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Personality Tests on the Job Search

Put to the test? Follow these tips from recruiters who’ve used pre-employment assessments as a factor in the hiring process.

By Debra Donston-Miller
FILED UNDER: Assessment, Personality.
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When you are being considered for a job, your potential employer evaluates myriad factors: your education, your experience and your successes, to name just a few. How about your personality?

Increasingly, organizations are turning to personality assessments to hire more effectively and avoid expensive and potentially embarrassing hiring errors, especially at the executive level.

"Testing is the application of science to the prediction of fit and success to the job," said John Fennig, a licensed psychologist and managing partner of DRI Consulting, a management and organization consulting firm that administers pre- and post-hire testing. "There are two issues: Is the person the best fit, ideally, to the pool of other candidates — and how likely are they going to succeed at the job?"

Fennig said that in today's tight job market, job seekers can expect closer scrutiny in the form of personality testing, as well as behavioral and cognitive testing. "Especially with the pools being bigger — it's a buyer's market, not a seller's market, right now — job seekers are going to see more scrutiny, and they have to be cool with that."

Tony Deblauwe, a workplace expert and founder of consulting firm HR4Change, said there are certain types of positions that lend themselves to personality testing, including sales jobs and customer-service jobs — jobs that tend to draw on personality as well as a certain skill set. Companies often administer personality tests for positions that require strategic thinking and complex decision-making.

According to experts interviewed for this article, some of the most commonly used tests on the hiring side of the house are the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF); Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness (DISC); Caliper Profile and California Psychological Inventory. (See Top Personality Tests on Page 3.) Myers-Briggs, one of the most well-known personality tests, is rarely used by hiring professionals, they said.

The overall point of performing these tests and others like them, Deblauwe said, is to go deeper than any job interview ever could. "If I can map exactly what I know is the gold standard for the position and what this company needs to have done against where you the candidate naturally lean, it's another point in the decision-making process."

And few if any rely solely on psychological tests to survey a job applicant. It is just one of several data points used to make a hiring decision.

"Testing should never weigh more than a third in the hiring process — it is being mis-used if it is pass/fail," Fennig said. "What you ( the job hunter) have control over is two-thirds of the process — namely, your resume, your work history, your interviewing skills and the performance skills the interviewing panel may put you through to show your stuff."

Gaming the tests

Up against stiff competition for a position, job seekers may be tempted to try and “beat the test” to optimize their results.

That’s the wrong thing to do, according to the experts interviewed for this story.

"There's really no way to beat the test, or any of these tests," said Justin Tobin, a psychotherapist in private practice in Chicago. "You just have to be yourself. It's not just one question that's going to figure out who you are. There are a lot of questions and a lot of information embedded in these questions. So you may not even be picking up on what the question is trying to get at."

There's actually very little people can do before taking a validated, reliable assessment, said Connie Kernen, business development manager at recruiting and research firm JMJ Phillip.

"The best advice is, and always has been, to simply answer the questions as candidly and as openly as possible," Kernen said. "Generally, the first answer which 'pops' into the candidate’s mind is the best answer. Lying or exaggerating on an assessment can potentially result in two things applicants want to avoid: being dropped from consideration or ending up in a job they hate."

Many tests are designed to pick up on dishonesty or disingenuousness. And even if you do game a test, you're not necessarily doing yourself any favors.

"Be honest when you're taking (these tests )," said Abby Kohut, president and staffing consultant with Staffing Symphony. "If you try to fool the test or to make the test think that you're something other than what you are, you're not going to fool the test because the test is smart.” Worse, even if you were able to beat the test and receive a job offer, you might end up in a job for which you aren't suited.

Know thyself, relax thyself

Recruiters and human-resources managers generally prefer to perform psychological tests early in the selection process, and many are now conducted online, before an initial interview.

But no matter where or when you take a test, taking stock of yourself before you answer the first question will help you relax and present yourself as honestly and effectively as possible, psychotherapist Tobin said.

"Before you take one of these tests, the most important thing is to know who you are and to be in touch with your own core values, your own strengths, your own limitations," he said. "That can make you feel more comfortable taking the test and more confident to just be in the moment. A lot of these tests take you to hypothetical questions, like, what would you do if someone was yelling at you in the middle of a store? Don't try and overanalyze what you think the answer is supposed to be. Just go with what you would really do in that situation."

While experts say that you shouldn't — and really can't — study for a personality test, some recommend using the results from sample tests online or from past testing to add weight and balance to discussions about your strengths and weaknesses.

"Self-awareness is one of the elements of good leadership," Fennig said. "Take assessments: One, (you’ll) be comfortable with the process of taking assessments; and two, more importantly, to know yourself will make people more informed job hunters. There's probably no downside (to taking a sample test)."

What type of test to expect?

Just as there are many different kinds of tests, regulation of pre-employment testing varies across states and industries. In general, employment law in most states requires that testing be relevant to a position, and must be administered consistently across all candidates. Most states also require that the test meet professional standards. Unlike background checks, there are no laws entitling a job seeker to view the results of a psychological exam, but some employers and some tests in particular give job seekers access to the results.

DRI Consulting, for instance, gives all applicants copies of their results, plus graphed reports, and invites them to comment before the report is sent to the hiring organization.

"It's like a good performance review; you get to read and sign off on the accuracy of it," Fennig said. " (Candidates) can't change the numbers, but they can add stuff, they can comment, and then we submit that verbatim to the hiring organization. This has been hugely, hugely popular and effective."

Fennig added that the testing is seen as informing not just the hiring organization but also the candidate about how and where they fit: "It helps the job seeker to say, 'Oh, you know, maybe I'm not cut out to manage, and this is a management job.' ... The hope is that the testing informs in both directions."

If test results are not supplied to you automatically, as they are with DRI Consulting, it's a good idea to ask for them anyway, as it shows you are engaged and proactive every step of the process, Fennig said.

"The best candidates are clued into the decision path, and they know where they stand at each point," he said. "So knowing that is a sign of leadership, a sign of power, a sign of confidence."

First refusal

Can you refuse to take a personality test? Yes, said Deblauwe, and he's seen it done, but just saying no is not a good idea if you really want the job.

The law is different in every state. Generally, however, if the test meets the professional standards defined by the state and is relevant to the job in question, it is permissible to make it a mandatory part of the job application, according to the American Psychological Association.

While it’s not likely to be told that you didn't get a job because you refused to take a test, "unless you're really, really good, the last thing recruiters, HR people, etc. want is someone who is going to be creating blocks for them. Good economy, bad economy — play ball," he said.

Fennig agreed, adding, "Most execs who we work with have come to expect to be tested. They appreciate being tested because they are able to put their better foot forward."

Debra Donston-Miller covers work-life issues and difficult job-search situations for TheLadders.

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