Cult of personality tests

How big business probes potential hires

With the increased use of personality employment tests, the résumé and cover letter may soon be a thing of the past.

Perhaps just another condition for living in the computer age, with online job applications and background checks galore, personality pre-employment screening is quickly becoming a common feature in corporate America. Awaiting job applicants at many large retailers are 100 questions designed to measure personality compatibility before an interview is even scheduled.

Anything, it would seem, is fair game on these personality tests, with questions ranging from comfort levels in crowds to an applicant’s opinion regarding the legal system. Applicants are given a score—color-coded green, yellow or red—that indicates which applicants are worth interviewing in person, with little regard for actual work experience. Critics have called the tests discriminatory, resulting in lower scores for some racial or socioeconomic groups.

Unicru, an Oregon-based company, is one of the administrators of the personality tests and provides the questions and guidance for pre-employment screening used at numerous retailers in Chico. Founded in 1987, Unicru estimates it will process up to 15 million applications this year for its clients, which include Target, Raley’s, Albertsons and Lowe’s Home Improvement.

Kim Beasley, Unicru public relations representative, said the tests “try to measure underlying traits that are important to clients [including] customer service attributes, sales [and] dependability.”

David Scarborough, chief scientist at Unicru and one of the test’s creators, is perhaps its most passionate defender. He said for hourly jobs, personality can be one of the best predictors for job performance.

“I personally believe that when you use a well-designed test, you are helping that applicant find their way into jobs that they are going to be successful at,” Scarborough said.

The benefits for employers are hard to ignore. Chris Ahearn, spokeswoman for Lowe’s Home Improvement, said the Unicru testing helps by making the application process more efficient.

Illegible handwriting on applications is no longer a problem, she said, and the system “can gather information about potential employees and then plug them in where they best fit.”

Lowe’s has been working with Unicru for about three years, and although Lowe’s does not release turnover figures, Ahearn said the Unicru system helps with openings that “change frequently.”

But with ambiguous questions and others that refer to private matters, the real concern is whether or not these tests discriminate against specific groups of people.

If applicants are completing the test honestly, questions about comfort levels in crowds may lead to discrimination against those with mental disabilities, such as social anxiety disorder.

In a June 2005 case in Illinois involving a psychological test called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, presiding Judge Terence Evans cited a federal Health and Welfare code that states it is discriminatory for employers to use “qualification standards, employment tests, or other selection criteria that screen out or tend to screen out an individual with a disability.”

Scarborough said unlike the MMPI test, Unicru’s are “designed to measure normal personalities.”

Although Scarborough said to date there has not been a successful lawsuit against Unicru, Claudia Center, the senior staff attorney for Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center in San Francisco, said she thinks there is definitely a case to be made against the tests.

“California law does not permit psychological testing of job applicants,” Center said, noting the alleged distinction from personality testing. She said any testing should be job-related and consistent with business necessity.

Center said she thinks that any company administering personality tests in California “would have a hard uphill battle,” because addition to proving that the tests were not psychological, which Center believes is nearly impossible, Unicru would have to prove that applicants with disabilities are not screened out and that applicants’ privacy was not invaded.

“These tests have a horrible reputation,” Center said. “Those types of questions will come out different depending on the demographic—race, age, income.”

With no confidence in the test’s abilities to screen employees without discrimination, Center said she doesn’t believe the tests are predictive, and that simpler factors could make the hiring process easier.

“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” Center said.

Jennifer Beyer, a communications design student in her senior year at Chico State University, said she has taken the personality tests before when applying for jobs.

“I think some of the questions were [relevant], but some I have no idea what they were asking,” Beyer said.

Beyer’s current job working in the office for the College of Business at the university did not require any such personality test.

In an independent research project David Autor, a professor at MIT, took an objective look at whether any discrimination existed in Unicru’s tests against non-white applicants. With the cooperation of Unicru, the study used an unnamed national retail company with more than 1,300 stores as a sample group. The retailer was an exception, as Unicru does not otherwise require nor collect information on applicants’ ethnicity.

Although the data showed that minorities “performed significantly worse on the test,” Autor, using phrases you would expect from an economics professor, said “statistically speaking the difference was a case of standard deviation.” The study showed that African Americans were 33 percent more likely to be flagged red than white applicants. Hispanics also had a greater chance of being flagged red.

But the study did show that minority hiring was not adversely affected because hiring rates of minorities were unchanged after using the test.

“The testing probably makes employers less prejudicial and more objective in making those [hiring] decisions,” Autor said. “The effect was to improve the quality of selection—better white candidates, better black candidates.”

Autor distinguished between “screening” (like Unicru’s test) and “matching” tests. While screening simply discards applicants who do not fit the job opening, matching would distribute potential employees amongst different employers where they fit best.

“Good things happen if you put people in the right jobs—length of service rises, frequency of firing falls—those are all gains for that employer,” Autor said.

Whatever the gain for society might be, issues of discrimination will always be at the center of the pre-employment screening process, especially those that involve standardized testing. If personality traits can be determined by 100 simple questions and a computer, the potential for asking other questions that could determine sexual orientation, religion or political ideology may exist. Scarborough was adamant that neither Unicru nor its clients want to know that kind of information, and said that Unicru consistently monitors and adheres to legal nuances in each state.

“I think if everyone used psych testing we would live in a better world,” Scarborough said. “When you steer someone away from a job they wouldn’t like, you’ve done them a favor.”