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Using Personality Tests: Believe or Beware?

Author: Dr. Randall H. Lucius, PhD.

Myth #1: Personality tests invite legal problems into the selection process.

The mere mention of the word “legal liability” or “lawsuit” is enough for some to break out in a cold sweat. Coupled with personality assessment, and it is easy to see why certain HR managers avoid such tools like the plague. This fear, however, is easily allayed once the facts are considered.

A recent research paper titled "Legal implications of personnel assessment: an analysis of court cases" (Finlinson, Chen, Tischner, Lyle & Popovich, 2001) found that only 87 court cases involving testing in the workplace have been filed between 1944 and 1998 "in which one or more tests played some role in the final court outcome" of the case. Out of these 87 cases, 20 of them involved a personality assessment (23%) in a selection context.

First of all, note that in a 54 year period of time, only 87 relevant cases were found involving assessment in the workplace. This alone is a very low number. When we consider that only 20 of these cases involved a personality test, it becomes clear that the chances of being sued for the use of a personality test are staggeringly low – about the same as being hit by an asteroid on your way to work. But for those who are still skeptical, let’s probe further into these 20 cases.

Of the 20 cases that involved a personality assessment, 18 of them involved the same test, the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a test for psychopathology. Psychopathology literally means “The study of the origin, development, and manifestations of mental or behavioral disorders.” This test was designed to help clinical psychologists and psychiatrists determine what sort of ailment a mentally disturbed patient might be suffering. The MMPI is useful for screening whether someone should be admitted to a mental hospital, and is not designed to screen or select applicants for a job. Several of the plaintiffs in these 20 cases did win, though not as many as you might expect: 8 out of these 20 cases ruled in favor of the plaintiff. Thus, even using a clearly inappropriate test, the chances of running into a lawsuit are very, very low.

The moral of this story is that as long as you use a job related test that is valid, meaning a relationship has been established between test scores and job performance, there is virtually no legal risk for using a personality assessment as part of your selection system. At least use a test that is face valid. Clearly questions like “I hear so well it bothers me” don’t appear to be related to performance on a job. Given the benefits a personality assessment can add to the process, the risk/reward ratio seems strongly in favor of their use.

Myth #2: Personality tests can be faked and are not useful for screening applicants.

At first glance, it is easy to see why this perception exists. Many personality tests have questions where there appears to be “right” answer that will help the respondent look “good”. Many experts agree that some applicants do indeed intentionally distort their responses, and that these responses alter test scores (McFarland, Wiechmann & Chandler, 2001).

But like many issues that appear simple on the surface, once you dig a little deeper, they are more complex. Some responses that may appear to have a “right” answer actually are the opposite of what they appear. This is because different jobs require different profiles to be effective. For example, some jobs may require someone who is highly agreeable, while other jobs actually require someone who is more critical, the polar opposite of agreeable. Most applicants do not know which end is desirable for the position, and respondents who intentionally distort their responses will end up pushing themselves outside of the desirable range for the position. The best policy for test respondents is to respond honestly, and most good measures clearly indicate this in the test’s instructions.

Even so, for those who continue to distort their responses, many tests have a built in “faking” scale or response distortion scale. Typically, these scales identify individuals who respond in a way that is designed to make them look very favorable – much more favorably than is realistic when compared to the US population. Most good tests have such a measure to help users determine whether an accurate judgment can be made based on the test-taker’s responses.

Finally, research has shown that just about all respondents tend to distort their responses to a small degree, and that this is actually “normal” (Ones & Barrick, 2001). When compared to how others view the respondent, those who are closely aligned with others’ perceptions often suffer from anxiety and low self-esteem. It seems a certain degree of “elevated” self-perceptions keeps individuals optimistic and confident in their abilities.

In regards to the validity of the test, most research has shown that there is little overall impact based on response distortion (Ones, Viswesvaran & Reiss, 1996). While the elevation of certain traits may be higher or lower than you would see in a non-applicant setting, the shape of the profile for a position often remains the same. For example, research in a non-applicant setting has shown that people who are Outgoing and Industrious are often effective as sales persons. An applicant setting will also show this to be the case, but this time effective people score as Very Outgoing and Very Industrious. The shape of the profile is the same, it is just elevated higher than in the non-applicant setting.

In summary, people do sometimes distort their responses to personality test questions, but this often does not hurt the usefulness of the test. What may appear to be a desirable response may work against the ideal profile for certain positions. Good tests often include instructions explaining that applicants should respond honestly, and include a response distortion scale to identify those that may be overly distorting their responses. The validity of a personality test is often not affected by response distortion, because the shape of the ideal profile tends to remain the same.

Myth #3: Personality is not well understood and cannot predict performance.

People who hold this opinion most often have been the victim of an invalid personality test. Certain personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the DISC, are very popular as development tools and have been used by thousands of employees to help with their leadership, team and/or interpersonal work style. However, when it comes to selecting employees for a job, these tools are often not effective, because they do not do a good job of actually predicting someone’s performance.

This is not the case with tests based on the Five Factor Model. Throughout the 1980's and continuing through the present, a plethora of personality researchers have established the Five-Factor Model as the basic paradigm for personality research. Four excellent summaries of this research tradition are Goldberg (1993), Digman (1996), John, Angleitner, & Ostendorf (1988), and McCrae (1992).

In the last 15 years there have been numerous studies which demonstrate that personality, as assessed through standardized instruments that tap into the Five Factor model, has a predictive relationship with job performance. Recent research has demonstrated that personality assessment contributes unique information to the prediction of job performance, over and above that offered by methods such as cognitive ability testing and managerial assessment centers (Sackett, Schmitt, Ellingson & Kabin, 2001; Goffin, Rothstein, & Johnston, 1996). Two widely cited meta-analyses (Barrick & Mount, 1991; Tett, Jackson, & Rothstein, 1991) present evidence from over 200 studies examining the personality-job performance link and conclude that, at the broadest level, conscientiousness is positively related to job performance across a majority of job types.

The predictive utility of personality assessment is enhanced when the personality profile for a specific job is studied, either based on the findings of previous research, rational analysis, or a thorough personality oriented job analysis (Raymark, Schmit, & Guion, 1997). Even more ideal is to study the personality profiles of high and low performers within a specific job, and create a custom norm. Different jobs demand different personality profiles (Hogan, 1996). For example, studies have shown that for sales jobs, extraversion and agreeableness are highly predictive of performance. For blue-collar workers conscientiousness and agreeableness show a positive relationship to job performance while extraversion and openness to experience are shown to be unrelated or in some cases negatively related to performance (Kierstead, 1998).

The five factor model has shed much light on the workings of personality, and in so doing has made it possible to predict the future performance of job applicants. Personality is better understood today than it ever has been, and advances in research continue to uncover more exciting discoveries that help us develop people and place people in jobs for which they are best suited.


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