The Value of Personality Testing

As an HR Director and an Executive ‘head-hunter, I value all of the tools in the recruitment professional’s armory. The CV or application form and in particular how these details relate to the person-specification of the vacancy being applied for, are vitally important. The interview is, of course the centerpiece of the process and is indispensable in terms of recruitment. We should also not forget the value of references, which often provide an illuminating third party view of candidates. However, let’s focus on one additional tool which is often undervalued – the use of personality assessments.

Executive selection processes focus on three factors; first does the candidate have the requisite skills and experience? Second, do they display the reasonable levels of enthusiasm and motivation? Third, are they going to be a good cultural fit within the organization, in terms of personality, attitude and general work style? Personality assessments have a significant role to play in providing an insight to the second and third of these questions. That said, while there are many personality assessment tools on the market, all of which lay claim to providing useful personality and ability insights, some however, fail to predict performance as accurately as they promise.

There are many ‘brands’ of personality assessments available, and most are valid and reliable enough for pre-employment screening purposes. Often, they are based around the “Big Five” model of personality – Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Test results are best considered in light of the requirements of a given job role, as opposed to any sort of singularly defined ‘top mark’. Those undergoing these types of personality assessments should understand that the process sets out to understand in broad terms, strengths and weaknesses – there are thus no right or wrong answers. Under no circumstances should job applicants try to guess to get a ‘higher’ score. Of course, that doesn’t mean that ‘fakers’ won’t try and manipulate test scores, however in my experience they soon get rumbled. Given that there are no ‘right’ answers, this type of subterfuge really is a complete waste of time. My advice to candidates is, to quote Shakespeare, ‘to thine own self be true’. Take a deep breath and be yourself, because the thought process upon which attempted test score manipulation is based, is completely erroneous.

Of the many tools on the market, I have been impressed by the Hogan assessment method, which is based on forty years of validated research and aims to support organizations to select the right people, develop talented employees, build great leaders, and improve performance. The Hogan assessments involve the use of valid, robust questionnaires that get at the heart of personality and how it determines job capability, development opportunities, and leadership potential at work.

As a pre-employment assessment tool, the Hogan Personal Inventory examines the ‘bright-side’ of personality – encompassing how a person behaves under normal circumstances, including everything from social habits to thinking styles. Second, the ‘dark-side’ examines what traits ‘get in the way’, exploring those behaviors that emerge when an individual is placed under stress or pressure. These dark-side traits can be overplayed strengths or uncharacteristic behaviors, which in extremis, can lead to ‘career limiting’ decisions. Hogan testing also encompasses whether a candidate’s core personal values will ‘fit’ with the culture of the organization doing the hiring.

In my experience, quality assessment tools such as the Hogan method are valuable to both individuals and organizations. For job seeking candidates, the quality feedback provided can assist individuals by facilitating strategic self-awareness. – promoting and understanding of work style behaviors, core values, and ‘derailment’ risks. In turn, this can assist individuals to manage behavioral traits with a view to increasing success in the workplace. For organizations, Hogan testing identities characteristics that may impact an individual’s job performance as well as his/her fit within a particular role, team, or organizational culture. It is worth noting that the Hogan approach can also be applied to developing existing employees, heightening self-awareness and other virtues in high-potential team members.

As you can tell from the tone of this article, I am a great advocate of personality testing. However, an over-reliance can have disadvantages where sometimes they can give those with “mainstream” personality types a more positive reading, while ‘left-field’, creative, think-outside-the-box type candidates who could potentially become leaders and do extraordinary things for an organization might lose out due to a conservatism in those doing the hiring. “We don’t want that person coming in here and rocking the boat….”.

It is also worth highlighting the privacy risks where a test may reveal an anxiety condition which the recruitment process is not designed to handle. The potential for discrimination against minority groups can be minimized by validating the high level leadership potential such a person can bring to an organisation. That said, the very best testing methodologies administered by professionally trained staff provide robust processes which minimize risks.

Over the years I have weighed up the pros and cons of personality testing and have concluded that the tests should be used as a support tool rather than a decision-making tool – they must be used in context as part of a wider assessment program including interviews. In my view, the primary benefit of testing is the insight provided into an individual’s motivation, leadership style and other criteria essential to becoming an executive level leader.

My favorite quote on personality testing comes from users of the Hogan program who humorously comment – “We are all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all’.

Will Taylor is a freelance writer, consultant and public speaker. He is a former HR Director, Council CEO and Management Consultant, with extensive public, private and voluntary sector experience in the UK and Australia.