June 2, 2016

5 reasons why personality tests are not the best choice in recruitment.

Based on research by © Lars Lundmann

by Mathilde Nærland

In Denmark, 40-70 % of private and public enterprises use personality tests when recruiting new employees. Such high percentages inevitably indicate that personality is considered significant in recruitment. However, research suggests that personality testing is rather problematized in a sense that it is impersonal, ambiguous, and based on faulty perceptions of personality. There may be many opinions as to whether these assessments are true, which is not strange at all; we’re discussing personality – one of the most abstract concepts known to us – if not, the most. Everyone has an opinion. Which is exactly the point.

Everyone is different. We all perceive, discover, assess, think, and behave differently. Furthermore, our behavior is often contextually contingent, meaning that we often behave in certain ways at work, which may differ from how we behave at home or with friends. We perceive stories, problems, and physical objects differently. Say, your friend asks you whether a glass of water is half empty or half full. You look at it, fully aware that your answer not only applies to what you see, but will evoke thoughts and associations inside your friend’s head. You know you are being assessed personally. The test is not about the glass of water, it’s actually about how you perceive the world – as an optimist or a pessimist. Furthermore, what factors determine whether he sees the same or agrees with your assessment? The problem here is that your assessment will most likely depend on your mood or feelings at the time you are being questioned. And the interpretation of your answer depends on your friend’s mood or feelings. And so on.

Say, your friend asks you whether a glass of water is half empty or half full. What factors determine whether he sees the same or agrees with your assessment?

Now, you’re probably wondering what glasses of water have to do with personality tests. The smart ones have probably already spotted the striking, but inevitable truth – drum roll – that perceptions and personality assessment are – drum roll increasing – subject to interpretation by both the respondent and the person reviewing the answers, they are ambiguous, subjective, understood differently, and in a lack of context. So, we ask ourselves, why are personality tests not entirely suitable for recruitment situations? PhD. Lars Lundmann gives us 5 good reasons:

1. Ambiguity in the understanding of questions.

Various recognized personality tests are considered universal and tested on thousands of respondents. In spite of this, far from every respondent understands the questions in a personality test equally. Research by Lundmann suggests that the associations persons attach to certain statements are entirely subjective and that the answers we collect in personality assessments are relatively meaningless, and would be much more valuable and providing of personality insight if they said something about the interpretation of the question we are faced.

2. Lack of context.

The vast majority of personality tests use generalized questions about personality, neglecting the fact that contexts are decisive factors in the interpretation of questions by the respondent, and the interpretation of the answers by the reviewer. In example, the extent to which a person agrees with the following statement: “I see myself as a person who speaks a lot” undoubtedly depends on whom the respondent relates to when answering.

3. Biased focus on the past & the candidate’s ability to analyze him/herself.

When personality tests question the respondents past accomplishments, there is a latent understanding that his/her past is able to tell us something about his/her future. In recruitment situations, such an assumption may not be entirely accurate, as the context in which someone behaves and the people with which he or she is surrounded by is determinant of how he/she will do. Furthermore, people seldom have the ability to analyze themselves to the extent necessary for this assessment to bear fruit.

4. Hidden agendas and lack of self-insight.

Typical personality tests are based on self-assessments with an underlying belief that people are truthful. Although people answer personality tests fully convinced that they are speaking the one and holy truth about themselves, research suggests that people’s self-insight often lacks genuineness and that people tend to exaggerate. The latter of which is typically found in recruitment situations, where candidates often stage themselves rather positively, hoping to obtain that new dream job.

5. The opinions of others surpass the candidate’s self-image.

A successful employee is often defined by how others perceive him/her. In other words, his/her success is usually a reflection of the extent to which his colleagues, customers, or boss are satisfied with him/her. Despite this knowledge, personality tests – and the job interview – are based on the candidate’s self-image, which should only be relevant if it complies with the opinions of others.

“Tests shouldn’t be understood alone!”

No, of course not. However, this argument doesn’t exactly heighten the credibility of the personality test; it shifts the focus onto the reviewers and how skilled they are on providing feedback. But feedback doesn’t make the test better. Moreover, feedback is subjective and relies on interpretation by the reviewer, which, again comes down to ambiguity and context and so on. So, what is the alternative to traditional  personality assessments if they don’t really convey anything useful?

There are two answers to this question. Lars Lundmann suggests that employers can construct so-called “high-fidelity” cases, which are based on thorough job-analyses i.e. by providing the candidate with a typical or critical assignment in the coming job. Of course, a good case demands resources, research, and manpower. Using high-fidelity cases is very important in the selection phase of the recruitment, but may be too expensive and time-consuming in the screening and sorting phase.

As the impressions of others is more significant in evaluating job performance than the candidate’s self-perception, employers can consider outsourcing the personality assessments to the potential new candidate’s network. This can be done by obtaining feedback from the candidate’s former colleagues, leaders, friends, or other people who know him/her well in a variety of contexts. Such information is more valuable – especially it is obtained under the right conditions, preventing the candidate’s network from assessing him or her (too) positively. In other words, there are screening tools that are personal and manage to avoid the ambiguity and lack of context in self-assessments.

Get in touch if you are interested in how your organization can get around the shortcomings of personality tests. Also you should visit www.lundmann.dk and get Lars opinion. He has very interesting perspectives. 

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