By Rebecca Koenig
U.S. News, September 12, 2018 —
Can job seekers improve their chances of getting hired by boosting their scores on hiring personality tests?
Many abstract forces influence who succeeds and who fails in the hiring process. But there’s one component that gets pretty personal.
For decades, companies have tried to measure job candidates’ personalities, searching for people who will perform best and last longest. Hiring managers often administer personality tests to identify candidates whose tendencies make them a good match for a specific role and the company overall.
Once taken via pen and paper, many of these assessments have moved online, and modern technology has even enabled the creation of video tests that use algorithms to allegedly distill workers’ personalities by detecting minute facial expressions and analyzing word choice.
It’s important to approach personality tests thoughtfully, since your answers affect your chances of getting hired. One strategy for success is sticking as close as possible to your professional persona.
What Personality Tests Try to Measure
Personality is a difficult concept to define. Hiring managers use the term to refer to the “behavioral tendencies” of individual job candidates, says Ann Marie Ryan, professor of organizational psychology at Michigan State University.
The tendencies that interest employers include assertiveness, dependability, humility, honesty, extroversion, creativity, openness, agreeableness, narcissism and authoritarianism, says industrial-organizational psychologist Leaetta Hough, founder of the Dunnette Group, a consulting firm. Those traits don’t exist in a vacuum, she adds; they depend on “the context in which someone is going to be operating,” which in this case is the workplace.
That dependency on environment is one reason why these tendencies are more like “learnable behaviors” than fixed traits, argues Martin Yate, certified personnel consultant and author of several career advice books and audio books. After all, he says, many people follow professional norms at the office but not in their personal lives.
Whether innate or acquirable, hiring managers care about these tendencies because they want to know in advance which applicants are likeliest to show up on time, work well in teams, comply with rules, make smart decisions, fit within office culture, think creatively and stick around for many years.
It’s up for debate how much personality actually predicts about workers, Ryan says. Job performance depends more on skills and technical ability, while retention often hinges on monetary incentives.
But talent and compensation aren’t the only factors that motivate worker behavior, Hough says: “Most people are more complex than that.”
To measure that complexity, employers turn to personality tests. They come in many forms, some more valid than others. Some companies rely on assessments that aren’t designed for hiring, Hough says, while others use products that have been carefully vetted for that purpose.
In his book “The Ultimate Job Search Guide,” Yate identifies several major types of assessments that job seekers face.
Objective tests ask takers to rate their own traits using yes/no, true/false or agree/disagree answers to questions. Projective tests ask takers to respond to ambiguous prompts by completing sentences and describing pictures. Aptitude tests attempt to rate workers’ potential to learn, while integrity tests purport to assess their honesty and morality.
Commonly used tests include:
- Hogan Personality Inventory
- California Psychological Inventory
- PDI Employment Inventory
- Adaptive Employee Personality Test
The response format differs depending on the test. When faced with the following statements, for example, takers may be asked to agree or disagree, mark true or false, or indicate which of two choices better describes them:
- I like organizing information.
- I like doing things on the spur of the moment.
- I don’t hesitate to make decisions.
- I usually keep my feelings to myself.
Practice versions of some personality assessments are available online.
During the hiring process, employers may not refer to these tasks as personality tests, instead calling them assessments or inventories that measure culture fit, aptitude or critical thinking. Hiring managers rarely inform applicants about their scores.
Job seekers can improve their chances of getting hired by enhancing their resumes, honing their interview techniques and solidifying their technical skills. But can they also boost their scores on hiring personality tests?
Experts say yes.
The key is “learning to separate our private from our professional selves,” Yate explains. That means test takers should not necessarily go with their gut responses to assessment questions, but instead ask themselves, “How has my experience as a professional taught me to think and respond to this situation?”
Some test formats make it fairly obvious how to provide a “socially desirable response,” Ryan says.
For example, if a test asks a job seeker to “agree” or “disagree” to the statement “I tend to pay attention to details,” Ryan explains, “both of us know what answer an employer wants.”
Savvy test makers design assessments that are trickier to game. Some use “forced choice” questions that present takers with two statements of seemingly equal desirability and ask them to choose which better describes them. For example, someone might have to choose between “I like organizing information” and “I like doing things on the spur of the moment.” Others repeat questions using different words and syntax to measure whether takers answer consistently, therefore demonstrating integrity. For example, the same test might solicit responses to the following statements:
- It is hard for me to make the right decision.
- I feel confident when making decisions.
- I don’t hesitate to make decisions.
Job seekers can still improve their outcomes on these clever tests by answering in ways that exhibit “good performance on the job, good relations with your peers and a respectful and malleable attitude toward the needs of management,” Yate says.
Test takers should keep in mind that employers may seek different tendencies depending on the duties of the open job. For an auditing position, a company may look for someone analytical who follows rules. For a marketing job, a business may want an outgoing worker with strong communication skills and emotional intelligence.
Not everyone endorses the strategy of tailoring answers to fit what employers might want. Workers may fare better in the long run if they answer in ways authentic to their personal lives, Ryan believes.
“My advice is, you might as well be honest,” she says. “Do you want a job that makes you do the opposite of what you like to do? It’s not to your advantage to try to be someone who you’re not. You’re not going to sustain it and you’re not going to be happy.”
But ultimately, each worker must decide how to approach a personality assessment.
“These tests can help you win or lose a job,” Yate says. “If you want the job, there’s no point in telling them what they don’t want to hear.”