Personality: Does it really matter on the job?

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Do you remember the old song “Personality?” penned by the R&B singer Lloyd Price, it’s the one with the unforgettable lyrics:

’cause you got personality
Walk, personality
Talk, personality
Smile, personality
Charm, personality
Love, personality
And of Cause you’ve got
A great big heart
So over and over
Oh, I’ll be a fool to you

It was so big, it even was covered by singers as disparate as Jerry Lee Lewis (Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire) and Frank Sinatra.

I thought of “Personality” recently when my teenage daughter returned home from her freshman year at Muhlenberg College. Like many other kids her age, she’s been busy looking for a summer job. She applied to a lot of places in Freeport, the Maine Mall, the Old Port, and places in between. Retail, waitress, office help—she is willing to do just about anything to make some spending money.

My daughter filled out a lot of applications, had some interviews. Something finally turned up. But what really blew me away was when one prospective employer required her to take a 110-question personality test. Really? For a part-time summer job probably paying minimum wage?

But apparently personality testing of job applicants is quite the rage. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, as of late 2011, 18% of all employers required employees or job applicants to take some kind of personality test, including 43% for entry-level positions.

Can personality testing really disclose whether an employee is going to be a good fit? Hard to say. At least one recent study at the University of Toronto suggests that employers would be better off asking someone who knows the job applicant—even a close friend—to assess the job seeker’s personality rather than rely on a self-assessment.

But even more disturbing—and one thing that I wasn’t really aware of—is that these tests can be a means to screen out disabled workers in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You see, the ADA places strict limitations on employers who wish to conduct medical examinations. For example, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a test commonly used by many employers, contains scales to measure traits such as depression and paranoia. While the MMPI is not a true personality test, it is being used (wrongly) for that purpose.

So when an employer that only wants to hire smiley-face employees uses the MMPI or personality tests to exclude folks with depression, guess what? That may be disability discrimination.

Excluding large numbers of otherwise qualified applicants from work not only may be discriminatory, but it probably is also a poor business practice in what truly has become Prozac Nation.   According to an article last year in the New York Times, 10% of all Americans now take antidepressant medication, including 25% of women in their 40’s and 50’s. As the Court of Appeals humorously questioned in the MMPI case, “Can [an employer] really fill its management positions if it won’t promote disgruntled Cubs fans?” (Good thing like me they are not long-suffering Cleveland sports fans).

No one can blame an employer for wanting to hire reliable, courteous, good-natured employees. But can a personality test really determine who fits the bill? Isn’t the past prologue? Wouldn’t employers be better off making such judgments on the basis of a job interview and references, not a written personality test?

If the tests do work, then as for me, it’s a good thing I didn’t have to take such a test to get my first job—sorting returnable soda bottles. Maybe the test would have uncovered my own anger management issues. When I finished that extremely boring summer on the job, I smashed 100 bottles to celebrate!