Testing personalities

Last year alone, government departments spent one-and-a-half million dollars on psychometric tests. Some of these tests were on people who’d worked for them for years. Was this a good use of public money?

AnxiousIf you’ve been through a restructure, you will know how stressful it is to be told your career is on the line while you’re left wondering how you’ll pay the mortgage.

As if that’s not bad enough, many public sector employers are now demanding that even long-standing employees take a personality or psychometric test before they will be considered for a new position. (Psychometric refers to the measurement of personality, not numeracy, literacy and cognitive tests).

At the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, for example, all 135 health and safety inspectors had their roles disestablished. They had to apply again for the new, but similar, positions and undergo psychometric testing to be considered. Most of them had been inspectors for years so their abilities should have been well understood.

As one of the health and safety inspector told Working Life: “People were pretty peeved. Everyone’s job was disestablished and you had to apply for positions. That’s when they brought in this online psychometric test. Most people did it because they had to – this was their livelihood at stake – but they were pissed off.

“Some people refused to do it so they didn’t go any further with the process and took redundancy.”


Thin ice

MBIE is far from alone. Personality or psychometric testing is being widely used in the public sector. An official information request by the PSA revealed that many government departments use psychometric tests to decide who will get jobs in a restructure.

They are skating on thin ice, if a recent Employment Court decision is anything to go by.

Transfield fell through it when an employee took his case to the Employment Court after being dismissed because he’d failed the psychometric test.

The employee, Derek Gilbert, had a long and excellent record as a skilled, reliable and conscientious worker. All of this was discounted.

“To justify its extraordinary decision to ignore completely what it knew about Mr Gilbert’s performance in his job, [Transfield] was driven to say that its long-established and still current performance assessment mechanisms are of limited, if any value. That beggars belief,” said Judge Colgan.

“This is an example of an employer not only ignoring relevant criteria (skills and experience) but also of taking into account irrelevant criteria. Transfield’s recourse to stereotypical assumption . . . was not what a fair and reasonable employer should have done in all the circumstances,” he went on to say.

David Beck, the lawyer who took the case, says personality testing militates against people with strong views. Derek Gilbert was certainly in that camp as a determined health and safety rep and an outspoken delegate.


Falling back on stereotypes

Robert SpillaneOver in Australia, Robert Spillane, a professor of management at Macquarie University, Sydney, has hailed the court decision as an example of where New Zealand is leading the way, ahead of Australia.

“As the judge suggested, personality tests fall back on stereotypes. If there was evidence – and bear in mind there have been thousands of studies – that these tests could predict performance on the job, as a professor of management, I couldn’t object to them. But the fact is they are used against people on the basis of stereotyping.

“They are as discriminatory as age, religion, gender or anything else. After rehearsing the arguments for 40 years, I conclude they are unreliable, invalid, and cannot predict work performance.”

Not mincing words, he says you may as well send employees off to a fortune teller. “Until large numbers of people say the emperor has no clothes, this farce will continue.”


Measuring ghosts

Personality tests have a long history. Back in the 19th century, so-called phrenologists tried to pin down a person’s character by measuring the shape and size of their skull. In the 1920s, a new job title - people sorters – popped up in US. They sought to measure personality to ensure a potential employee was a good fit for the company and wouldn’t cause trouble.

Many tests, such as the MMPI, were developed to diagnose dysfunction in mentally ill patients. It proved not to be a success but some saw its other potential and soon it was adapted to screen people for jobs. It’s spawned hundreds of adaptations and continues to do so.   

Later in his career, the creator of the MMPI test, Starke Hathaway, questioned whether it was possible to measure personality. It’s as elusive as a ghost.

The most popular personality test by far is the Myers Briggs temperament indicator, created by Isabel Briggs as a “worker sorter”. She was not a psychologist but a great reader of Carl Jung’s work.

Her test classifies people into types based on four dimensions: for example, extrovert versus introvert; thinker versus feeler. It’s based on the theory that we have an inborn, unchanging personality. However, research shows that three-quarters of those who take the test get a different personality profile if they take it again.

