|While other lawyers had sued against
personality tests on constitutional grounds and failed
in federal court, Seligman cited California privacy laws
to show that the PsychScreen questions crossed a line
between Target’s interests and Soroka’s privacy.
Target’s parent company, Dayton Hudson Corp., settled
for $1.3 million.
In his most recent personality test case, Seligman
collected a $2.1 million settlement from Burns
International Security Services, part of the nation’s
largest security guard company, on behalf of 8,000 job
applicants who were given a flawed personality test. “It
was a fairly bizarre test about your attitudes toward
employers,” Seligman says. The Burns test included
questions such as “Most companies make too much profit”
and “Marijuana should be legalized.”
Seligman showed that the test violated California law
against employment discrimination based on political
beliefs. The fact that the position was in a security
field did not exempt it from this law.
“Asking whether drugs should be legalized is asking
whether you think a law should be changed,” Seligman
says. “That’s political.”
Peopleclick’s Lisa D.G.
Harpe has these additional suggestions for
employers pursuing personality tests:
- Determine whether a job seeker becomes an
applicant before, during or after prescreening
tests to know when to collect EEO information.
- Keep records of applicants’ EEO information
to prove that tests aren’t adversely impacting
- Have all applicants to a position take the
same tests under the same standards.
- Be able to justify your questions.
- Avoid questions related to protected status,
including less obvious ones like date of
- Focus on work and job requirements.
- Ask objective questions. If you want to know
if someone is accomplished at using a certain
software program, ask how many years he or she
has used it.
- Ask job seekers to verify truthfulness
either by signing a declaration at the end of
the test or by supplying references who know the
- Prescreen the test on subject matter
experts, legal counsel and EEO representatives.
Not Whether but How
The threat of lawsuits over personality tests
presents a quandary for hiring managers, some of whom
say pre-employment testing is the only way to make good
and efficient hiring decisions.
Most hiring experts agree, though, that the issue is
not whether to test, but how. It is an issue of both
quantity and quality. The ease of Internet-based resume
filing over paper and mail contact has caused a huge
increase in applicants, many of whom apply for positions
about which they are not serious—and for which they are
not qualified, says Lisa D.G. Harpe, an industrial
organizational psychologist (IOP) with Peopleclick
Research Institute, a Raleigh, N.C.-based workforce
acquisitions company. Harpe suggests using prescreening
methods that may include personality or other tests.
Otherwise, she says, “The cost to employers of
processing unqualified applicants can be substantial.”
Companies lose millions of dollars per year from bad
hires, says Wendell Williams, an IOP who designs and
assesses tests for his Atlanta-based firm, Scientific
Selection. “It’s the result of costly mistakes, two
people doing the job of one, social loathing, turnover,
[and] low morale and productivity,” Williams says. “For
a company with 200 employees and a $30 million payroll,
it’s typically a $1 million loss per year.” Jeff Furst
is the president of FurstPerson, a recruitment
outsourcing firm in Chicago that specializes in hiring
temporary workers for call centers, mostly in the
financial industry. Furst discovered early on that it
was not unusual for his clients to have a 40 percent
attrition rate of new hires in the first 30 days. The
problem was that “too many employees were not up to the
training,” he says.
Furst believes too many companies rely only on an
interview to try to predict an applicant’s job
performance. “A well-structured behavioral-based
interview can be very effective,” he says. “But it won’t
measure personality factors or a willingness to do the
In an effort to get better results for his clients,
Furst contracted Williams to develop and oversee a
battery of tests to assess personality, as well as
skills and cognitive abilities to screen applicants.
Furst says his focus on testing has provided great
benefits to his clients. “We’ve reduced attrition by as
much as 40 percent,” he says.
Use and Misuse
While personality tests were in the workplace more
than 60 years before Seligman’s groundbreaking lawsuit,
they were not without controversy. They sparked such
outrage on the heels of the McCarthy era of intolerance
in the late 1950s and early ’60s that a congressional
committee that oversaw civil liberties tried to have
them banned in the federal workplace, says Annie Murphy
Paul, author of The Cult of Personality (Simon
and Schuster, 2004.)
Today, personality testing is a $400 million industry
that is expanding at a rate of 8 percent to 10 percent
per year with some 2,500 tests on the market, says Paul,
a former editor of Psychology Today magazine.
A 2003 survey by Management Recruiters International
found that 30 percent of American companies, from tiny
independents to giants like Wal-Mart and General Motors,
use personality tests.
