Personality assessments in the workplace: harmful or helpful?

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See also “Model of human behavior is one factor in workplace personality testing

Robert Rohm was hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1996 to draft a team of 25 baseball players from a pool of 600 candidates based on their personality type. 

Rohm, a communicator, author and founder of Personality Insights, went to work completing personality profiles on all 600 players. Knowing the end decision of who would be on the team fell on his shoulders, he relied heavily on selecting players that fit under the criteria provided by the Diamondbacks organization. 

“They wanted strong dominant personality types who liked to compete, fight and achieve,” Rohm said.

After the 25 players were selected, the newly-formed Diamondbacks went on to compete in the MLB and won their first World Series just five years later, the fastest of any baseball team in history.

Rohm believes the practice of reviewing personality types can help determine who is fit for a job or position and gives them the best chance of success. Other experts, however, believe using personality assessments in the hiring process is unethical and harmful to the innovation of an organization. 

The ethical implications of hiring based on personality

Kari O’Grady is an expert in organizational psychology and an associate professor of psychology at BYU. She said she believes using personality tests as a screening mechanism for hiring employees is unethical and potentially harmful to a company. 

O’Grady said one reason is that most personality assessments are designed within a specific cultural orientation. 

“A personality test is designed with certain features in mind that come from a framework that’s very specific to a white, male, autonomous, independent orientation around the workplace,” O’Grady said. “It’s not as favorable toward women or other underrepresented groups in the workplace.”

O’Grady believes this results in employers attracting like-minded people in the workplace. Not only does this reduce innovation and diversity, but it also places a heavy focus on trait-based characteristics.

From a psychology perspective, a trait is seen as something that doesn’t have mobility and isn’t culturally or environmentally influenced — it’s what you are,” O’Grady said.

According to O’Grady, the results of a personality test can be different from day to day. They also usually don’t take into account the variability of settings a person is placed in that can have a direct impact on their personality. 

“In certain settings, I may come off as more extroverted. While in other settings, I’m more introverted,” O’Grady said.

Greg Danklef, director of Human Resource Development at BYU, provides job consulting services to departments across campus. Like O’Grady, he brings to light the downsides of using personality tests to weed out job candidates. When an employer has a fixed personality criteria for a job position, they can overlook qualified candidates.

One example is the notion that extroverts are better presenters than introverts. Therefore an employer may be more inclined to hire an extrovert for a certain job. 

“There’s nothing to support that an extrovert is a better presenter than an introvert,” Danklef said. “If you’re introducing this type of bias, you could be missing out on half the people in the world that could potentially do the job you’re hoping to fill.”

If personality tests are to be used in the hiring process, O’Grady believes they should be issued by trained professionals who can give interpretive results. Furthermore, they should only account for a small portion of determining who gets a job. 

“We lean too heavily into it sometimes rather than taking into account things like the interview, the letters of recommendation and past successes,” O’Grady said. “Most businesses who are highly successful do not tend to lean too heavily on personality assessments as a gatekeeping mechanism for getting in.”

Hiring what a company needs

Rohm used a number of scenarios to illustrate the benefits of administering personality assessments when selecting employees for a workplace. In one scenario, he introduced four people of different sizes — one tall, one a little shorter, one thin and the other a little overweight. For each person, there were four respective sets of clothes. 

“Wouldn’t you think it’d be a good idea to have the people wear the clothes that fit them best?” Rohm said. “Personalities are the same way, just internal rather than external. These tests place employees where they have the best chance of succeeding.”

Rohm believes the person who is doing the hiring is key to the process of selecting the right candidates for a job position. They need to not only understand who they’re hiring, but what they’re hiring. 

“If I’m looking for an accountant, they’ll be in the back running numbers all day long without much chance for human interaction,” Rohm said. “This is a far cry from someone who’ll be answering the phone and talking to people from the front desk as a receptionist.”

There are several methods for determining an individual’s personality type. Although it may not be feasible for some companies, Rohm said the most effective way is to spend time getting to know the potential hirees by observing them in real-life work situations. 

Many years ago, Rohm worked as a school principal and had the responsibility of hiring teachers. He discovered the best method for determining who was best for the job was observing how these teachers taught in a real-life classroom setting. 

“You put them in a classroom with a bunch of students, and the students will find out in about 10 minutes whether or not they’re a teacher,” said Rohm. “You see if they know how to lead a group of kids and successfully manage a classroom.”

Rohm eventually quit interviewing job candidates and placed less emphasis on looking at resumes and references. Instead, he hired directly from his substitute teachers list — a method that worked well for him and the school. There are experts, however, who believe placing a heavy emphasis on personality traits for hiring is more harmful than beneficial to a company. 

Improving understanding and employee relations

O’Grady leans heavily against using personality testing for hiring an employee; however, she, Danklef and Rohm all recognize their effectiveness in improving the overall team dynamic and function of the workplace for hired employees. 

“Let’s say a person is really bothering you. But once you understand that they’re high in openness and low in conscientiousness, more extroverted than introverted, then you can better interpret their actions,” O’Grady said. 

This can be especially helpful when creating group dynamics for team projects or when trying to strengthen employer and employee relations.

“Sometimes we think people see things the same way we do,” Danklef said. “But once we realize there are many perspectives and approaches to communicate and solve problems, we start building trust and creating that diversity of thought that makes us stronger.”

In addition to understanding others, personality assessments can help workers become aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.

“These assessments can help the hiree understand themselves, how they work, how they make decisions, how they interact with other people and what motivates them,” Danklef said.

Rohm said that most people who haven’t taken a personality test don’t understand the model of human behavior, how people are different and why they’re different. 

“Some people are more outgoing; some more reserved. If you have no model, it’s like playing pin the tail on the donkey or throwing a dart at a dartboard with a blindfold on. All you can do is hope it all works out,” Rohm said. “But if you have a profile assessment, you have a framework for the entire workforce.”

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