The Critical Need to Supplement Personality Testing for Recruitment and Development

A down economy need not prohibit organizations from launching effective business strategies. In tough times strong organizations survive while weak ones die. Unfortunately, not every company understands that the way to stay viable and strong is to invest in its people. This oversight therefore offers a tremendous competitive advantage for organizations who believe that training and professional development are critical for retaining and maximizing the most from the talent that leaders count on to pull their organizations through. In short, employee and organizational development equal business development.

Psychometric assessments can be a cost-effective and efficient strategy for evaluating individual and team effectiveness, identifying training needs and selecting the right people4,5. Strategically speaking, good assessments help your business develop its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, seize opportunities and deal with economic threats. That said, it is not widely known that personality tests – traditionally popular with training and development professionals – are incomplete tools for selection and development. Take time this first quarter of 2009 to review your HR and training department’s practices to see if you need to supplement any of your initiatives that rely on personality testing.

What is personality testing?
Personality refers to innate and relatively mental structures that provide general direction for individuals’ choices and behavior1,11. Among the many theories of personality, the “Big Five Model” is arguably the most popular and well-validated. The Big Five dimensions represent broad traits believed to encompass the range of normal personality2:

  • Agreeableness: Highly agreeable people tend to be altruistic, warm, generous, trusting and cooperative.
  • Conscientiousness: Highly conscientiousness people are typically efficient, punctual, well-organized and dependable.
  • Emotional Stability: Emotionally stable individuals are usually calm, relaxed and generally free from worry.
  • Extraversion: Highly extraverted people are typically highly sociable, assertive, active, energetic and talkative.
  • Openness to Experience: People high in openness tend to be imaginative, original, unconventional and independent.

Some important points about this model…  First, the traits are dimensions, not types, so people vary continuously on them, with most people falling in between the extremes. Second, the traits are stable over a 45-year period beginning in young adulthood11. Third, the traits are, at least partly, heritable or genetic7,8. Fourth, cross-cultural studies9 have confirmed that the traits are universal. For all of these reasons, personality testing is often used in an attempt to help gauge the interests, motivations and broad behavior patterns of candidates and incumbents.

Is personality testing useful for recruitment and training?
For decades personality tests have been popular for pre-employment screening. Despite the validity of the Big Five model (or any model of personality), personality traits have serious limitations when applied to industrial-organizational psychology. Research shows that personality tests are poor predictors of workplace performance10, whereas measures of general mental ability (reasoning, planning, abstract thinking, comprehending complex ideas and learning quickly)3 and job-specific skills are stronger and more consistent predictors of performance6,12. In fact, the popular O*net database of job classifications and corresponding requirements ( describes positions in terms of skills and competencies rather than broad personality traits. It is not surprising therefore that many companies are either replacing or supplementing personality testing with competency testing.

Simply stated, personality tests do not provide sufficient measurements or insights to give you an accurate understanding of a person to help you make a sound hiring or developmental decision. Moreover, it is questionable whether most of them yield legally defensible information5. Measuring “how” people express themselves in general circumstances is good information, but it is markedly incomplete. In today’s competitive market where the best candidates for positions are aggressively pursued, using the best tool for hiring and training is not a luxury, but a necessity. The best practice approach to selection and training is not personality testing but rather skills assessment – i.e., measuring cognitive performance and competencies related to the service-hospitality industry.

How does a skills assessment supplement personality testing?
Relying on a personality test to guide your hiring, performance analysis and training initiatives is much like relying on a road map to guide your vacation choices – it is interesting but terribly incomplete information. As one reasonable critic of personality testing put it, “Without weather forecasts, resort reviews, activity guides and price data, a long-planned, restful excursion could end up at a wilderness boot camp.” A skills assessment, on the other hand, is a specialized tool that analyzes the attitude and skill set of a candidate or incumbent. Similar to the roadmap analogy, a well-constructed skills assessment provides the critical information left out by the simple personality tests so often touted by consultants and vendors as the golden keys to recruitment, results and retention.

Personality variables are not synonymous with skills and abilities. You cannot truly develop employees based on personality given the fixed nature of the Big Five traits. But leaders can impact learned attitudes and behaviors that underlie important skills and competencies. Therefore, the results of a skills assessment can be leveraged in powerful ways that add immediate and lasting value to businesses. First, they help managers hire better employees. Next, they are used to troubleshoot performance problemswith existing employees. Finally, they benefit in helping develop employees into better performers. It is also important to mention that some skills assessments utilize legally defensible analytics, which protect test takers and organizations from unfair results and biased hiring or development decisions5. Therefore, unlike personality tests, the results from skills assessments have superior validity and can be used across the employment cycle for an individual.

As an added bonus, skills assessments also benefit the broader organization by allowing leaders to benchmark the competencies for positional success, evaluate the effectiveness of training programs in an unbiased manner and facilitate more specific and useful job descriptions and succession plans. The use of a well-validated and industry-specific skills assessment is a business strategy to seriously consider adopting in the current economic climate. It is an important, cost effective and easy-to-implement step in making your HR and training departments profit centers in 2009 and beyond.


OTHER ARTICLES BY Fiona Passalacqua, New York

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