What are the pros and cons of using personality tests in the workplace?

Given Talentspace’s deep experience of assessing senior individuals within the banking and finance sector, Finance Week magazine asked for an article on the potential benefits and pitfalls associated with using personality tests at work. The article is reproduced in full below.

When we tell clients that we sometimes use personality tests to help organisations decide whom to hire, we often receive a sceptical reaction. “I don’t believe in personality tests,” is not an uncommon response. Indeed, personality tests are frequently misused and abused. Yet that does not mean that they cannot add any value.

Screen junior candidates but understand senior candidates

One issue that causes confusion is that personality tests should be used in different ways for junior versus senior appointments. At junior or administrative levels, personality tests can be used to pass or fail applicants. In the same way that you may decide to reject applicants for not having gained an upper second class degree, you may decide that you do not want applicants who are, for example, below the 30th percentile on sociability to reject the most introverted, or above the 85th percentile on risk-taking to reject those who may push the limits too far.

Such a pass/fail hurdle may end up rejecting a few otherwise talented candidates who do not have the desired personality characteristics. But then, insisting on an upper second class as a minimum requirement can equally eliminate a small number of applicants who could potentially be exceptional employees too.
At more senior levels, when there may only be a handful of people in the country or even the world who can succeed in a sensitive role, personality tests should never be used to pass or fail candidates.
Instead, a personality test generates a set of hypotheses about a candidate’s leadership style. These hypotheses should always then be verified by face-to-face interview. Any consultant who is willing to tell you the personality profile of candidates without having sat down with them in person should be ushered swiftly out of the door.

During the face-to-face session, a personality test allows a psychologist to probe the candidate’s awareness of his or her style and therefore impact on others. For example, we may be faced with two candidates: one of them is highly detail-focused almost to the point of being a perfectionist while the other may be so big picture and strategic that details frequently get overlooked. We are more interested in their awareness of their natural style and its implications for their behaviour and effectiveness as a leader than the style itself. Do they understand the strengths and shortcomings of their preferences? How do they change their behaviour to suit different situations, put systems and processes in place, or arrange for other people to support them to ensure that they can be both detail-oriented and big picture when needed? Being aware of one’s faults but saying “that’s just how I am” and doing nothing about it is as much of a concern as a manager who lacks awareness of his or her style.

Choose the right test

Another issue facing organisations is in choosing which personality test to use. There are a handful of very good personality tests on the market and many dozens of very poor ones – for example, some tests are easily faked by canny candidates while others are nearly impossible to fake. Often, the consultants who claim to be expert on the pros and cons of a personality test may have attended only a couple of days of training in its use. One way of protecting yourself if you are considering personality testing is to find a consultant who possesses the ‘Level B Certificate of Competence in Occupational Testing’ issued by the British Psychological Society. The Level B qualification is considered the gold standard of personality testing; there are nearly 7,000 holders of this qualification in the UK.

But having a Level B qualification is only necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure you get a good service. A psychologist can hold the qualification yet still recommend the use of a personality test that is not the best for your situation. The organisations that develop personality tests have a vested interest in selling their proprietary tests. Each test is like a mortgage product offered by a different bank. If you ask HSBC or Barclays which mortgage to buy, you shouldn’t be surprised at the answer you get. The savvy home buyer goes to an independent financial advisor rather than a tied sales person. Likewise, a smart business would go to an independent consultant rather than a consultant tied to just a few tests.

In the same way, ask the psychologist you are considering using whether his or her firm is a distributor of the test that is being recommended. “Distributor” is a polite word for tied sales person – the psychologist’s firm may have a financial incentive for using a particular test. Check that the psychologist has no ties and is able to provide a truly independent overview of the different personality tests on the market.

Once the candidates have been tested and interviewed, you should receive a written report on the personalities and leadership styles of the different candidates. However, you should also insist on a debriefing conversation with the psychologist. Due to Data Protection laws, candidates can request – although can be made to pay for – a copy of their personality profile. As such, a psychologist can sometimes have concerns that he or she is willing to share only in conversation because there is not enough evidence to commit them in writing.

Use personality tests for the right reasons

Personality testing is not a cure-all in selection. You cannot expect it to find the best candidate every single time. And it is not always appropriate – for example if a client organisation were more concerned about the commercial savvy of a senior candidate, we would advise against using a personality test and recommend instead a business case assessment of some kind. However, personality tests are perhaps unfairly demonised.

Personality tests can add value in the same way that checking references can be a useful addition to a selection process; no one would ever suggest that you can use them on their own to replace a traditional interviewing process.

Let’s finish with a question. Given that most senior executives fail not because of lack of competence but clash of personality or inability to fit into a team’s culture, does it not make sense to understand what the personality of a potential newcomer might be?