How Personality Job Tests Turn Us All Into Liars
ILLUSTRATION BY JIMMY GIEGERICH
If you're applying for work today in Los Angeles, chances are that you will cross paths with a mandatory online "personality" test.
The tests, now a $400 million–plus industry with annual growth estimated at 10 percent, feature multiple pages of questions asking the respondent about his or her thoughts, feelings, tendencies, emotions and behaviors.
They're not reserved for those seeking high-risk posts or jobs of great responsibility such as airline pilot or police officer. No, these are tests for clerical and administrative workers, retail employees and food servers.
"Last year, I applied to be a part-time sales associate at Bloomingdale's for the holidays," says Elden Rhoads, a former financial analyst and project manager who lives on the Westside.
"I was required to take a couple of personality tests, which consumed two hours of my time. Considering the level of responsibility — I would be ringing up sales and wrapping boxes — it was complete overkill."
Glendale screenwriter Daniel Becker was applying to a big-box chain retailer.
"One of the questions was, 'Do you get angry sometimes?' " Becker recalls. "If you put 'agree,' then they'll think you're a petulant person. If you put 'disagree,' they'll think you're lying to everyone.
"And when they ask if someone gets sad or resentful, do they mean ever or on a long-term basis? I wasn't able to answer, 'Yes, but it won't interfere with my ability to work.' "
A faith-based social services organization in Orange County required a test from Devorah Servi, an office administrator who lives in Mid-Wilshire.
"I remember being shocked by the mention of some illegal behavior," Servi says. "And I wondered who would admit to this, how are they using the information, and what's the protection of privacy and the potential for discrimination, which would be hard to track."
Servi ponders whether such tests would have rooted out the sexual, ethical and financial misconduct she saw unfold at former workplaces, and asks, "Would they have caught Bernie Madoff?"
Greater L.A.'s unemployment rate is 7.9 percent, and the area is stuck at a lowly 305th in an employment health ranking of 372 metropolitan areas. Nearly 4 percent of L.A. workers are "discouraged" — no longer even looking for jobs — or "marginally attached" — meaning they hope to work but haven't looked in the four weeks before the survey. Employment in Los Angeles isn't expected to return to its pre-recession peak until 2015.
And now come growing intrusions by would-be employers.
Timothy Horrigan, now a New Hampshire state representative, who holds a marketing degree from USC's Marshall School of Business, has worked in the testing industry as a scorer of educational assessments. He says, "The personality tests themselves are rather useless ... although they may filter out a few unsuitable candidates."
Because people want jobs, the process becomes a duplicitous game of strategic lying by the test taker, followed by counter-detection efforts from the test giver.
"In theory, you can design personality tests to detect 'cheaters,' " Horrigan says. But he says most tests aren't sophisticated enough to do so reliably. So go ahead and cheat, he says: "Just give the answers the employers are obviously looking for — every time."
Because so many people are doing that, the tests tend to filter out only those who are openly unapologetic about their personalities or who are offended by the questions — plus those with extreme personalities or mental issues.
"The main objection I have [to] those surveys is that they are impersonal," says Rosanne Becker, a clinical psychologist and social worker from Westwood. "They are too mechanical and miss important information that can only be experienced in a face-to-face interview, dialogue or conversation. Body language speaks volumes. Also, these tests don't take into consideration context."
An online test administered by Darden Restaurants, which owns some 2,100 food and beverage outlets employing 200,000 people, includes statements such as: "It is important that ideas at work include practical ways to implement them," "I prefer to let others lead in group discussions" and "I think everyone should obey those in positions of authority."
The options for answering these questions are "strongly disagree," "disagree," "neutral," "agree" or "strongly agree."
But who would oppose practicality in implementing an idea? And letting others lead in discussions might signal passivity, or it might show a cooperative nature.
The third statement illustrates the morally complex traps in these tests: Strongly agree that everyone should obey authority figures and you could look like a liar or drone. Strongly disagree and you might seem an agitator. Should you say "neutral" or "agree"?
Other statements are even more invasive, such as: "My outlook on life would be described as upbeat," "I have been known to lose my temper when I am upset," "When I am in a bad mood, it affects my work" and "Sometimes criticism of my work will hurt my feelings."
Can a person who admits to being only moderately upbeat be a great employee?
"All testing is not equal," says John Brownlee, founder of Nashville-based Brownlee & Company, which develops employee assessment tests. "There are a lot of good tests and a lot of very poor testing on the market. A good test must have high validity and high 'reliability.' Reliability is what we call test/retest — if you take it today and a couple weeks later, it's going to be very close."
But if a test taker continually lies, then what does any of it mean?
"All good testing has 'reliability scales' built into it," Brownlee says. "So that when I look, I can tell very quickly whether the person attempted to fake it or not. ... A good test lets me know, did they totally intentionally exaggerate, or are they just very unrealistic about themselves? It will sort out, for me, who you really are."
Not everyone shares Brownlee's certainty.
"Psychological and personality tests are questionable in the employment arena," says Claudia Finkel, chief operating officer of Jewish Vocational Services and an instructor in career development at California State University Northridge. "I think it's much more appropriate to look at factors like ability, competency, reliability and past experience."
But Josh Millet, CEO of Beverly Hills–based Criteria Corporation, which creates pre-employment tests, explains why such questionnaires are proliferating: L.A. is an employer's market, not an employee's market, and there's nothing easier than subjecting them to an online test.
"There's been an explosion of the size of applicant pools," Millet says. "It's becoming a lot easier, because of the Internet, to apply to jobs. HR departments and others doing hiring are flooded with applicants and need tools on the front end to filter through the hundreds of applicants."
Millet compares Criteria's personality tests to the Likert scale, created by Rensis Likert while he was writing his thesis at Columbia University — in 1932. Likert describes a taxonomy of five main personality traits employees have been reduced to: openness, conscientiousness, stability, agreeableness and introvert versus extrovert.
"We always say there's no right or wrong answers," Millet asserts. "People who are extroverted tend to do much better in sales. Among computer programmers, introverts generally do better."
But he warns that some test givers abuse their power.
"The Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits using any kind of test that could be used as a mental health exam, in a pre-hire situation — but that doesn't mean they aren't used," Millet says. He adds that the Myers-Briggs personality test, based on the theories of Carl Jung, is commonly used by employers as a source when formulating their in-house questions.
The result of all this, he says, is a "completely unregulated industry — there are a lot of really bad tests out there."
Horrigan is starting to question the rationale behind employment personality testing, saying, "The tests are supposed to be filtering out dishonest applicants. But, in fact, it is filtering out the most honest ones, who say what they really think. You have to lie about who you are to pass the tests."
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