Personality testing is now everywhere in the workplace. Despite this, many HR professionals, hiring managers, and even occupational psychologists are still reluctant to use them in selection. Some see them purely as development tools, helping learning and development practitioners to create staff development plans. Others view personality questionnaires as tools for assessing organisational culture-fit, and thus reserve them for senior employees only. And several question the validity of personality testing in the first place, especially with reference to less academically supported models of personality. Although these concerns are understandable, the perception that personality tests are of limited value does great harm to them being used in the hiring process. In my opinion, this is a bad outcome that needs to be addressed.
In my mind, there are three main reasons why employers should be incorporating personality testing into their assessment processes, and each reason alone is enough to rebutting the main antagonistic arguments against their use in employee selection.
First and foremost, the academic research is very clear that certain personality traits predict real-world job performance. A wide range of personality traits have shown statistically significant positive correlations with job performance, including conscientiousness, integrity, internal openness to experience, honesty-humility, and core-self evaluations.
Personality traits also provide ‘incremental validity’ over and above other employee selection tools, particularly cognitive ability tests and interviews. Essentially what this means is that by adding personality testing to an existing recruitment process, it improves the validity of the selection process overall. As a result, using cognitive ability and personality tests together is a much better way to shortlist candidates, while still leaving room for an employment interview for the successful applicants.
Common criticism: The individual correlation coefficients between personality traits and job performance are too low to use in employee selection.
Although this criticism is rooted in fact, if I’m frank, it is myopic. I’m not recommending making selection decisions based solely on any individual personality trait. Rather, I’m suggesting that one should use a wider range of personality traits, which as part of a multi-variate approach, is likely to yield a much stronger prediction of future performance instead focusing on personality traits and job performance correlations.
Unlike employment interviews and cognitive ability tests, which are notorious for inducing performance anxiety, the candidate experience with personality questionnaires is far more relaxed. The questions are typically untimed, the items themselves are usually multiple choice-format, and often candidates can complete them online at their leisure. Few employee assessment protocols offer such a laid-back and relaxed testing experience, and this should not be taken lightly!
Likewise, candidates love to know their results from personality tests, often asking for feedback on what their results were. Indeed, many people complete personality questionnaires recreationally in their own time, purely for their own interest and to reveal insights about themselves that were otherwise unknown. Contrast this with other selection tools, such as interviews, which strike fear into the hearts of applicants the world over, and are barely, if ever, conducted recreationally.
Common criticism: Personality questionnaires take too long and candidates find them boring.
Unfortunately, this criticism is often quite accurate, and many of the market leading personality questionnaires take between 30–60 minutes to complete. However, with recent advances in personality questionnaires, especially those newly available in 2021 and 2022, administrative times can be cut by 50–75%, allowing organisations to accurately measure personality traits in as little as 5–10 minutes, such as Test Partnership’s personality tests.
Diversity, fairness, and inclusion
Compared to other selection tools, such as cognitive ability tests and situational judgment tests, personality questionnaires show considerably lower levels of adverse impact against protected groups. This makes personality tests especially useful tools to support diversity and inclusion initiatives, helping to retain minority candidates within the selection process and maximise the probability of them reaching the final selection stage.
Personality tests are also helpful from an accessibility perspective. The traditional multiple choice assessment format is well suited to mobile devices, allowing candidates to participate without a laptop or desktop device. This is helpful when it comes to socio-economic status (SES) diversity, as stringent device requirements unfairly benefit those from higher SES backgrounds. Similarly, typical personality questionnaires are purely text-based, making them compatible with accessibility and translation software, broadening the range of candidates who can participate.
Common criticism: Using personality tests will result in organisational cloning, meaning that all applicants will have the same personality.
Of all the criticisms of personality testing, this is perhaps the most ludicrous and overblown. This criticism assumes that the entire personality profile will be used to form the basis of selection decisions, whereas in reality, as I stated earlier, only a small number of traits are predictive of performance. As a result, the vast majority of personality traits will be free variables, ensuring that a wide range of different personality types are onboarded into the organisation. In other words, personality tests are looking for a certain type of person, on the contrary. They are looking for people of all types and backgrounds who have a particular set of skills and traits that make them well suited as excellent employees with a great capacity to learn.
As with all selection tools, personality tests have their advantages and disadvantages. Not all personality traits are predictive of performance, indeed the majority of them aren’t. Similarly, not all personality questionnaires are suitable for employee selection, particularly the more ridiculous personality tests you can find out there – such as ‘Which Harry Potter character am I?’
However, none of these are reasons to avoid personality tests altogether. That would be like saying ‘Some managers aren’t good at interviewing; therefore no one should use interviews.’ Instead, I recommend thoroughly researching the questionnaires on the market, identifying the particular traits that you believe will be predictive of real-world performance, and combining that assessment with other scientifically valid selection tools. When following that approach, personality tests help organisations to maximise the validity of their selection process, improve candidate experience, and support their diversity & inclusion initiatives.
Chloe Yarwood is a lead researcher at PersonalityData.org. She holds an MSc in advanced applied psychology from the University of Chichester.