It’s not us, it’s you

Employers are increasingly using personality tests for screening and hiring candidates, but do they really help make the right decision?

Many job interviews begin with the not-a-question question, “Tell us about yourself.” It’s an opportunity for candidates to add some perspective and color to their resume and cover letter. It’s also a chance for employers to start forming an impression of who the candidate is and what they could bring to the company. However, that’s predicated on an assumption that the candidate is telling the truth.

Let’s get this out of the way right from the get-go — the hiring process is based on lies. Lies told by candidates and employers alike, both trying to paint the best picture of themselves for the other. If “lies” rubs you the wrong way, then maybe half truths feel more comfortable. Or perhaps embellishments or exaggerations do the trick.

Regardless, no one is ever completely honest, and no hiring process is ever completely transparent. A great deal of that — and maybe I’m being willfully naive — is unconscious. Employers, candidates — they don’t mean to lie to each other. But we’re all pretty good at lying to ourselves and seeing a version of the professional or organization we want to be and thinking it’s who we are.

Enter the personality test, which most workers have probably taken at one point or another in their careers. In theory, these tests, such as Myers-Briggs, can provide insight into what type of employee and co-worker an individual may be, and companies have used them for years.

What’s happening now though is a bit different than simply trying to find out what management style will work best for your employees. A recent article in the New York Times profiled how employers are now using personality tests for remote and hybrid teams, which doesn’t sound so bad. What could be worrisome is that some employers have started using those same tests to make decisions around hiring and career development.

Some are questioning whether these personality tests are up to date or useful. That hasn’t stopped companies from implementing them. At McKinsey, for instance, some consultants look at the results from employee personality tests to ensure there’s a balance of introverts and extroverts on a team when staffing projects. Scotiabank is now partly focused on personality test results in its school hiring to bring in more diverse candidates. They’re far from the only ones.

The problem with personality tests is the same as the problem with resumes and interviews, and here I’ll quote Oscar Wilde — “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

When we take a personality test, all kinds of variables are going to affect our responses. Did we have a bad day? Get enough sleep last night? Eat a healthy breakfast? Do we want to present a certain image of ourselves, either the image we’d like to be or the one we think the employer wants to see?

If you really wanted a job — not just wanted but needed a job — how would you respond to the statements/questions on a personality test administered by a prospective employer? Probably in a way that you think makes you look like the best employee. And if every candidate answers like that, how effective are the hiring decisions the company is making?

Personality tests can be fun, even insightful, but when it comes to hiring they are inherently flawed because they depend on honesty, and it’s hard to be honest when you’re giving the answer you think someone else wants to hear.