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Let's Talk: Are Workplace Personality Tests Fair?

October 2, 2014

Everyone should read this article. It is an example of being able to take any topic and paint it as good or evil by selectively choosing data and quotes. A more honest title would have been - "Another Attempt to Discredit Personality Tests -This Time with an ADA Spin."

106533554A young man, Kyle Behm, was recently profiled in a WSJ article as a case study of all that’s wrong with pre-employment testing. Kyle, an engineering student, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder which is a condition classified under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He applied for a job at 6 retailers and was screened out based on personality test data collected in each hiring process. Instead of assuming that Kyle is a poor fit for retail and perhaps a better fit for, oh let’s see, something related to engineering, his father filed complaints with the EEOC.

Kyle looks nice in a suit. His dad loves him. God loves him. If he were my son, I would work tirelessly to help him. That does not mean he will be a good service worker at Lowe's or Home Depot or PetSmart. In fact, all of the scientifically validated tests he took say otherwise. At the core of this article is a belief that there must be something wrong with personality testing because Kyle didn’t land a retail job. Here is a simple truth – not every job is for every person. I would bet if we placed 100 engineers in retail jobs, many would be a poor fit. Some people do not function well in service jobs. That doesn’t make them inferior or crazy or weak. And it doesn’t make the hiring process wrong. Is it unreasonable to think that Kyle might be a stellar fit as an analyst but a poor fit as a service worker?

If the purpose of good journalism is to churn up controversy, then I tip my hat and bow. The fact is that there are simply no new revelations in this article. Attempting to discredit personality tests by pointing out that a nice, well-meaning applicant did not get a job is a tired, emotional argument devoid of logic, science, legal support and alternative solutions. In fact, all of the questions the authors raise about personality tests and fairness have been answered a hundred times over. They just chose to selectively ignore them or not research them.

Before digging into the unintended consequences of this article, let me state clearly that there are many well-constructed, significantly predictive, and legally defensible personality tests. They are used throughout the world in both the public and private sectors with highly positive results. They tap into important competencies such as work ethic, integrity, safety orientation, ability to work with others, and customer service. In terms of fairness, they have been proven to be some of the most fair, pre-employment tests on the market. Of course, there are “pop psychology,” non-predictive, personality tests that should not be used. This blog is referring to the many excellent personality tests that have robust construction and have strong, individual validation support for specific jobs.

So if the authors don’t like well-validated, legally defensible personality tests, what do they like – unstructured interviews? But those are known to have weak prediction and extreme bias in favor of highly articulate people. How about just using the application or resume? But applications are often inaccurate. People embellish resumes and leave out negative information. How about using nothing? No, that doesn’t solve the problem either because it doesn’t ensure all candidates get a fair shake. How about quotas? Just hire people and give them a chance.

479108401In reading this article, are we left to conclude that fairness equals quotas and random selection? Everybody gets a trophy - everybody gets hired and anything short of this goal is “unfair.” I’m being somewhat cynical but these “personality-bashing” articles come out every few years, and they are always poorly researched and never offer better solutions.

Is it possible that the authors believe that although you have to be very talented to write for the WSJ, anyone, regardless of job fit, can work at Kroger, Lowe's, RadioShack, McDonald's, Walgreens, etc.? If you have invested your life savings into buying a McDonald's franchise, I'm guessing you don’t want to hire just anyone. You want to use the most accurate tools to select the most qualified, dependable, service-oriented employees you can. In fact, the survival of your business depends on it. It is unfair to your employees, your customers, and all the people who depend on you to do anything less.

Let's again consider the issues of accuracy and fairness. It appears that Kyle's dad would have us setup a process that enables his son to get a job based on factors that are not necessarily job-related or predictive. Is it not the case that this approach is actually less fair because it adversely impacts the job candidates who are more qualified for the job?

Rather, a well-developed personality test is perhaps the fairest approach an organization can take in selecting new talent. They are predictive, they do not discriminate disproportionately against any protected class (including those with disabilities like Kyle's), and, most importantly, they help make sure the person who deserves the job the most, gets the job, whether or not they have fathers who were corporate attorneys.

I believe there are great jobs out there for future engineers like Kyle just like there are jobs for people with other significant challenges like autism. At Select International Inc., we are engaged in a major initiative to reveal the capabilities of young adults with autism and other similar conditions so they can market themselves to employers for the jobs for which they are best suited and have the greatest likelihood of success! We use many assessments (including personality) in a highly innovative gaming platform to help these wonderful people. It's also why Select International actively takes part in Disability Mentoring Day. It's a great program designed to promote career development for students and job-seekers with disabilities through hands-on career exploration and ongoing mentoring relationships.

Instead of painting the use of personality assessments with a highly negative, broad brush, I believe it would be more productive to discuss how robust personality assessments can be used creatively to even more accurately predict work success and to better match individuals to jobs.

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Kevin Klinvex Kevin Klinvex was a founding partner of Select International, acquired by PSI. He is a thought leader in organization-wide hiring and retention programs. His work focused on combining powerful testing and assessment tools with the best in web-based delivery and data tracking. Kevin co-authored the best-selling book, Hiring Great People.