Imagine applying for a leadership development program (LDP) within a large corporation. This program is known worldwide for how successfully it turns employees into effective leaders. Admittance to the LDP is a golden ticket to a truly bright career filled with brilliant mentors, world-class training, and opportunity after opportunity.

All you have to do is take a personality test.

When the test results come in you learn that you scored in the top five percent for your department category. Unfortunately, you also learn that despite your score you lack sufficient leadership potential and have been rejected.

What happened?

Personality tests and skill assessments are becoming increasingly commonplace in HR processes. Recruiters use them for candidates, managers use them to understand their teams, and leaders use them to find and train future leaders. While such tests can be helpful, the problem is that they are often built incorrectly, use bad science, and/or place people in immovable boxes. The end result being that good, talented people are being turned away when they shouldn’t be. What’s going wrong and what can we do about it?

The We Prefer to Hire Men Test

The example we just read isn’t made up. It’s a real example from a real company, and it’s not uncommon. A woman, qualified in every way and already flagged as a high-potential, was rejected by a test that simultaneously said she had all the right skills, but didn’t have the right personality to be a potential leader. The test had been built using the profiles of current leaders, almost all of whom were straight, white men.

In other words, she failed the We Prefer to Hire Men Test.

While no two people are alike, our backgrounds can shape our personalities. If a testing model is based on a homogenous group of people (white men, for instance) it’s not very likely to reward people who differ from that group. As an HR professional, you need to make sure you’re not buying software or running programs that exclude people for the wrong reasons.

Bad Science

A lot of personality tests can feel like psychological snake oil. They sound smart and claim to offer a wide range of insights, but they lack consistent, scientific support. Many even claim to have been created with the help of scientists.

This doesn’t make a test scientific though.

A test is truly scientific when it’s been reviewed, has statistically significant findings, and can be recreated. If vendors try selling you tests they’ve built themselves ask for data and peer reviewed studies that back up their claims before committing to investing in them.

When it comes to personality tests the basic rule of thumb is that you need to be using tests that consistently have scientific support. Avoid tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or corporate tests with no science behind them. Instead, use tests like the Big Five.

Putting People in Boxes

The podcast Hidden Brain recently ran a great piece on personality tests. In that episode they shared a variety of stories, including one where a man was doing great work at his job, until he took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. After he took the test his colleagues didn’t trust him anymore because they felt he didn’t have the right personality for the job.

“After that moment,” he said, “Any time I made a mistake or I said something or had an idea, either my co-workers or myself would say – but that’s just because you’re this personality type. Maybe there’s a job better suited to your personality type. And it made it so people didn’t trust my opinion, didn’t trust my ideas, didn’t trust my conclusions, didn’t trust what – any action that I took throughout the day.”

This is one of the problems that can emerge with personality tests – we end up applying labels to people that limit their ability to do things that fall outside of their test scores. We box people in and refuse to let them out. The end result being that talented employees can suddenly find themselves kept from work they are good at.

The basic rule of thumb is that a person’s past performance will be a better guide than a personality score.

It’s Not All Bad

While there are certainly problems with personality tests, this doesn’t mean they can’t and shouldn’t be used. Using them correctly will allow you to properly identify and develop talent while providing a positive employee experience. So how can you make sure you’re doing it right?

With every test there are three things you should be checking:

  • Does the test properly account for diversity?
  • Does it have scientific credibility?
  • Will it properly identify skills and potential without putting people in boxes?

It turns out that there’s a simple test for personality tests – If you are unable to answer yes to all three of these questions then you should probably stay far, far away from whatever is being sold to you. However, if a test does cover these points you can use it as a tool to guide your hiring and internal mobility programs.

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