Report: Are Workplace Personality Tests Fair?

Workplace personality tests have proliferated in recent years as companies aim to have a more data-driven approach to mass hiring — especially when big companies hire for customer-service roles.

But a front-page investigative report in The Wall Street Journal Tuesday questions whether such tests are effective. What's more, the Journal's reporting suggests that some questions included on common personality assessments might walk a legal tightrope — an aspect the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission is currently investigating.

As the Journal reports, the use of online personality tests has jumped dramtically in the past decade as companies try to streamline hiring. This is especially the case for customer-service jobs, where an employee's mood or personality can have a dramatic impact on customer satisfaction.

Such personality questions, in which prospective employees are asked to rank agreeableness, include: "Over the course of the day, I can experience many mood changes." "If something bad happens, it takes some time before I feel happy again."

Josh Bersin, a columnist for Talent Management's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer, and a source we commonly go to for insight in this magazine, is quoted in the Journal's story saying these personality assessments measure the mood traits and cognitive abilities of 60 to 70 percent of prospective workers in the U.S., up from 30 to 40 percent about five years ago.

Workplace personality testing is a $500 million-a-year business, the Journal reports, and is growing by around 10 to 15 percent a year.

Aside from reporting on if the tests are effective, the Journal report says the EEOC is investigating whether such tests discriminate against people with disibilities. EEOC officials are aiming to determine if the test effectively shut off people with mental illness like depression, even if they are capable of doing the job.

Employers have a keen eye on the investigation's outcome, as the Journal reports a ruling against workplace personality tests could set a major precedent that might force companies and test makers to prove their tests are not discriminatory.

Here at Talent Management, we've written frequently about the use of assessments in people management, including in our annual special report on the topic. Last year, I wrote about how companies are assessing the skills of the middle manager with use of personality tests (read here), and coming in the December issue Associate Editor Sarah Sipek has an extensive look at how companies are using behavioral assessments.

In a blog post for the Journal's "At Work" channel, reporter Lauren Weber — who shared a byline for the front-page story — talks with Hogan Assessments' Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an industrial and organizational psychologist, about what he looks in questions commonly included on personality assessments (read here).

What do you think? Are personality tests used in the workplace fair?