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What Personality Tests Tell Us About Bias in Hiring

New perspectives gained after watching "Persona: The Dark Truth About Personality Tests"

Nikhil Bendre

by Nikhil Bendre - June 29th, 2021


After watching Persona: The Dark Truth About Personality Tests on HBO Max, we gained new perspectives on the pluses and minuses of using personality tests to determine access to opportunities, especially potential employment.

Personality tests have become the norm in several aspects of our lives, from dating to determining basic compatibility to even landing jobs. Whether it's Meyers Briggs, the Big 5, or any denomination of the two, these tests are becoming a more common aspect of determining how good of a fit we are likely to be in situations such as relationships and jobs. People will often include their Meyers-Briggs personality type in their dating app biographies in hopes of finding people with complementing personalities. Similarly, employers are using personality tests in addition to standard aptitude tests in order to gage whether or not potential candidates are likely to be a good fit within their organizations.

That being said, what are the implications of these tests? While the intentions may be harmless, are these tests resulting in unfair exclusion from opportunities? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of using personality tests as a hiring practice, as well as insights from the documentary that warn us about the dark side of putting too much weight in their results.

Pros of Using Personality Tests in Hiring

  • Fit: Personality tests can help managers get an idea about how a candidate will fit into the company, or more specifically, the position for which the candidate is applying.

  • Working Styles: These tests can give managers a better look into how to cater to individual working styles and optimize them. Management can get a better understanding on what they can do on their end to create a more successful working environment.

  • Team Placement: Understanding the inner workings of a potential candidate can help a hiring manager determine where they would work best and with whom. For team-heavy roles, this can be crucial.

  • Even Opportunity: A standardized exam provides a level playing field for candidates to be tested on non-technical skills.

The main pro of using personality tests when hiring candidates is that they give managers a look into the person that they are considering bringing on aside from their technical skills. Most hard skills can be learned, but it’s good to know how someone’s personality will click with those already on your team.

Cons of Using Personality Tests in Hiring

  • Cost: Personality tests can become quite expensive to administer as a routine hiring practice. Helios HR estimates that the cost can fall anywhere between $100 to $5,000 per candidate.

  • Accuracy: These tests can only be so accurate. Personality is something that is extremely difficult to measure, especially through a standardized exam. Factors that may skew the accuracy of the results include test anxiety, variations in cultural backgrounds and so many more.

  • Time: Personality tests can be time consuming and tedious for the applicant. This may result in the candidate getting deterred from continuing the application process. On the organization’s end, this process may lead to delays in hiring and an overall lack of efficiency.

  • Dishonesty: It’s fairly easy for a candidate to simply put down the answers they think the hiring managers want to see. Let’s face it, it's not rocket science to know the correct answers to questions such as “Are you a hardworking individual?” and “Do you work well in teams?”

Arguably the biggest con of personality tests is the fact that while they may avoid conscious human biases, the tests themselves may be biased. This can be extremely costly, as implementing a biased test throughout the hiring for an entire company can result in extremely skewed outcomes. This is why these tests are often regarded as unethical when used for hiring. 

We also must not forget about the problematic origins of personality tests. For example, the Persona documentary walks us through the story of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, the mother-daughter duo behind the Myers-Briggs personality test. Their publications, such as Give Me Death, reek of racism, eugenics, misogyny, and overall white supremacy. We must ask ourselves if these problematic views seeped into their creation of the Myers-Briggs test and act accordingly.

Best Practices for Using Personality Assessments in Hiring

If your HR department and hiring managers ultimately decide to implement personality tests into the organization’s standard hiring practices, let’s touch on some best practices to make sure you’re navigating them correctly.

  • Make sure that the role of these tests in the hiring process is supplementary. You cannot put too much substance into the results of a personality test, as there is truly no sure-shot way to measure someone as a person. These tests must be regarded as suggestive guidelines and not much more.

  • Vet the questions before administering the test. Some questions may be laced with subconscious biases and ableism, so you’ll want to ensure that any question that could possibly cause offense is tossed out. Another major theme of the Persona documentary discussed how people with mental health issues and disorders were discriminated against and withheld from opportunities solely based on how they scored on a personality test. Check out the film and pay close attention to the story of Kyle Behm, a university student who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and flagged for it when applying for a position at Kroger.

  • Gear the questions within the personality test to how the candidate would fit into the position for which they are applying. If you know that a certain position requires a certain type of personality, look for that, rather than filtering candidates based on a general set of questions.

Personality tests definitely have their positives and negatives, especially when they’re being used to determine people’s worthiness of potential career opportunities. It’s important to know how much weight to put into the results and how to balance them with other aspects such as an actual conversational or technical interview. If used correctly, personality tests can be a great helper in filtering candidates for positions, but we must also acknowledge the dangers and biases that are undoubtedly within them.