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Best Practice Guidelines for Personality Tests

Updated November 10, 2021

What Are Best Practice Guidelines?

Personality tests have become a key part of the recruitment process in many industries. However, there are many areas of controversy relating to how effective they are in measuring a candidate’s true suitability for a role.

Some problem areas include:

  • The use of the wrong test for the wrong purpose
  • Good candidates could be mistakenly eliminated at the beginning of the recruitment process
  • Could be unfairly discriminatory in regards to candidates with disabilities or health conditions
  • The results can be engineered by the candidate

With this in mind, best practice guidelines are essential for employers wanting to use these tests in the most useful and effective ways.

What Key Issues Must Be Considered?

The use of appropriate personality tests can help to increase both the perceived and actual fairness of the selection process.

However, there are a few issues to be considered in this area:

  • The same tests should be used when testing for the same position
  • All applicants should be treated consistently
  • Tests must be used to support other evidence and must not form the only basis for decision making
  • Only professionally developed tests supported by research and kept up to date should be used
  • Employment law means that organizations need to be confident that there is no intended bias or discriminatory impact based on gender, race, religion, disabilities, etc.

When Can Businesses Use Personality Tests?

For a company to legally defend its test use, it must prove that it is measuring important skills or aptitudes for effective performance in the job.

The United States Supreme Court has decided several cases that have clarified the place of employment testing in the context of discrimination law, in particular, for the discriminatory use of tests when considering employees for promotion by requiring tests beyond the education that may be required for the job.

A central finding is that the employer must be prepared to demonstrate that their selection process is job-related.

Best Practice Guidelines for Personality Tests
Best Practice Guidelines for Personality Tests

Personality tests may potentially be useful in personnel selection; of the 'big five’ personality traits, only ‘conscientiousness’ correlates substantially with traditional measures of job performance, but that correlation is strong enough to be predictive.

However, other factors of personality can correlate substantially with non-traditional aspects of job performance such as leadership and effectiveness in a team environment.

An Example: The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is a highly validated test generally used in a clinical psychology setting that may reveal potential mental health disorders.

However, this can be considered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as the employer knowing about a medical condition before an offer of employment, which is an illegal basis on which to base a hiring decision in the United States.

Notable situations in which the MMPI may be used, and is sometimes mandated, are in the final selection for police officers, firefighters, and other security and emergency personnel, especially when required to carry weapons.

In that context, an assessment of mental stability and fitness can be argued as ‘reasonably related’ and necessary in the performance of the job.

Best Practice Guidelines

Here are some best practice guidelines that organizations should follow when using personality tests in their recruitment process:

  • At the point of test delivery, or where test feedback is being given the organization should ensure that the administrators are suitably qualified and experienced. In the UK, this takes the form of ‘Level A’ and ‘Level B’ Occupational Test Users. Only personnel qualified to Level B can provide feedback on personality questionnaires and even then they need specific training to use each separate test.

  • Invitations to attend the test session should include a request for candidates to say whether they have a disability that may require any special arrangements or equipment. This is to ensure that their needs can be catered for and that they will not be disadvantaged.

  • All candidates should be sent practice questions so that they can familiarize themselves with the types of questions they will be expected to answer.

  • Before the test session, candidates should be told why the company is using the tests, how the scores will be used and who will have access to their results.

  • All candidates should have an opportunity to receive feedback and this should be conducted either face-to-face or over the telephone and should (must in the UK) be provided by professionally trained personnel.

  • All test results must be stored within a secure location and should be retained for only 12 months, after which the test results will be redundant. Confidentiality of test data must be maintained at all stages of the process.

  • Test results are only to be used for the specific purpose that was originally indicated and agreed with the test taker. For example, an organization will need the candidate’s permission to use their original test results if they apply for a subsequent job.

  • The HR department should continually monitor the tests being used to ensure that they remain relevant and that updated versions and norms are adopted as they become available.

Where Does This Leave You?

With over 2,500 personality tests available, most of which do more or less the same thing in more or less the same way, there is every incentive for the companies that sell them to make exaggerated claims to try to differentiate their product from their competitors.

These claims usually promise to do more with less.

For example, to produce more detailed reports from fewer questions or to produce more accurate results from the same number of questions.

Common sense dictates that there is a limit to how much information can realistically be obtained from 20 to 30 minutes answering simple multiple-choice questions.

The danger is that the human resources personnel who buy these tests fail to apply the necessary degree of skepticism and job candidates have their futures decided, in part anyway, by a test that has little or no validity or reliability.

Personality tests present a challenge to those employers who want to use them fairly and well.

Primarily, they need to have HR personnel, preferably with detailed knowledge of personality questionnaires, who can make realistic evaluations of the various offerings from test suppliers and then administer the tests properly and professionally.