Rethinking the use of personality tests in hiring

For the past 15 years, personality tests have been thought to be valid predictors of job performance. So much so that many employers are now using them when selecting workers or making promotion decisions.

But a group of industrial-organizational psychologists say companies might want to reconsider the use of personality measures in making important hiring decisions and key appointments.

Why? Because personality tests often show very small relationships with measures of job performance, says Frederick P. Morgeson, a Valade Research Scholar and Professor of Management at Michigan State University.

Morgeson and colleagues John R. Hollenbeck and Neal W. Schmitt of Michigan State University, Michael A. Campion of Purdue University, Robert L. Dipboye of the University of Central Florida and Kevin Murphy of Pennsylvania State University, all former editors of research journals where research on personality testing is reported, say these kinds of tests, in fact, suffer from several important limitations.

Their views, published in a recent issue of Personnel Psychology, are likely to cause some controversy within the field. “That’s understandable,” says Morgeson, “because it challenges the common-sense notion that personality is a strong predictor of job performance.”

However, if the article stimulates more research and discussion, “then that is a good thing.”

One criticism of personality tests, especially the self-report kind, is the potential for faked answers, which according to Morgeson, is understandable because job candidates want to present themselves in the best way possible.

Despite substantial research devoted to techniques that will mitigate, or at least alleviate, the impact of faked answers, there have been no clear-cut methods developed to solve the problem, notes Campion.

Rather, “we need to engage applicants in a more open process where we disclose what we are looking for and gain the trust of test-takers rather than playing paper-and-pencil games with them,” Dipboye says.

However, it is not the fakers that concern Murphy. “The problem with personality tests is that as predictors of job performance, their validity is disappointingly low.”

Hollenbeck agrees. Given the low validity of personality tests, it is unlikely that faking would distort the results, he said.

Schmitt is even more blunt. “Why are we looking at personality as a valid predictor of job performance when the validities haven’t changed in the past 20 years and are still close to zero?”

Dipboye says research should be directed at improving self-report personality tests, rather than scraping them completely. One strategy would be to allow people to elaborate on their responses to personality items instead of one-word ambiguous responses.

Also, he suggests developing personality tests that are clearly job-related and avoid ambiguous and embarrassing questions (“Have your ever stolen anything?”).

“There’s a lot of good science being done that offer better ways to predict job performance, including work samples, cognitive ability tests and structured interviews,” said Morgeson.

He said research by industrial-organizational psychologists could greatly benefit human resource managers. “Science is designed to uncover truth and can help improve the odds of making better personnel decisions.”

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of 6,300 industrial-organizational psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning people in the workplace.

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