Job hunters put to the personality test

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Next time you waltz into a job interview, be prepared to take a test. But don't think you can study for this one.

Increasingly, employers are hitting applicants - from file clerks to chief financial officers - with personality tests.

Consider these questions:

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Does it bother you when people ask stupid questions?

Do you start up conversations in a waiting room?

Should a person who writes a check he knows will bounce be refused a job in which honesty is important?

In an effort to reduce turnover and weed out problem hires, a growing number of companies from Marriott Corp. to mom-and-pop stores are using tests to help put the right person in the right job.

Businesses argue that the traditional rsum and job interview aren't enough to determine such factors as: Who is a team player, who is too controlling, or who works well with little supervision.

And in today's ultracompetitive business world, hiring the wrong person is becoming increasingly expensive.

"Personality fit is highly important today because of the constant change that goes on in business," says John Challenger of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago. "Companies are realizing that they have to look much more closely at those kinds of issues because of increased pressure on productivity."

Personality testing, however, raises big concerns about worker privacy and the potential for discrimination.

And critics argue that some businesses put too much weight on tests and end up screening out qualified candidates.

The industry has seen enormous growth in recent years. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, more than 20 percent of its members use personality tests for new as well as existing hires. The Association of Test Publishers in Washington estimates that personality testing has boomed into a $400 million industry.

Tests can cost anywhere from $10 a person to $2,000 for an executive-level test. Some are designed to test honesty - the most popular type of test. Others test attitude (Do you get great satisfaction out of serving others?) and aptitude (Are you highly competitive?).

"We're selling more of these tests [aptitude] than we ever have," says Harris Plotkin, president of The Plotkin Group, a management-consulting firm based in Carlsbad, Calif.

Most tests take less than 30 minutes to complete and simply ask applicants to mark "yes" or "no" or "true" or "false."

Others, like the Predictive Index put out by Praendix Inc., ask candidates to select from some 90 adjectives all those that describe them and all those that describe how they think others expect them to act.

The Government Employees Credit Union in El Paso, Texas, has been giving personality tests to applicants since 1984. In fact, the test results for every employee can be found in its personnel files.

In developing its test, the company evaluated its top performers in different jobs and identified their similar attributes. It then used those to develop a set of characteristics for each job description to measure potential recruits against.

The results of a candidate's test, for example, may show that the person is 95 percent matched for a teller position or only 70 percent matched for a call-center operator.

"We wanted to have another tool for hiring to help us identify who we wanted to emulate,"says Janie Shockley, vice president of human resources.

Ms. Shockley contends that the tests have helped cut turnover in half over the years. And applicants don't seem to mind taking them. "I think people have come to expect a lot of things these days," she says.

Brian Connelly, vice president of MCI Worldcom's wireless division, introduced personality testing to his sales managers recently.

"If you get the right person in the right job you can increase service and sales," Mr. Connelly says. "With the personality profile, you're able to match a person's traits to the job and have a lot more success."

Currently only about half of his managers use the tests. "I have certain managers who live by it, and they have less turnover and higher productivity," he says.

Still critics have numerous concerns with such tests. For one, thousands of tests exist - not all of which have been thoroughly tested themselves. And some warn that they may be discriminatory.

"It's fair to say that there are absolutely good tests as well as some very bad tests," says William Harris, executive director of the Association of Test Publishers in Washington.

Critics also argue that some companies place too much weight on the results of such tests in selecting candidates.

Robert Staub, a business-management consultant in Greensboro, N.C., says a big problem is that these tests are often administered or interpreted by amateurs. "I think that happens more than 50 percent of the time," he says.

Others question how thoroughly a test can comprehensively evaluate a person's working style and traits.

"The risk is that they don't capture the person," says Mr. Challenger. "They categorize him or her too simply through a series of questions on a grid."

Adds Mr. Staub: "Personality profiling is not an exact science. It still is subjectively driven."

Even testing companies admit nothing is 100 percent sure.

"Do we sometimes not recommend someone who turns out out to be very good? Absolutely. Do we recommend someone who we say will walk on water who fails? Absolutely," says Herb Greenberg, founder of Caliper, a testing company based in Princeton, N.J. "The test alone doesn't do it. Talent does count. The test helps say what is this person going to do with that talent."

What your answers may mean...

Most companies outsource the task of interpreting answers from personality

tests to testing companies who have a psychologist on board. Other companies

use computer programs developed by testing companies.

Tests are often long - they can run into hundreds of questions. They are

designed to elicit patterns of thinking, versus "correct" or "incorrect"

answers.

The top two questions at left, from an honesty test developed by The Plotkin

Group, are designed to identify applicants who might be prone to steal,

misuse sick days, break company policies, or give unauthorized discounts.

The bottom two questions were created by Caliper. For those who said option

"A" in each question best described them and letter "C" least described

them, for example, the results could conclude that the person is not a good

leader because he or she is indirectly admitting to being "emotionally

unstable" or nervous under pressure.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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