Using personality tests as a hiring tool are unreliable and discriminatory, but that doesn't stop employers from using them

Personality Tests in the WorkplaceA recent article in the Wall Street Journal approached the question of just how fair personality tests in the workplace might be, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is determining whether these personality tests are discriminating against persons with disabilities.

For the practical purpose of keeping this post as short as possible, I will proceed to summarize my findings through researching the use of personality tests in places of employment.

A white paper published by Shreya Sarkar-Barney, Ph.D entitled Personality Assessment: The Secret to High Quality Employees is an argument in favor and promotion of utilizing personality tests in the employee selection process. Many believe the use of these types of assessments are discriminatory and an invasion of privacy, and the validity and reliability of them are a matter of controversy in the psychological and human resources fields, as well as in the legal arena.

Sarkar-Barney has her degree in Industrial Psychology, and is the founder of Human Capital Growth, an organization whose goal is to popularize talent management practices on a global scale. Among their solutions is their support of the “big-five” framework of personality, and the use of personality testing in the workplace.

I share the preceding information because it is important to understand the context of any article, especially if it is stating scientific research as its premise. It is also important to obtain additional evidence to be able to critically assess the validity as well as the bias of an article. I believe the article is biased in the information presented to indicate support of personality testing in the workplace.

There are several different types of personality tests. Under the Five Factor Model are the dimensions of personality found in all individuals: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Under each of these factors are additional traits, such as under the dimension “extraversion” you’ll find assertiveness and positive emotions, for instance.

Personality Tests in the WorkplaceIn contrast, the Myers-Briggs Personality Test is based on Carl Jung’s theories on the 16 different personality types. It was developed by a mother-daughter team in the 1940’s that classified people into the 16 types on the basis of four dichotomies: Introversion-Extroversion, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving. (Myers-Briggs Foundation.)

Bauer & Erdogan (2010) say that every individual in a workplace contributes their own personality, physical and mental abilities, and other stable traits. This personality can be a potentially important predictor of work behavior. “Can be” and “potentially” are the key words to note in the statement.

Dr. Sakar-Barney’s paper indicates that personality predicts contextual performance and “some task performance”. She defines contextual activities to mean voluntary behaviors, such as staying late to meet deadlines, following rules, being friendly, et cetera. One way I distinguish this is to consider how these activities contribute to the social core of the organization, in contrast to task performance, which contributes to the cognitive and technical core of the organization.

She continues with an explanation of how personality measures predict contextual performance, and gives some examples with provided citations of psychological research to support her statements. The examples cover such areas as conscientiousness, emotional stability and agreeableness, as well as extroversion.

Regarding extroversion, she states “Employees assessed to be extroverted are more energetic, persuasive, and out-going. Employees high on this dimension have been found to be most successful in sales and managerial positions.”

While this may certainly be a true statement, I wish to address the logical reasoning that there are those who are denied a position or opportunity simply because they are “assessed” to be introverts, rather than extroverts. I question the discrimination of these individuals because of the results of a subjective testing modality.

Personality Tests in the WorkplaceFormer Vice President at JP Morgan & Chase, author, and blogger for periodicals such as Psychology today Nancy Ancowitz took the Myers-Briggs personality assessment and was determined to be an introvert. This didn’t stop her from advancing in her career, and today she is a business communication coach specializing in career advancement and presentation skills. She believes that there is a social bias towards being labeled an introvert, in that people view introverts as loners, losers and anti-social.

Dr. Sakar-Barney asks the question in her article why more businesses don’t utilize personality measures for employee selection. In answering her own question, as well as skimming over a couple of less significant answers, she addresses an issue that I have found to be critical in the controversy over the use of these tests for employment purposes.

This is the issue of what she calls “intentional distortion”, a problem with self-descriptors is that individuals will provide answers that will represent themselves in a more positive light. The rebuttal she provides states “for well-validated personality instruments such distortions in responses have not been found to reduce the predictive ability of the measures”, and she references three articles in psychology journals to support her statement.

There are many psychological studies on the reliability and validity of using personality assessments in employee selection. One of the most voiced concerns is the issue Sakar-Barney brought up, which is, essentially, with it being a self-assessment, there is the potential that applicants will be dishonest in their answers. Many have also attributed the Forer Effect to the con of some personality tests. Research done by Bertram R. Forer found with consistently high results that over 4 out of 5 people tend to accept vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realizing that the same description could be applied to just about anyone.

