How (Not) to Use Personality Profiles to Assess Job Applicants

The talent assessment industry is growing to $5 billion a year by 2020, and currently growing at a rate of 10-12% per year.  The rapid growth of this market is due to the fact that, to most hiring managers, the promise of ‘personality profiling’ is alluring: give the job candidate the magic assessment, and you’ll know with certainty whether or not the person is a good fit for your company.  As an added bonus, hiring based on a personality profile requires very little time investment on your part as a manager.  

What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, it turns out.  While personality profiling can yield tangible benefits when assessing job applicants, it’s far from the silver bullet that most managers (and vendors, frankly) are making them out to be.  Furthermore, the incorrect use of personality profiling can land your company in court for a whole host of reasons.  I highly recommend using personality profiling as part of a multi-measure hiring process, but they have to be deployed correctly.

Here are three concepts to keep in mind when incorporating personality profiling into your hiring process:

It’s illegal to use personality profiles alone to make hiring decisions.  The market is awash in “four quadrant personality profiles” like DiSC and the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  In these assessments, candidates are typically asked to self-analyze themselves across a variety of questions or statements.  These self-ratings are then displayed back in the form of a “personality type,” with corresponding analysis regarding the workplace tendencies and behaviors associated with that type.

These assessments are useful tools for helping a manager better understand the way in which a particular candidate will likely work, but should never be used to make hiring decisions.  Personality assessments like these exhibit significant psychometric deficiencies, including poor validity (i.e. not measuring what it purports to measure) and poor reliability (giving different results for the same person on different occasions).  Therefore, when you use a personality assessment as the sole basis for a hiring decision, you are opening yourself up to substantial legal liability.

The assessment that you use must be job-related to be usable in employment decisions.  If you’re going to use assessments for employee selection, those assessments must be job related.  Consider the following two questions:

  1. Is Adam an extrovert, or an introvert?
  2. Does Adam possess the skills and competencies required to produce the desired outcomes in this position?

The first question is an example of the type of information that a personality profile will give you regarding a job candidate:  Adam is an extrovert; he is energized by being around other human beings.  Does that tell me anything at all about his ability to perform well in the role?  Not at all.

The second question’s efficacy is self-evident. You’re probably thinking, “Of course that’s the right question to ask! If I could answer that questions reliably, then I would have to worry about personality profiling in the first place.”  Well, exactly.  That’s my whole point: there is no such thing as a personality profile that tells you whether or not the candidate can do the job.  Personality profiles can inform you as to personality, but personality itself has not been shown to be a reliable indicator of job-specific success.  

The differences between these two items are quite obvious, but I see managers make this avoidable mistake on a daily basis, and it’s an expensive mistake to make. Target was hammered for a massive settlement for using assessments improperly. Grocery giant Kroger faced a similar lawsuit.

The only statistically valid and predictable approach to assessing job candidates is through a multi-measure approach.  Harvard Business School published a study where researchers surveyed 1,000 HR professionals and asked them about effective screening methods.  Over 50% of respondents answered incorrectly, meaning that even seasoned HR pros get this stuff wrong.

“If your hiring process relies primarily on interviews, reference checks, and personality tests, you are choosing to use a process that is significantly less effective than it could be if more effective measures were incorporated,” says Whitney Martin, writer for the Harvard Business Review.  

 The strongest personality assessments to use in a hiring context are ones that possess these attributes:

  • Measure stable traits that will not tend to change once the candidate has been on the job for some length of time.
  • Are normative in nature, which allows you to compare one candidate’s scores against another’s to determine which individual possess more (or less) of a particular trait.
  • Have a “candidness” (or “distortion” or “lie detector”) scale so you understand how likely it is that the results accurately portray the test-taker.
  • Have high reliability (including test-retest reliability) and have been shown to be valid predictors of job performance. 

In summary, personality profiles are an important component of your overall structured hiring process, but you have to use them correctly.