When people talk about pre-hire personality tests, they usually mean questionnaires like the Myers Briggs Inventory, the Big Five or the DISC profile. A test, like a numeracy or literacy test, has a right or wrong answer so you can pass or fail it. A personality questionnaire, on the other hand, helps the employer figure out if your strengths and weaknesses match up with the job requirements. You can’t actually flunk or ace a personality test—it simply shows if you’re a good fit for the job.
So what happens if you’re knocked back for a dream role because you “failed” a personality test? Or if you’re repeatedly turned down for all sorts of jobs because you’re not what they employer is looking for? Is it possible that your personality is not fitting any job profile … or is something else going on?
Why Do Recruiters Use Personality Tests?
From an employer’s perspective, the results of a personality quiz can reveal far more about your character than it’s possible to glean from an interview. Interviews tend to focus on a candidate’s education, skills and experience and it’s possible for a well-rehearsed candidate to nail an interview, simply by parroting out an impressive set of responses. It’s tough for employers to gain insights into who you really are and how you might fit into the team culture through a single, 45-minute interview. That’s why recruiters use personality tests—it helps them assess suitability in ways that may not show up in an interview.
Another reason employers like personality tests is because they give a really good baseline for performance. If your star sales reps all score high on agreeableness, openness and extraversion, for instance, then it makes sense to filter candidates against these traits. The logic here is that a candidate with a similar personality style is more likely to have what it takes to perform in this role. I know it’s a simple way of looking at it, but personality tests give an easy apples-to-apples comparison for companies to replicate the skills that have worked for them before.
From a recruiter’s perspective, making a hiring mistake is expensive—like, really expensive. Some researchers attribute an eye-watering price tag of $240,000 to making a single bad hire when you factor in advertising fees, staff time, relocation, training, litigation costs and the negative impact on team morale and the company’s reputation.
Numbers like this make active champions of recruiters who are looking for insight into a candidate’s suitability for a job role. Advocates believe that personality tests provide a quick and repeatable way to weed out poorly aligned candidates before they make an expensive mistake.
Are the Benefits Real?
As a hiring tool, testing only works if the employer knows what they want. Sometimes, this is obvious. A company that’s hemorrhaging customers due to its rude and aggressive customer service may go out of its way to hire a person with strong people skills, for example. Or if the role requires many hours of traveling alone on the road, then logically we can assume that an independent person would be happier in the role than someone who gets her energy from working on teams.
Where pre-hire personality tests fall down is when a recruiter has a horribly stereotypical view about what it takes to succeed in a role—the notion that you have to be “bubbly” to work in HR or “authoritarian” to be a good leader. These assumptions are just plain wrong. Last year, the use of personality testing as a hiring tool came under fire in the UK when it transpired that former Co-operative Bank chairman Paul Flowers was given the job ahead of more experienced candidates after nailing his personality test. Flowers was later forced to quit over a £1.5 billion black hole in the bank’s finances, showing just how much damage personality testing can do when it’s given priority over other factors.
Personality is not destiny. Despite years of rigorous testing, no one has ever found a relationship between the results of a personality test and actual on-the-job performance. Every personality has the ability to be persuasive, or creative, or to lead, for instance: they just do it in different ways. So if a company is using tests to measure for that, all they’re really doing is weeding out potentially good candidates who just have an “unconventional” approach to the job role.
And that means you could be disqualified from a job quite unfairly.
Is There Anything You Can Do?
So what happens if you “fail” a pre-hire personality test? Is there anything you can do to get back in the game? The unsatisfactory answer is maybe; it depends how much weight the personality assessment holds in the decision-making process.
If you receive the dreaded email “sorry, we don’t think your personality style would be a good fit for us,” ask for a debrief. The recruiter should be willing to give you a copy of the personality test scoring so you can see how they’ve interpreted the results. This will give you a heads up on what their concerns are and how you might address them.
Once you’ve got the results, match the strengths identified in the report to the job requirements and identify any weaknesses. Is the employer pigeonholing candidates or testing for the wrong characteristics? For instance, you may be testing as quiet and introverted but still be the best salesperson you know—and your resume shows this. The chances are the company has stereotyped sales people as gregarious and extroverted and is overlooking the skills you bring to the job, such as listening and giving thoughtful advice.
If the whole thing looks off, then you might contact the recruiter and explain how you were surprised by the test results since the traits they describe as weaknesses have actually been the foundation for your success in previous roles. It may prompt them to take another look or it may not; but it’s worth a try.
A good hiring manager will use the personality test as one data point among many, so it’s a good idea to call on your collateral evidence as to why the company should move forward. If you can (and it won’t jeopardize your current job) encourage the hiring manager to call your references and speak about specific areas where you did not do well. If you’re confident that the referee is going to say that you excelled in a similar job role, then that may carry more weight than the one-shot of a personality test that’s completely devoid of the human factor.
Finally, ask the hiring manager if they ever hired anybody who didn’t look perfect on the test, but turned out to be a real winner—for instance, an introverted sales rep. Most people know stellar performers who defied the personality test results and really contributed to the company. Can you prompt the recruiter to think of you in that same category?
Employers want personality tests to be the silver bullet for weeding out the problematic candidates and delivering the perfect ones to the door—but they are not. To suggest that only one type of person can do each job, and to bounce good applicants for “failing” an assessment is pretty silly and can lead to the company developing a monoculture instead of good, diverse teams.
Ultimately, you need to treat the experience as a mutual evaluation of fit. “Failing” a candidate solely on the basis of her personality test suggests that the employer is looking for people who think and act in a certain way, rather than hiring people for their unique talents. They also think it’s okay to make hiring decisions based on a test with limited relevancy rather than meeting you and getting to know you. Is that a culture you want to be a part of?