Personality tests do not test facts. They test subjective, variable and cognitive knowledge. They reflect what an individual “feels” at any given moment, not what they are capable of doing. According to one study, personality tests used in employee selection account for only about 5% of an employee’s job success, with the other 95% having nothing to do with personality. There are many factors to consider when employers view results of these measurements, including the influences of gender, age, culture, the number of items and homogeneity, to name a few.

One study in particular made mention of the age effect in that it had measurable influence on the stability of the measure. As well, studies have also proven that the “test-retest” measurements can differ widely in at least 50% of individuals studied when the same test is administered after five weeks.

Personality Tests in the WorkplaceIn my research, I spent considerable time taking various Myers-Briggs/Jungian-based online tests to see if there was any consistency among them. In simply taking the HumanMetrics personality test a second time in as many days, my assessed results came back differently, with only one of the 4 letters in the acronyms being the same, yet I answered as honestly as possible both times. I did find that in nearly every test I took, the personality type of the 4th letter was the same, but the first 3 letters were a various montage of vague descriptions, each giving me a different measurement of my personality.

I believe that personality tests such as the MBTI force the complexities of humans into a box, a limited classification scheme that “types” them, whether for better or for worse. The Myers Briggs website agrees that the measurements indicate a “preference” to one type or another, not necessarily what person actually feels themselves to be. They use the J or P as an example, stating that one person may feel orderly (J) on the inside, yet their out life looks adaptable (P), and vice versa.

This indicates to me that when employers are using personality testing as a tool to determine whether the applicant will be a “good fit”, that they are, in reality, trusting a not-yet-proven means of determining personality. Potentially, they could easily miss out on an excellent employee based on inconclusive results.

These personality tests are a way for some employers to get away with discrimination. Challenge this assumption if you will. I could go on about the legal ramifications with some tests that have already been challenged in court, but I believe the facts I’ve listed speak volumes.


  1. Timely article.

    In my experience, discrimination is endemic – and increasingly including discriminating in favour of a particular personality type. Nerdy introverts know these tests are being used to weed us out, so we are going to try and answer the way that we expect the prospective employer wants. But, somehow, they still manage to eliminate us. It is small wonder that so many people who get jobs seem to be totally unsuited, and yet some of the best minds are consistently overlooked and unemployed. What a senseless waste.

  2. I found your column to be interesting, provocative and evocative.

    Though the practice of “personality testing” (to me, a phrase that has always seemed fraught with danger per being misleading or terribly misunderstood/misused/abused) has been an almost integral part of the contexts within which I established my two primary careers, I have perhaps been far too passive in expressing to colleagues the skepticism I felt about how the “results” of such “testing” were interpreted, contextualized and then utilized. From time to time I might have rolled my eyes per mention of their use, but I should have been more vocal.

    I do think that the more credible of them—I consider Myers-Briggs and even the old and, I suppose, outdated MMPI to be two—can, in conversation with other knowledge one might have about an individual, point one in a particular direction as to what a potential employee or, in my two career cases, a potential student or potential quarterback could be expected to “bring to the table,” so to speak. But to utilize the tests alone—as happens in some contexts—is simply absurd. I am, as I write this, working off two hours of sleep last night. I would almost guarantee that my cognitive/affective responses would be sharper were I writing this yesterday morning, when I would have been working off nine hours of sleep.

    The issue of misuse/abuse of such tests per discriminatory tactics is also a part of the conversation that I appreciate you raising—I’m not clear at all that people in general think about such testing having those types of hidden agendas.

    And then, of course, there is the obvious typing that, as you note, follows such testing procedures. I could not count the number of times I have heard people actually “identify” themselves by saying something like “Well, I’m an Extroverted/Feeling-type person.” Huh?

    It gets even better when someone else in the conversation responds by doing the same thing, as in “I’m more an Introverted/Thinking-type.”

    I suppose I never guessed that self-awareness was a product of Myers-Briggs or that anyone was willing to give up the autonomy of inner exploration resulting from curiosity about why one “is” the way one “is” to a functionary who, in essence, grades a personality assessment instrument.

    I remember, during my student years of clinical internships and residencies, patients in clinical settings—primarily three State Hospitals, all now closed down—identifying themselves in terms of their DSM coding: “I’m Borderline Personality Disorder, what are you?” “Oh, I’m Paranoid Schizophrenic.” Unable to “name” themselves, they simply relied on dubious external labels applied to them by dubious testing and even more dubious observation/interaction assessments made by staffers who might exchange ten sentences with them in a week.

    I read Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in the midst of my first residency and, to my horror, discovered that it was the most sensible thing I had read in several years.

    As I said, interesting, provocative, evocative. I hope you will dig deeper into that vein.

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