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The History and Application of Personality Testing in the Workplace Essay

We’ve all had some experience with personality testing in one way or another. Since the beginning of the twentieth century personality testing and psychological assessments have been a staple in the recruitment and selection processes in all manner of position. Be it high level executives down to janitors, no candidate is immune to what has become a trusted and normal practice in recruiting. There is currently a long-standing debate among HR professionals and sociologists alike regarding the effectiveness and relevance of testing and its application in making hiring decisions.

In order to understand the effectiveness or lack thereof in regards to personality testing one must take a holistic approach and understand the historic development and application in terms of recruiting. Personality testing traces its roots to the industrial revolution. Social scientists were attempting to discover a means by which to quantify employee skills in order to streamline the hiring process and select the most qualified ,and in some cases, the most predisposed candidates for certain jobs. In 1913, a Harvard professor, Dr.

Hugo Muntsburger sought to find a correlation between personality characteristics and job success. He began by surveying executives as to which personality traits they found most important in employees, and began developing testing methods to identify said characteristics. Dr. Muntsburger’s colleague Henry Link took the theory of personality testing to the next logical step when he published ‘Employment Psychology’ in 1919. The work outlines, in very scientific detail, the link between personality traits and psychological testing with regards to employee selection. Dr.

Link was not, however, a hard-line advocate and even went so far to caution against overvaluing psychological analysis when making hiring decisions. Link, however, was unable to fully quantify the benefits to using psychoanalysis as a means to support and promote recruitment and selection, merely point out the probable correlation of some personality characteristics to job success (Cox, n. d. ). The next leap forward in personality testing came in the early 1940’s with the development of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The MBTI was developed by Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers.

This mother and daughter team sought to take the next step in personality testing by attempting to discover a quantifiable method by which to measure an individual’s personality type (Burnett 2013). They were greatly influenced by Carl Jung’s ‘Personality Types’ and the belief that all people fall into certain categories of psychological function. Jung’s theory was predicated upon the belief that each person has a measurable personality type that is based upon psychological preferences and how we perceive and react to information and situations.

Myers and Briggs took Jung’s personality classifications and created an objective self-assessment so that individuals could determine which personality traits they possessed. Briggs and Myers’ research lead to the development of a personality test that helps identify an individual’s personality type in correlation to Jung’s original theories, and is the same personality test that is the standard to this day (Cox, n. d. ). Their belief was that if individuals could better understand their own personalities that their self-understanding would facilitate success in regards to interactions with others.

More to the point, the pair had hoped that the test would help women entering the workforce to find jobs that their personalities were most suited for. Over the next three decades use of the test gradually became more and more accepted as a method by which to screen potential candidates. Today the test is widely used in recruitment and pre-employment screenings. Companies determine which personality characteristics are most likely to contribute to success in a certain position and screen candidates accordingly.

Candidates whose personality characteristics most closely align with the criteria established for the position are given the most consideration. Given the widespread use of the test, one would assume that it’s regarded as an accurate and trusted method for accurately screening employees. Therein lays the issue. There is much debate as to the validity of the measure and whether or not the results of testing display any positive correlation with what the test claims to measure. Many of the critics point to the relatively low cost of the testing.

When faced with paring down a large list of candidates, personality testing is seen as a cheap way to identify prospective candidates without wasting the resources and time involved in other more reliable testing measures. A company can simply send a candidate a hyperlink to a personality test, obtain the results, and eliminate candidates that don’t fall into employer selected MBTI groups. The desire to save money and streamline the recruiting process is understandable; however there are many scientific and ethical issues that follow with the use of MBTI or other personality testing as means by which to make employment decisions.

Critics of MBTI first point to the fact that the test has little to no scientific validity, pointing out that the field of psychology dismisses the MBTI as an irrelevant testing method. It’s also worth noting that neither Myers nor Briggs had any type of formal training in sociology or psychology. They created the test based off of their independent research into the theories of Carl Jung. The primary argument presented by psychologists is that the test and Jung’s classifications are simply too vague and are an oversimplification of the human psyche (Pittenger 1993).

