergo a personality test. Government agencies typically use their own tests and assessments.
Nonmanufacturing businesses tend to use personality tests more than do manufacturing industries. Examples of nonmanufacturing businesses include retailers, banks, utilities, insurance companies, staffing agencies, and communications corporations. Integrity tests are prevalent in jobs involving money, public safety, or merchandise — especially in entry-level positions.
Your civil rights in testing
When gauging job candidates, using personality tests that weren’t specifically designed for hiring has led to lawsuits. Usually employers have been on the losing end because the tests were ruled invalid, invasive, or discriminatory.
You have the following rights when it comes to testing:
- You have a right not to be subjected to wanton invasion of privacy with intrusions into non-job-related areas such as your sex life, religious beliefs, and political views.
- You have a right to expect compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits requiring medical examinations before you get a job offer.
- You have a right not to be subjected to a test that has a “disparate impact” on a protected class of people, such as certain racial or ethnic groups.
If you think your rights may have been violated by a personality or integrity test, research the topic online (browse for “personality test civil rights”) or consult an employment lawyer.
Peeking into privacy issues
“Personality tests need to be handled like confidential medical records,” observes Anne Hart, senior author of Employment Personality Tests Decoded (Career Press).
“Find out whether test results are given to your health insurance company along with medical information. Psychological testing, like medical exams, should not be stored in open-ended databases in your employer’s human resources department,” Hart adds.
What if you’re not hired — how long will your records be kept at the employer’s office and/or at the vendor testing company? I asked a legal expert in preemployment testing about that issue.
“Testing companies should be willing to discuss their records and security procedures with candidates,” noted eminent employment attorney Joseph Schmitt at the Halleland Lewis Nilan & Johnson firm in Minneapolis. “Reputable testing firms won’t be offended if you ask about confidentiality, and should be able to detail their security procedures upon request.”
But Schmitt explains that the tests legally can’t be destroyed overnight: “Candidates should be aware that their records will be retained for a minimum of one year (two years in California) under federal and state regulations regarding retention of hiring records. You may wish to ask when records are destroyed, and for a confirmation that your records are deleted after the records retention period has expired.”
You certainly don’t want your test results whizzing around the Internet. Underscoring the serious need to protect test score privacy, reports of irreparable damage to someone’s reputation surface too often. The reports are caused by accidental or malicious posting of another person’s personal information online. Even if your records are online for just minutes, they can be copied and distributed around the world for employers to read. You can never be 100% certain that an online image has been killed off.
Making the Grade on Job Tests
Conventional wisdom advises that you get a good night’s sleep, be truthful in all your answers, and relax and enjoy a personality test that the interviewer says is standard operating procedure.
About the kicked-back mindset, at least, conventional wisdom is wrong. Instead, consider the flower vendor who sells her basket of posies by arranging the freshest pieces on the top. If you want cash for your flowers, learn how to display your best blooms.
In the following sections, I give you tips for displaying your best blooms (traits) in a personality test, tips that I gathered from the four corners of the testing industry.
Visualize yourself fitting in
Based on your research of the company, imagine the ideal candidate. How would that paragon of virtue think? When you hit a wall with a weird question, your fallback position is to try to answer as the ideal candidate/perfect employee.
Obviously, answering as the ideal candidate/perfect employee isn’t easy. You need to guess what the paragon is like. (Hint: Review video clips featuring employees on the company website.) How much and what kind of personality characteristics are you being compared to?
When in doubt, position yourself as a person of moderation in the mainstream of contemporary thought. Test administrators tend to grade unconventional beliefs as potential trouble.
Company managers prefer to hire people like themselves. Although similarly minded employees don’t always do better, a personality kinship gives managers a warm, fuzzy feeling by knowing that everyone looks and talks alike — at least in spirit.
Watch for combination tests
Many tests are combinations of several types of test questions. Even if the first ten questions ask about your personality traits, stay alert for questions about your aptitudes (such as potential for leadership or creativity) or abilities, or your integrity (such as lying). These questions may require greater concentration to answer in ways that will help you.