Even with so much use, Williams says, company misuse
of tests “is the norm.” Most often, Williams and others
say, companies buy tests off the shelf from vendors they
don’t know enough about. Then, they send their company’s
human resource specialists to a day of training with the
vendor. Test results are incorrectly interpreted, and a
company wastes a couple of years’ time and money before
determining that the test isn’t valid.
“People are out there putting on amateur psychologist
hats and using personal opinions, memory and other
unscientific types of processes,” Williams says.
The movement of the MMPI, the Myers-Briggs
personality type indicator and other tests into popular
culture has exacerbated the problem of misuse, experts
say. For example, Paul found that 60 percent of police
departments use the MMPI, which was developed in the
1930s to test mental patients, as a prescreening tool
even though IOPs and the test’s creator dismiss its use
for anything other than the clinical assessment of
mental patients. The Myers-Briggs is so generic that it
characterizes all the world’s population into just 16
personality categories—hardly useful as a job-screening
Start with an IOP
With so many tests on the market and so many vendors
to choose from, “It’s a true case of buyer beware,”
Williams says. Employment tests run the gamut of
“excellent to pitiful,” he says.
The first step, experts say, is to contract or hire a
reputable IOP to oversee any testing. Of six lawsuits
Seligman has filed over personality testing, all tests
were bought off-the-shelf and none was overseen by an
IOP or an attorney. In the Target case, a contracted
psychologist—not an IOP, who has a doctorate degree—was
paid based on how many times a test was given. “It was a
golden egg for the psychologist,” Seligman says.
William Shepherd, an IOP for PsyMax Solutions in
Cleveland, says it is no wonder companies try to cut
corners with personality testing. Basic-level tests are
available to anyone on the Internet and can be bought
off-the-shelf for prices ranging from $15 to about $150
for a high-level test. Com-pare that to the cost of an
IOP, who may charge $3,000 to conduct the testing of a
single hire from beginning to end.
Asking why employers use off-the-shelf products so
frequently, Shepherd says, is like asking “Why do kids
play with fireworks? Because they’re readily available
and they’re fun to play with.”
Seligman notes that investment in an IOP could curb
“If every employer had an industrial psychologist,
every test would be much more valid,” he says. An IOP is
trained to prevent violations of federal disability and
discrimination laws, nullifying the need for additional
legal review. “Your corporate legal office may be able
to tell you if there is a legal risk, but very few
lawyers know this area of law.”
Referrals for IOPs can be made through the Society
for Industrial and Organiza-tional Psychology in Bowling
Green, Ohio, or online at www.siop.org.
Besides following the 1978 Uniform Guide-lines for
federal discrimination law, every test should adhere to
The Standards of Ed-ucational and Psycho-logical
Testing, published by the American Psychological
Association in 1999, Williams says.
“A test should be based on some theory of job
performance, it should have integrity and reliability,
and it should accurately predict what it’s supposed to
predict and be backed up by studies.” Furthermore, he
says, every test should come with a technical manual
that proves the rigors it went through in development
and should have studies to vouch for its validity.
In Seligman’s experience, it took a court order to
get such information. Vendors refused to provide it and
held that the information was proprietary. Such a denial
of information should be a red flag to employers,
Personality tests should assess whether an applicant
is conscientious, reasonably extroverted and not
neurotic. “Those are the three main personality traits
that research shows relate to high performance in almost
all jobs,” Williams says.
Test questions should be specifically tailored to job
relevance and should be put in context for the position.
A custodial position probably requires only a very few
questions to assess integrity and timeliness, whereas an
executive position requires a more in-depth assessment
How To Test Effectively
However, simply adhering to the legalities of
workplace testing does not ensure that your tests are
effective. The most common personality tests are
integrity tests, which pose less legal threat because
the questions are less invasive, Seligman says. But are
they effective? A 1995 report by the federal Office of
Techno-logy Assessment found that more than 95 percent
of people who failed integrity tests were incorrectly
labeled as dishonest. A good vendor should be able to
demonstrate how a test has been improved over the last
Because most tests are administered via the web,
companies have new responsibilities such as using
reliable technology and ensuring that the applicant is
actually taking the test and is not being helped by
anyone else. Beyond that, IOPs say web-based tests are
more efficient and have few differences from paper
tests. The vendor should prove the validity and
confidentiality of each method of testing that an
Lisa Daniel is a
business and career writer based in Burke,Va.