A recruiter’s dream: Fake-proof personality test

Personality tests only work if employer knows traits needed

The recruitment process requires hiring managers and recruiters to see past the mask of perfection candidates hold up — from resumés that only highlight their best qualities to chic interview outfits to answers designed to impress interviewers.

Personality tests — standardized questionnaires that uncover candidates’ underlying personality traits — are supposed to help recruiters objectively pick candidates best suited to a particular job, but even these tests can’t weed out candidates who are trying to make a good impression.

“You’ll get one item at a time and it will say, for example, ‘How creative are you? Rank this on a scale of one to seven.’ And then it would have another question, ‘How hard working are you? Rank this on a scale of one to seven.’ It’s very easy for people to selectively enhance their responses on these types of tests and basically say they’re perfect in every dimension,” said Jacob Hirsh, a psychology PhD student at the University of Toronto.

But a new computerized quiz developed at the university could offer recruiters a “fake-proof” personality test.

Like other traditional personality tests, the new test measures five dimensions of personality: Conscientiousness, emotional stability, extraversion, openness and agreeableness. But the new test, developed by Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology, and tested by Peterson and Hirsh, asks candidates to choose between equally negative or positive personality traits, instead of rating how much each individual trait reflects their personality.

Even when candidates are asked to inflate their responses to make a good impression, the test still predicts performance, said Hirsh. The two compared the new test to the Likert, a traditional rating-scale test, by asking students to make a good impression or answer honestly.

The Likert test wasn’t able to predict scholastic performance, as measured by GPA, when students were “faking,” said Hirsh. However, the new test predicted performance under both conditions.

“Most times people aren’t outright lying. Some people will, but it’s usually more subtle than that. They’ll sort of highlight this characteristic or maybe focus on how they would like to be,” said Hirsh. “In this test, we actually asked people explicitly to try and fake the test. If it can survive that, it can also survive the more subtle forms of faking that would go on during job applications.”

This kind of forced-choice test isn’t new, said Shawn Bakker, a psychologist with Psychometrics Canada, an Edmonton-based provider of psychometric assessments. But it is the first to be empirically tested, said Hirsh.

Hirsh and Peterson also did an economic utility analysis, and found an estimated 23-per-cent increase in productivity output when using this new test compared to the standard Likert test.

“If you had someone with a $75,000 salary, using this test over the other one, we estimate there would be about a $17,000 increase in productivity,” said Hirsh. “The reason for that is if you use a standardized test when people are faking, you’re not going to end up picking the right people.”

While personality tests can be useful, they only work if the organization knows what kinds of personality traits are needed for a specific job, said Bakker. For example, conscientiousness is considered the number one trait for predicting job performance but if the organization is looking for someone who is creative, high conscientiousness can actually impede the creative process, he said.

“The personality of someone who would work in customer service would be different from an editor, which would be different from a salesman. That’s why we’re always encouraging people to think about the job itself and what needs to be done. That will focus them on the things that will make a difference between successful and unsuccessful people,” he said.

This will also make the hiring decision, and use of the test, more legally defensible if someone were to take a case to court, he said.

However, personality tests aren’t the be all and end all in hiring, said Bakker.

“The frailties of all these personality tests would be the same. Nothing’s going to predict 100 per cent a person’s future behaviour,” he said.

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