The cult of personality tests

‘Ahem,” says your boss.

It’s a Monday morning, and there are bleary eyes and stifled yawns all around the conference table. The boss has called this meeting to introduce a new management tool.

”As you may know, the Zodiac 2005 system is the cutting edge in personnel selection, team building, and management development,” the boss is saying. He consults the official-looking report in his hand. ”Starting today, all Geminis will be reassigned to sales, which is what they naturally do best. Everyone who’s an Aries will receive a promotion, since their sign makes them born leaders. And we really need to add some Virgos to our team–no one else can keep the books so well.”

Sound far-fetched? Something not so different is going on in organizations all over the United States. Personality tests are increasingly popular as management tools, yet many of them are no better than astrology at describing character or predicting behavior. Though we may regard personality tests as harmless fun, or an annoying nuisance, in fact important decisions may hang on their results — making their widespread use deeply troubling.

Personality test as recruitment tool

Consumer Alert: The so-called Church of Scientology uses its own ‘personality test‘ as a recruitment tool.

Today personality testing is $400 million industry, one that’s expanding annually by nearly 10 percent. There are some 2,500 personality tests on the market (just one of them, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, is given to 2.5 million people each year and is used by 89 of the companies in the Fortune 100). In a 2003 survey of 1,149 executives, 30 percent reported that their companies used personality tests.

Many of these tests are given to prospective employees. People applying for jobs in retail, banking, or security-services industries, for example, are often asked to take an ”integrity” test — a personality test that claims to predict if they will lie, cheat, or steal on the job. These tests are administered by an estimated 6,000 US organizations and taken by as many as 5 million Americans each year. Personality tests are also given to employees already in the workplace, ostensibly to develop skills, improve communication, and promote teamwork.

The use of personality tests is growing despite decades of research casting doubt on their effectiveness. Scientists judge the worth of a test by two basic criteria: validity, which indicates that a test measures what it says it measures, and reliability, which indicates that a test delivers consistent results. Too often, personality tests fail on both counts. Many integrity tests, for example, simply aren’t valid: according to a review conducted by the federal government’s Office of Technology Assessment, 95.6 percent of people who fail integrity tests are incorrectly classified as dishonest.

Many personality tests also fall short of the other crucial benchmark, reliability. The Myers-Briggs, for example, claims to reveal to test takers their inborn, unchanging personality type, but in fact research shows that as many as three-quarters of test takers are assigned a different type when they take the Myers-Briggs again.

Faulty validity and reliability are just the beginning of the problems with personality tests. The questionnaires may also invade test takers’ privacy, inquiring into their beliefs about politics, law enforcement, drug use, and the behavior of corporations — queries that often have little or no bearing on the job that is to be done. Such tests are not seeking to understand an applicant’s personality so much as to ensure, or enforce, a cringing conformity. And while test takers are often told that ”there are no right or wrong answers” to these questions, in fact their answers could cost them a job.

The use of personality tests to assemble a uniformly conventional workforce can reach absurd heights, as with the group of executives who were told that they had six months to ”become” extroverted-intuitive-feeling-judgers, their company’s ”designated management type.” In many workplaces, employees are expected to know their own personality type, and those of their coworkers, by heart. But one popular personality-testing system, Management by Strengths, leaves nothing to chance: It divides workers into four categories — red (the ”direct” person); green (the ”extroverted” person); blue (the ”paced” person); and yellow (the ”structured” person) — and provides them with color-coded nametags announcing their type to everyone they meet.

At least these tests are of the banal sort that find something ”positive” to say about everyone who completes the questionnaire. Integrity tests, on the other hand, brand those who fail them liars or thieves. One such test, it’s advertised, will tell managers ”whether job applicants think like trusted employees or convicted felons.”

Another test provider’s website, Insight Worldwide, features a photograph of smiling people dressed in business attire, over which flashes the message: ”Which one physically hurt an employee? Which one faked an injury? Which one uses illegal drugs? Which one will be late for work? Which one stole $500 from their employer? We can tell you!” These sales pitches play on, and may even exacerbate, the distrust and suspicion already endemic in the workplace.

Another ethical complication of personality tests: many of them make it easy to cheat. A recent study found that as many as 88 percent of job applicants actually hired after taking a widely used personality test had intentionally manipulated their answers to make themselves look better. Personality tests thus present workers with a distasteful choice: engage in deliberate deception or lose an opportunity to someone who’s willing to do so.

Personality tests also present a dilemma to those employers who want to use them fairly and well. Many publishers of personality tests do not make public crucial information about how their tests were developed or how well they work, claiming that this information is ”proprietary.” For some personality tests, ”almost no evidence at all is available beyond assurances that evidence exists,” reported a task force appointed by the American Psychological Association. The task force also found that tests are often given by individuals without adequate preparation: more than half of integrity-test publishers, for example, do not require any training or other qualifications of people who administer their tests.

In addition to such lapses, all personality tests share a common flaw: an inability to account for the power of situation. Psychologists have known for many years that the situations we find ourselves in exert a very strong influence on the way we behave.

The kind of job we have, the particular employers and coworkers we work with, the general workplace environment we’re in all shape our actions in ways not captured by personality tests. Yet the tests’ promoters persist in making bold promises: to screen out those who will be chronically late or absent, who will have ”personal and/or transportation problems,” who will indulge in ”counterproductive behavior” or ”alienated attitudes.” They even claim to predict who will be injured in a job-related accident, file a fraudulent workers’ compensation claim, abuse drugs or alcohol, or engage in workplace violence.

Unless these tests can be proven to provide fair and accurate descriptions of personality, without invading privacy, deepening distrust, and issuing false promises, we might as well look to the stars instead.

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of ” The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves.”

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