At this very moment, as part of a hiring process, career counseling or professional development there is someone who is completing a personality test or assessment. I believe most people submit to this with the best of intentions. I also believe that those part of the personality test industry, are generally in pursuit of genuinely noble causes: matching prospective employees with companies; increasing self-awareness; improving skills along the course of one’s career.
That said, what are we to make of these personality tests? Under what circumstances should they be used and relied upon? For example, do they really give a prospective employer or manager a window into the soul of an individual? Are they fair—and who decides what is fair?
After more than 25 years in business and HR, I’ve arrived at a mixed verdict on personality tests. If personality tests were on trial in a real courtroom, my verdict would read: ‘acquitted’ on the count of fraud when used for personal development; but, ‘hung’ on the count of using them in employment decisions.
I fully believe in the importance of self-awareness. As I share in my new book, Tough As Nails: Finding Your Voice as a Woman in the Workplace, knowing oneself is vital to effectively operating in a tough work environment. That knowledge makes you far less susceptible to the whims and opinions of others. Personality tests help to shed light on who we are, what makes us tick, and what adjustments we may need to make in order to lead in a variety of settings.
And, since I’m on the topic of peering into the psyche of willing subjects, let me be the first to come clean: there was a time in my life where pulling back the veneer to better understand ‘self’ would have been too painful. I would’ve been skeptical of the entire process due to my unwillingness to be vulnerable. You see, as a young adult, I was an extreme introvert and burdened with insecurities. I wasn’t ready for deeper self-reflection. Now, as a mature business executive, I fully embrace this work and believe that it holds one of the keys to individual growth and development. I’m all in.
Well-researched personality tests can be incredibly insightful through a period of self-reflection and personal growth.
The only question remaining is, which tests are best designed to help you increase your self-awareness. The short answer is: do your own homework and don’t rest until you’re comfortable with the results. The longer answer is that there are a few which, in my opinion, do a good job of: helping you through this journey of self-discovery; improving your productivity; strengthening your ability to communicate; and increasing your overall effectiveness. They are, in no particular order:
Hung (on the count of using them in employment decisions)
Personality tests used to make hiring or advancement decisions, are issued at a particular point in time. That point and time just so happens to coincide with an individual’s state of mind when s/he is in the midst of making a major life transition. That leaves the testers with at least two potential challenges: honesty during test taking and, by extension, lack of predictability in future performance. While there are many individuals who will be honest while taking these tests (present company very much included), those two challenges have the potential to all but blow up the test’s reliability.
There are tests, however, that include attributes which adjust for these challenges, and are more likely to predict future performance. Among these attributes, according to this Harvard Business Review article are:—
The ability to measure traits which will not tend to change after a lengthy employment
The ability to apply comparisons between two candidates in order to determine which traits are more prevalent in one versus the other
The inclusion of content which detects lies, and
Proven high-reliability, particularly as it relates to test-retest reliability
The best tests, based upon my experience, have combined other measures which assess an individual’s cognitive and analytical skills.
Finally, I’d also recommend that both employees and employers approach these tests with a clear sense of the current context. This can help determine whether a test is the best tool to begin with. For example, during a business turnaround, assessing a candidate’s fit for the culture may be extremely ill-timed if the desired state has not yet crystallized.
In the final analysis, using these tests to make major employment decisions have the potential to add significant value—provided that they are: designed for predictability; integrate other cognitive/analytical measures and; administered within the right business climate or context.