Human Resources

Why Employers Use Personality Tests

By Stephanie TaubeDecember 2, 2015

Recently, I applied for a position at a large consulting firm and was invited for a first-round phone interview. I prepared like I normally do – read up on the company, clarified how my skills fit the requirements of the position, practiced my spiel. But when I got on the phone with the screener, I quickly realized the interview was completely different than I had anticipated.

Instead of the expected questions about my background and the type of position I was looking for, the interview consisted of 45 minutes of personality questions. “Are you more introverted, or extroverted?” “Do you hold your friends to certain moral standards? If so, what are they?” “On a scale from 1 to 5, how positive a person are you?” “Would you describe yourself as tremendously energetic?” The phone screener could not clarify questions – only repeat them, word for word – and asked me to say the first thing that came to mind. She also requested that I give her short answers – a single word or sentence – and that I only elaborate if she asked for more information.

For about 75% of the questions, I was quite sure of my answers. But for the other 25%, I was unsure. I could have answered the questions a number of ways. For example, I was asked, “Is it more important  to do what the client wants, or what you think is right?” My first thought was to give the client what they want, but surely there are exceptions. I was also asked, “Do you always have to be the best?” I tend to be an overachiever, and I like to be good at what I do. But other people are better than me at lots of things, and that’s okay. I could have gone either way on many of these questions, but I needed to give the screener a quick and simple answer.

The interview concluded and the company had my responses for the next step – their analysis of my answers. According to my post-interview research, this company is very confident in their personality assessment, and makes hiring and placement decisions based on the results. Your score determines whether you’ll move on to the next interview. Over the next few days, pondering some of the questions, I decided I would have changed a few of my responses. But if I wasn’t even confident in the answers I provided, how accurate could the results really be?

Personality Tests in the Workplace

According to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 13% of US employers utilize personality assessments; 10,000 employees, 2,500 colleges, and 200 federal agencies use the well-known Myers-Briggs test. Companies that use these types of assessments include McKinsey & Company, the CIA, the Department of State, and 89 of the Fortune 100 companies. The personality assessment industry is thriving – Myers-Briggs generates $20 million per year in revenue; other companies that specialize in this area include Criteria, Wonderlic, and Humanmetrics.

Employers use these tests for a number of reasons. They are commonly used to evaluate job candidates to find the best fit for the opportunity. Screening, interviewing, and hiring applicants can be a difficult and resource-heavy process. Employers have access to relatively little information on candidates, and typically spend only a few hours with them before making offers. Any additional information on potential employees can help in the decision-making process. Employers may also assess current employees, so they can support their individual strengths and create effective teams. The organization behind the Myers-Briggs test claims insights from the test can help build successful careers and even strengthen families.

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Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment is the most well-known of these personality tests. Based on the work of psychologist Carl Jung, a mother-daughter team (who did not work with Jung, and lacked formal training as social scientists) developed the test in 1943. Today, the assessment is taken by more than 2.5 million people every year. Some even say it has reached “cult-like status.” Ask someone who works at a company that uses this assessment, and they can likely rattle off their four-letter personality type without a second thought.

The theory behind the test is that all of our seemingly random and unpredictable behaviors are actually consistent patterns. (How convenient!) The assessment determines your tendencies in four areas – extraversion (E) or introversion (I), sensing (S) or intuition (N), thinking (T) or feeling (F), and judging (J) or perceiving (P).

What do the results tell you? According to the Myers-Briggs Foundation, it helps people better understand and appreciate their strengths. This can improve their performance and professional development at work. It can also help people appreciate and understand others. It can be used to understand and strengthen many areas of your life: relationships, career, education, spirituality, workplace, and counseling.

If you Google your type, you’ll find all kinds of resources – valid or not – to explain what your personality type says about you. According to one unofficial test, I’m an INFJ – the rarest combination that makes up less than 1% of the population. Supposedly, I’m an “advocate,” and my purpose in life is to serve others. Some of my personality traits include creativity, developing connections with others, and the desire to create balance over advantage. Some famous INFJ’s include Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa. There are sites that list careers I’d be good at – physician, clergy, or professor. And apparently, I work well in teams with all other Myers-Briggs types.

I’ve been asked on a job interview what my Myers-Briggs personality type was. I told the interviewer, and she said I’d be a good fit because I’m both an N and a J. It’s important to some employers. But the company behind Myers-Briggs actually says that the “MBTI tool can’t tell you who to hire, but it can help you work with your team so that everyone gives his or her best performance.” It also cautions that your test result may not be an accurate reflection of your personality type, and that there are several ways to take this uncertainty into account. That’s right – while some companies swear by personality tests in their hiring and team-forming decisions, the organization behind the most popular and successful assessment clearly states that results are not 100% precise.

Academic Research on Personality Assessments

Personality assessments have a strong following among large, successful consulting firms, government agencies, and Fortune 100 companies – but not so much in the academic community. In fact, many academic research studies have found that MBTI is no more reliable than a Tarot card reading or horoscope. (I’ve also been asked for my zodiac sign during a job interview, but that’s another story.) According to the Wall Street Journal, “Academic studies have concluded that individual personality traits have at most a small connection with performance.”

People with many different personalities can excel in one position – not just one particular type. For example, one might assume high-stress positions in the public eye would be best-suited for extroverts. But, many introverted individuals thrive in these roles, such as the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

Much like my reaction to my personality assessment interview, one of the primary criticisms of using personality tests is that someone can take the test twice and get different results – studies have shown than about half get different results the second time they take it. According to the company behind Myers-Briggs, approximately 75% of those who take the test a second time get at least 3 out of 4 of the same letters – and that’s a big discrepancy. A quarter of re-testers get only 2 of the same letters – or less. Not a strong vote of confidence for the test’s validity.

Another problem with the test is that many take into consideration only the four personality domain letters – and not their weight. For example, I only scored 1% in favor of introversion over extraversion – I’m right in the middle. Forbes explains this dichotomy is like asking what type of body you have, and your only options are “obese” or “anorectic.” Most of us are somewhere in the middle of the two extremes – for body type and personality type.

So, if research shows they’re not particularly useful, then why are these tests so popular? The New York Times suggests that people may simply like taking the test. The products, particularly Myers-Briggs, have been superbly marketed. Also, the test brings a sense of certainty to our lives. Need to hire a customer service superstar? Easy – find an ISFJ. Do you need to add a great public speaker to your team? Track down an E. When there are only 16 types of people in the world, and we can quickly profile individuals with a 45-minute test, it creates the illusion of a simple solution to an issue that is actually very complex – human behavior.

Takeaways

While the tests aren’t always used effectively (i.e. there is virtually no supporting evidence that shows they are useful in the hiring process – and may actually be illegal in some cases), they aren’t entirely useless. Personality tests can be a great way to open the door for conversations between colleagues about preferences; they can help teams work together more effectively. If a personality assessment reveals that an employee works best individually, and prefers a bit of time before making major decisions, managers and co-workers can take that into account when working with that individual. When personality assessments are used to screen and stereotype employees, they aren’t being used wisely. As Brian Little, a Cambridge University professor explains, “We’re not helping ourselves when we pin ourselves into categories that will limit us.” But when used to help identify and support individual strengths – there could be something to it.

Stephanie Taube

Stephanie Taube

Writer & Researcher

About the Author

Stephanie contributes research and content to startups on topics like leadership and digital health. In her former life, she was an academic researcher and policy analyst. She has degrees from Michigan and Cal, and is passionate about entrepreneurship, backpacking, and finding the best sour beer in the Bay Area.

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