Moneyball in the Workplace: Employment Personality Tests Have Evolved from Phrenology to Facebook

By Beato, Greg | Reason, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Moneyball in the Workplace: Employment Personality Tests Have Evolved from Phrenology to Facebook


Beato, Greg, Reason


FORGET THE PRESTIGIOUS college degree. Skip the unpaid internship at a respected company. Those things are headed the way of fancy resume paper. In the future, whether or not you land your dream gig will depend more on how often your retweets get retweeted, how far you live from the office, or how you answer multiple-choice questions designed to assess your empathy, sociability, and ability to deal with repetitive tasks in highly regulated environments.

Companies such as Xerox, The Wall Street Journal recently reported, now pay more attention to a candidate's "personality" than they do to his work experience---at least when they're looking for people to staff their customer service call centers. Such screenings are not only about temperament. Employers are also evaluating how a worker's commute might affect his loyalty and which social networks he participates in. With mountains of data at their fingertips, work force analytics consultants can now determine what attributes and propensities are associated with success in a given position. If you possess those attributes and propensities, congratulations, you start on Monday.

This is not an entirely new development. In 1830 George Combe, one of England's most prominent phrenologists, explained that he could tell if a prospective servant was conscientious or untrustworthy by examining the bumps and bulges on his head. Nearly a century later, advocates of deterministic skull measurement continued to tout its potential as a human resources tool, with a letter writer in The Phrenological Journal describing it as an efficiency tool on par with typewriters and telephones. "It seems but a short time in the future," the correspondent suggested hopefully, "when our favorite Science will have the confidence of business men to such an extent that an applicant will be asked, 'Have you a scientific description of your Mental and Physical qualities?'"

Given contemporary harassment laws, extended head fondling as a means of assessing potential hires should probably be avoided. But while phrenology never caught on in the workplace, the desire to take a quick, quantitative, predictive measure of would-be workers never died. As Annie Murphy Paul documents in her 2004 book The Cult of Personality Testing, psychometric visionaries throughout the 20th century invented instruments such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the MyersBriggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in their efforts to map the human psyche. Business interests saw the utility of these tools, which sort disparate individuals into more general stock0keeping categories that are easier to track and manage.

Like George Combe, commercial outfits that adopted tests like the MMPI and MBTI hoped to divine the intrinsic nature of potential employees. Were they honest or deceitful? Were they dependable, obedient, outgoing? Or would they take a lot of sick days, spend too much time at lunch, and steal company property?

While critics have repeatedly challenged the efficacy of these tests, today's advocates say the evaluation process has fundamentally changed because so much more data are available. Imagine, for example, a database of 10,000 individuals who have proven themselves to be effective call-center employees. A company might have access to their personality test results, their training records, the performance metrics that are kept on them each month as they go about their jobs, and so on. Data scientists analyze this information in myriad ways, eventually detecting useful trends.

Employees who live within 10 minutes of the office may be 20 percent likelier to stay at the company at least six months than ones who live 45 minutes away or further. Employees who have a college degree may be less inclined to stick with a call-center job than those who do not. According to The Wall Street Journal, Evolv, the company assisting Xerox in its recruitment efforts, determined that the ideal candidate to staff the company's call centers "uses one or more social networks, but not more than four,"

As more companies adopt this approach to recruitment, expect a parallel push to expand employee protection laws. …

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