Snake Oil or Science? That's the Raging Debate on Personality Testing

By Emmett, Arielle | Workforce Management, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Snake Oil or Science? That's the Raging Debate on Personality Testing


Emmett, Arielle, Workforce Management


Companies try hard to find predictors of success in such tests, but experts question their validity and value

TO CATCH A CROOK or untether a dark horse en route to corporate stardom, Robert Hogan, an organizational psychologist and president of Hogan Assessments Inc. in Tulsa, Oklahoma, relies on personality inventory tests. A leader in the industry, he crafts tests meticulously, asking all kinds of questions-and sometimes repeating the same questions in subtly altered ways-to ascertain a job candidate's tastes and preferences, level of self-confidence, achievement in school, even reactions to wounded animals and big noisy crowds. His purpose is to improve staffing decisions and thus increase ROI by giving Fortune 1000 corporations and government groups a sense of individual personality and "fit" with job requirements or corporate culture. Hogan calls his tests a probative revelation of the "bright side, the dark side and the inside."

For example, one company, Overnight Transportation in Atlanta, was able to reduce on-the-job delinquency such as fighting, drunkenness and damage to goods or vehicles by 50 to 100 percent by using the Hogan Personality Inventory to perform mass screenings of 1,500 job candidates. Another 1,500 candidates were used as untested "controls." Savings: more than $1 million each year. "A single accident alone can cost a company $100,000," Hogan says.

Hogan is the editor of the book Personality Psychology in the Workplace, the bible of a movement that makes personality testing and "behavioral competence" a jobrecruitment necessity. But although personality testing now touches the lives of millions of job candidates and employees at every level, not all of it is defensible. "Of the 2,500 test publishers out there, only three or four are legitimate," Hogan says. "Most of these people are selling snake oil."

He and other experts cite poor test construction, what Hogan calls "laughable" research-validation techniques, confused goals and test misapplication and abuse as testing problems. Even more, "lots of people are selling tests and lots of people in human resources don't know what they're looking at," says Glenn DeBiasi, an industrial psychologist and corporate vice president of human resources at Alex Lee Inc., a $2.4 billion food company in Hickory, North Carolina. "While many human resources folks lack the background in statistics or research methodology to evaluate the tests, if you look behind the scenes, most test publishers themselves haven't done a good job of demonstrating that the tests predict anything of value."

A HEDGE AGAINST BAD HIRES

Hogan believes that his tests, at the very least, measure five key dimensions of personality, a now widely accepted psychological construct that names likability, extroversion, prudence (conscientiousness), "intellectance" (Hogan's term for intellectual openness and creativity) and capacity to adjust as the most important. Various job descriptions call for different dimensional profiles. For example, job recruits with a high dose of likability are ideal for customer service. "You get charming, affable, helpful people," he says. Executives with high levels of prudence, he says, "follow rules, plan ahead and respect authority." At the low end, you get the former Enron executives who were impulsive, manipulative and deceitful. Hogan's methods of research validation tie individual test results to projections of performance in specific job roles.

But according to Ben Dattner, who earned a Ph.D. in organizational and industrial psychology at New York University in 1999, tests mirror the people who design and commission them. Screening tools provide a political hedge and seeming defense for human resources, ostensibly to lower the risk factors associated with "wrong hires" and "undesirable turnover," says Dattner, president of Dattner Consulting Inc., an executive performance consultancy in New York. "A conservative estimate of the cost of wrong hiring decisions or undesirable turnover is one year's [employee] salary," he says, citing Saratoga Institute figures. …

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