THE BLOG
01/07/2015 12:41 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

Misperceptions in Using Personality Assessments for Hiring

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A recent article in the Wall Street Journal raised concerns about the effectiveness and fairness of personality testing as part of the hiring process. Personality and behavioral assessments are used to predict job performance in many companies. The author cited a number of examples of items pulled from unnamed assessments that ask about moods, thoughts and feelings and then interpreted these items as being able to screen out otherwise qualified applicants who have a mental disability. However research shows that personality assessments provide valuable data for both selection and development of talent. These tools are especially powerful when designed for specific workplace applications and administered by a qualified professional. Crucial to understanding this topic are several key distinctions, including the definition of a job requirement and distinguishing between mental health and workplace personality assessments.

Individuals with a mental disability are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as long as the individual can perform the essential duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. It is critical that employers define essential duties in a meaningful way relative to job outcomes. A cashier may have an essential duty of making change, but being friendly and helpful to customers is equally essential to customer retention. There are legitimate examples of interpersonal and emotional "labor" that are necessary to deliver the employer's service correctly. For example, flight attendants cannot yell out in dismay at an air pocket and still deliver effective service. Employers have to take the time to define both the hard and soft "essential duties" that lead to a high performance organization.

A second distinction, cited in a Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology (SIOP) response to the article, is that personality is typically one of several elements of a workplace assessment. Cognitive ability, typing, physical ability and other job qualifications all can contribute to effective job performance depending on the job. In developing a selection battery that maximizes the predictive power of assessments, a number of types of tools can be used to measure specific key knowledge, skills and abilities. Workplace personality is only one component. Beyond assessment tools, interviews and experience/education requirements are also key components of a job relevant selection process. The goal of a selection process is to identify the best candidates within a pool of qualified applicants by measuring whatever knowledge, skills and attributes separate strong from weak performers.

A third distinction is that instruments designed to diagnose mental illnesses, which fall under ADA, are different than instruments designed to measure workplace behaviors. This purpose cannot always be determined by examining individual items; the test manual and output are good places to begin a review. Assessments of workplace personality or behaviors are designed to assess behaviors that fall within a normal range of mental health. The article also describes personality assessments as having only a small relationship to job performance. The article makes this point to suggest that the value of personality-based assessments to employers is overshadowed by the possibility of unfair outcomes. However, the validity of assessments varies widely and is related to both how well the assessment measures what it intends to measure and also how well defined the key qualifications and attributes are in relation to job performance. The utility of selection assessments is well documented across a broad range of studies. These assessments, when used properly, help companies reduce costs associated with turnover, low engagement and poor performance. The best path to a high return on investment is to follow professional guidelines not to abandon testing.

SIOP also reinforces several key distinctions relevant to these concerns. Responsible employers use job analysis and validity studies to determine what characteristics or competencies are critical to successfully performing a particular role. Workplace assessments do not identify mental health disorders but measure specific traits which are known to predict job performance. Traits like conscientiousness predict many roles. Some jobs require detail orientation and other jobs require compassion to be effectively performed.

Working with an I/O Practitioner will ensure that the organization is building a diverse workforce which can successful deliver the value that the job brings to the company's bottom line. There are also assessments that identify probable counter productive workplace behaviors such as high risk taking or the tendency to be interpersonally aggressive. Even these assessments are identifying tendencies within the range of normal behaviors. These assessments do not identify mental health or personality disorders. In using these types of assessments, a selection testing expert will ensure that only behaviors important to job performance are assessed. To be classified as having a disability, there must be impairment in one or more life areas. These assessments cannot determine that there is a mental health diagnosis and they cannot determine if there are any life impairments present.

Personality based assessments give employers the utility of profiling individuals in a cost efficient manner to determine fit within the organization. Because assessments have grown to be a $400 million industry, there are many new assessments flooding the market place. Some of these are poorly constructed. Some of these end up being used inappropriately. There are also many homegrown assessments that are based on stereotypes of personality or built on insufficient scientific evidence. In contrast, professionally constructed, validated measures are useful predictors and can often be generalized across jobs with similar requirements.

Understanding the behavioral tendencies of job candidates often provides a valuable tool in the selection process. Organizations that use assessment in part to impact turnover, level of engagement and culture fit rely on the financial value these assessments deliver in the form of a high performance workforce. Companies have an obligation to their customers and shareholders to allocate dollars spent on building the workforce in an effective way. Many companies embrace the philosophy that a key to an effective workforce is inclusion of diversity in all of its forms. It is certainly possible to achieve a diverse, engaged and talented workforce with appropriately chosen and validated selection tools. As all Goldman Sachs 10,000- small business alums know, it is important that business owners have the full picture, because nothing is more important to a successful business than hiring the right team.

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.