In the hunt for soft skills, employers look to personality tests
As businesses look to improve their hiring success, pre-hire personality tests have garnered some notoriety.
While experience and credentials are critical to performance, most employers have determined they are not the only arbiter of success. Personality traits as well as work ethic and other soft skills can be equally important. But identifying those traits in the standard recruitment and interview process can be difficult at best — impossible for most.
Candidates are on their best behavior when they first connect with an employer, frequently responding with the answers they “think” an employer wants, rather than those they believe to be true. The honeymoon may quickly end once hired, however, leaving employers the option of restarting the expensive recruitment process, or settling for an employee who has the hard skills but not the right traits to be successful.
In a tight applicant market, with competition for top talent as fierce as it has been in decades, neither option is sustainable.
Enter personality testing
Analyzing a candidate’s personality has become more popular in the last year, according to Patrick Valtin, president and CEO of HireBox. The trend peaked in 2012, decreased during the three years that followed, and seems to have picked up again during the last two years, he said.
This rise may be fueled by the burgeoning belief that soft skills may have a higher impact on employee success than technical capabilities. In STEM careers, the push for soft-skilled candidates – adaptable workers with leadership skills and growth potential – may be outpacing technical ability alone. For sales professionals, soft skills are already in high demand.
Another reason test use may be on the rise? “The growing concern of hiring dishonest employees has led employers to look for assessments which can help detect lack of integrity,” Valtin said.
Dan Sines, CEO and co-founder of Traitify, notes some companies administer tests pre-offer, while others use them pre-interview. A new twist he’s seeing: “More recently, these tests have been flipped around and some companies are now using them to give value back to the applicant – giving them insight into their own personality data or guidance on what other jobs to apply for.”
Everything old is new again
The use of personality tests in the workplace isn't new. Employers have been using tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for decades. The MBTI is estimated to have been used 50 million times since its inception in 1962 by more than 10,000 businesses, 2,500 institutions of higher learning and 200 government agencies.
Other well-known tests have been in the marketplace for decades. New tests are popping up from both startups and well-established vendors and they run the gamut: written, online-only, gamified and more. Some testing uses AI, sometimes aiming to remove bias from the process, while others use images to discern personality.
“Humans are great at visual processing,” says Sines, “so it follows that using visual images to administer personality tests was the next logical step.” Traitify uses images for their testing, which lasts 90 seconds and boasts an over 98% completion rate. With a wealth of new players, psychometric testing is an estimated $2 billion industry.
Sines says today’s pre-hire assessments are becoming more user-friendly, engaging and quick to complete, so they can be used earlier in the application process to do the heavy lifting when screening candidates. “This way,” he notes, "recruiters can focus their time with only the best applicants.”
Tests come in a variety of forms: true/false questions, essay responses, scaled responses (agree, strongly agree, etc.) or combinations. Some list a variety of statements and ask candidates to choose which best describes their point of view.
They measure a variety of skill sets. Some are designed to assess cognitive ability such as logic, ability to learn quickly, reading comprehension, reasoning, etc. Some measure integrity, honesty, dependability and reliability. Others assess personality traits like introversion or extroversion, conscientiousness, risk aversion and stress tolerance.
Pairing the right testing tool with the job is important to get the best outcome, as it may be critical for compliance. Although the tools can be costly, the possibility of a better hiring decision make them worthwhile for many companies.
Not all tests are created equal, and compliance issues may arise. To pass U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission muster, for example, tests must be reliable, non-discriminatory and job-related. It’s important to ask your vendor the right questions, but also remember that, ultimately, the employer is responsible for compliance with applicable laws.
Additionally, requiring a pre-hire assessment can slow down the recruitment process. For many employers, the extra step to administer and assess the results could result in losing the applicant to the competition. As the applicant pool continues to shrink, this could become a significant consideration.
"Cumbersome and painful applications for job seekers will not be tolerated for long. Evolving personality tests to be quick, engaging, and to give value to the job seeker (in addition to the employer) will become the new norm,” Sines suggested.
Critics argue that many of the tests are outdated, unreliable and shouldn't be used in employment screening. The MBTI is more than 70 years old and the Myers & Briggs Foundation website states the test is not appropriate for pre-employment hiring: “It is not ethical to use the MBTI instrument for hiring or for deciding job assignments.” Yet it remains one of the biggest players in the pre-hire testing marketplace.
Gaming the system is on the rise, too. As many tests are created, so are websites that offer insight into how to “pass” the test to get the job. It’s possible the more test creators try to make tests “un-gameable,” the more they’ll be gamed.
Valtin offers another downside that could be significant: Many tests don't differentiate between chronic (constant) personality versus temporary personality. “Some people may adopt a different personality depending on the circumstances," Valtin said; this phenomenon is well-known to professional recruiters. "What you see today might be (very) different tomorrow." Hirebox says its Recru-tec Test can differentiate between temporary personalities versus chronic/constant ones to offer a higher rate of reliability.
Which test is right?
Not every test works for every opening. It’s important to find tests that assess valid, job-related qualities to get the best results and be compliant. Overall, however, according to Harvard Business Review, employers should look for at least four characteristics in any tests used to reveal employee characteristics. They should measure stable traits, those that are not likely to change after the employee has been on the job; be normative, or easily assessed against other candidate’s scores to find the best option; have built-in “lie detectors;” and be reliable, with valid predictors of performance, including test-retest validity.
Companies who choose the right pre-hire personality tests may be able to realize a more informed hiring decision and the possibility of greater employment outcomes for staff. But they must exercise caution. “It's tempting to rely too much on the results of a test. But ultimately, it's important to remember that the personality test is only one element of the hiring process," Sines warned. "Never eliminate or hire a candidate solely on the basis of a test. Other factors — skills, references, interview performance — are also very important to take into consideration.”