“Alas, the virtues of tests that try to assess personality are illusory,” wrote psychiatrist Salley Satel in the New York Times. “Research shows that a single person’s scores are unstable, often changing over the course of years, weeks, even hours”.

Worse, she added, there is little evidence of the test scores correlating with work performance, managerial effectiveness, or team building.

The Myers Briggs test is widely used for recruitment and training courses. It’s been described as the equivalent of a teen magazine’s “Could you date Justin Bieber?” test. The National Academy of Science has concluded it is neither reliable nor valid. Even so, it’s a multi-million dollar industry.


Sticky, messy people

Whatever you think of personality tests, and clearly many employers must think they are valid recruitment tools, it is difficult to understand why they are being used in organisational restructures. Staff may have worked in the organisation for years and will have had numerous performance reviews. Their skills, aptitudes and failings should be well known to their employer.

nigel haworthWe asked Nigel Haworth, professor of human resource development at Auckland University, why so many HR teams seem to be fixated on psychometric tests.

“I tie it to the professionalisation of the HR function. HR has sought to become a much more serious management function and with that, there’s an attempt to try and ape the harder sciences – trying to use what are presented as objective techniques to make measurements and then make a judgement. Psychometric testing is one those measurement tools.”

He doesn’t condemn psychometric tests out of hand, saying they’ve got their place but need to be treated with a healthy scepticism.

“The problem is, they can be helpful up to a point – but we don’t know where that point is. At a very simple level, if someone is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the interviewer, you might find some dissonance between what they’re saying and what the testing says that might be helpful.”

But he sees no place for these sorts of tests in deciding who gets what job in a restructuring. “The employer has a whole file of performance appraisal built up over years which is clearly far more significant than a one-off test that may be at best flawed and at worse irrelevant.

“The worrying thing is that it’s a rejection of a lot of previous material and practice. It’s become almost a cargo cult that psychometric testing will provide a clearer answer than what is always messy data about people’s performance.

“People’s performance is always messy: they’re good at this thing but not good at that. They were good last year because life was going well, but not this year because their marriage is falling apart. Reducing it to psychological essentials misses the reality of work and work performance.”

In her book The Cult of Personality Testing, Annie Murphy Paul talks about the “stickiness” of human beings “The tests substitute a tidy abstraction for a real rumpled human being, a sterile idea for a flesh-and-blood individual. No doubt these generic forms are easier to understand (and, not incidentally, to manipulate) than actual people, in all their sticky specificity.

“Personality tests cannot begin to capture the complex human beings we are. They cannot specify how we will act in particular roles or situations. They cannot predict how we will change over time.”


Real-life consequences

test sheet and broken pencilIt seems extraordinary, indeed very wrong, that something so controversial is being used to make decisions that will have a profound effect on people’s lives.

Jeff recently applied for a job as an accountant with a government department. He’s highly experienced and, in the interviews, was given every indication the job was his. Then he was sent off to a company to take numeracy and personality tests. Later, he was interviewed by the company owner to assess his personality. He didn’t get the job.  

What went wrong? Jeff thinks he made a bad mistake in telling the company he thought their tests were rubbish. Later, he found out the person who “assessed” his personality wasn’t a registered psychologist. Through an official information request, he got hold of the report.

“I thought a lot of it was defamatory and totally untrue. He perverted what I said. For example, I was asked how I would know if I was doing a good job. I said I would keep in touch with my manager and seek feedback. This was perverted to say I was dependent and constantly in need of feedback.”

“On his say-so, I lost a good job I was highly qualified for and really wanted. All because I dared to question his psychobabble. It’s the only reason I can think of.” 

The consequences of failing a personality test can be horribly real. As Annie Paul Murphy says: “Our society is making crucial decisions – whether a parent should receive custody of a child; whether a worker should be offered a job – on the basis of deeply flawed information.

“Personality tests do their dirty work, asking intrusive questions and assigning limiting labels, providing an ostensibly objective rationale to which testers can point with an apologetic shrug.”


This article is from the September 2013 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.