Beware of absolutes
Watch out for absolutes like always, ever, and never. For example, saying you never took more than your share of things in your life may paint you as goody-two-shoes who can’t be trusted. For most questions, answer in the middle of the range. But answer integrity questions with full agreement that honesty is the best policy.
Choose answers suggesting positive traits
Try to select answers that put you in the most positive light. Examples of favored characteristics include
- Achievement oriented
- Emotionally stable
- Good communicator
- Intellectually curious
- Open to new experiences
Avoid answers suggesting negative traits
Stay away from answers that show you in a less-than-stellar light. Examples of negative characteristics to avoid implying include
- Acceptance of fraud, as in filing a fraudulent worker’s compensation claim
- Disregard for rules
- Emotional dysfunction
- Illegal drug use
- Inability to function under stressful conditions
- Lack of self-worth
- No opposition to stirring up legal trouble
- Poor impulse control
- Predisposition for negative interpersonal relationships
- Propensity for interpersonal conflicts
- Tendency to be tense or suspicious
- Tendency toward time theft (sick leave abuse, tardiness)
Be alert to replayed questions
Some tests ask virtually the same question on page one, page three, and page ten. The test is trying to catch inconsistencies — figuring you forgot a lie you told 30 questions ago. If possible, read through the test before you start. Cosistency counts.
Anticipate integrity test questions
Integrity questioning may be part of a personality test or a separate test.
A lie scale measures the position of a test answer on a gamut from lie to truth. The scale functions as a kind of lie detector by looking for unexpected answers or unusual response patterns.
But even if you’re as truthful as Honest Abe, people under pressure of testing sometimes give questionable answers. For example, if you’re asked to estimate the percentage of workers who steal from their employers, make a low guess. A high guess may be interpreted to mean you think employee theft is common and, therefore, acceptable.
Most integrity questions are fashioned for entry-level or midlevel workers who have access to merchandise or trade secrets, or for financial workers who handle money.
Take practice personality tests
Ready yourself for employment personality tests by working through a few practice questions and tests. Review free practice tests on www.outofservice.com and other websites. Find the others by browsing online for “employment personality tests.”
Free online tests are for educational purposes only and are not intended to be the Real Deal. Genuine employment personality tests and their answer keys are kept under lock and key.
Sample Personality Questions
Questions on all types of tests may require uncomfortable yes/no answers. (Following the questions, I interpret their meaning in parentheses.) Here are some examples:
- Do you believe that children or spouses are far more important than anything?
(Will your family life interfere with your job?)
- Do you exercise regularly?
(Are you likely to be a high risk for health insurance?)
- I would like to be a florist.
(Are your interests suited to this field?)
- I still maintain close contact with friends from high school.
(Do you get along with people for long periods of time?)
- I have thought of trying to get even with someone who hurt me.
(Are you vindictive, or can you put hurts behind you?)
Some questions require specific answers rather than yes or no:
- How often do you make your bed?
(Do you clean up after yourself? Are you obsessive about
- On average, how often during the week do you go to parties?
(Will you frequently come to work hung over?)
- Describe how you see work.
(Do you see work as mandatory or as a way to obtain rewards?)
Concerned That You Didn’t Do Well?
The stark truth is that you can’t really do much about a test score when you mess up. Busy employers are focused on finding the right people to hire, not on helping those who are among the unchosen.
“Do-overs are rare,” explains Dr. Williams. “Regardless of what you say or do, most hiring managers have a die-hard perception of their favorite personality profiles. If you don’t fit their molds, you seldom get a second chance. In the final analysis, testing is a roll of the dice for the unwary and quicksand for the uneducated.”
Keep On Keeping On
When you’ve taken a personality test but you weren’t invited to an interview, soldier on to your next opportunity. The way to win employment is to keep applying for more jobs.
And remember the words of our old friend Anonymous: “If at first you do succeed, try to hide your astonishment.”