Human personalities are far too complex to be measured by simple and broad classifications. For example, one of the parameters measures whether an individual is an introvert or extrovert. No one individual is completely introverted or completely extroverted. All humans fall somewhere in-between the two on an immeasurable spectrum. The over simplification of human psychology and sociology is one of the strongest arguments against the testing with regards to the pre-employment screening. The next argument against the test is with regard to its scientific accuracy and validity.

Due to the ambiguity and subjectivism inherent in the test, it’s difficult to glean any scientific data from results. What is damning to the MBTI however is the low reliability the results of test takers. One study, conducted by Dr. Paul Tieger, sought to demonstrate how inaccurate MBTI truly is in terms of reli-ability. The study concentrated on the test-retest parameter to measure testing reliability, whereby an individual is given an initial test and then within a controlled time frame, given an identical test.

Advocates of the test would have you believe that your personality is fixed and unchanging and one would assume that when an individual is given two identical tests that the outcomes would be the same an overwhelming majority of the time. What the study concluded is that nearly 50% of respondents, when given the exact same test after a period of five weeks, were determined to fall into a completely different MBTI group (Pittenger 1993). Another issue that many researchers point to, which questions the reliability of the measure, is that the tests are completely arbitrary in terms of responses. The tests are a self-assessment and self-assessments are inherently subjective.

A simple fact of psychology and sociology is that our self image is very different from the way that others perceive us. In that same thread, it’s also very likely that when responding to questions, particularly in terms of a personality test which may impact employment, that individuals will answer the questions not necessarily based on their own feelings, but rather based on responses that an individual believes aligns most with what the potential employer may value or be attempting to identify (Gauchman 2012). The next issue that many critics point to is the overall relevance of the test and its results as they are applied to employment.

The concern among critics is that too much emphasis is placed on testing results with regards to employment decisions. The fear is that HR professionals and hiring managers will only hire individuals who fall into certain MBTI personality categories (Burnett 2013). According to Pittenger, there is no scientific evidence that can illustrate a positive correlation between personality types and job success. Also, there is no scientific evidence to support that once hired certain personality types have higher job satisfaction or remain employed longer compared to their peers (Pittenger 1993).

The next step in MBTI research has been to identify and offer solutions to the issues previously mentioned. First and foremost is the question of reliability. How does one remove the subjectivity from the testing process in order to remove personal bias? Some researchers have called for third party testing, whereby personal references answer questions, similar to those on the MBTI, about a potential candidate. Again there’s still the question of the reliability of results, but the first person issues are removed thereby minimizing the subjectivity related to first person testing (McCrae & Costa 1989)

The next issue to be addressed should involve the overemphasis on test results in relation to the actual selection process. Mountains of evidence exist disputing any positive correlation between personality types and job success. The shift in HR over the last few decades has been to use MBTI as a standalone test, when in fact the purpose of the test, from its inception was simply to provide insight into personalities and certain personality characteristics. Even the most hard-line critics concede that the testing does have merit, just not simply in the context that results are currently being used.

The publishers of MBTI even go so far as to point out the ethical issues of the test in regards to sorting and selecting prospective employees on their own website; Although there are many useful applications of the MBTI assessment in the workplace, there are ethical concerns in using it for hiring purposes. Please carefully consider this as you develop your program for employees (Ethical Use, n. d. ). That evidence alone is a prime example of the issues inherent with overly relying on MBTI data with regards to selection. Internal training must be used by in place with employers who use MBTI in their selection process.

Personality testing is not like other tests, particularly objective tests that measure knowledge or physical skills. Results from the MBTI or other personality tests should be used in conjunction with other testing parameters, mainly with regard to structured interviews. By using personality testing collaboratively with other tests, the employers can remove the ethical issues innate in the over dependence on personality testing results. The use of personality testing has enjoyed a long and fruitful existence in the HR departments worldwide.

It’s an entrenched selection criterion that is well regarded by employers and well supported in spite of evidence against its reliability or validity. While I would argue that there are many other, much more reliable selection methods, I can appreciate the use of personality testing in order to gain insight into applicants, however given the bevy of information that directly refutes the practical application of employee testing for being a solely independent employment test, we must as HR professionals deemphasize the over reliance on testing and seek alternative methods by which to incorporate personality testing.

References: Burnett, D. (March 2013). Nothing Personal: The questionable Myers-Briggs Test. Retrieved from http://www. theguardian. com/science/brain-flapping/2013/mar/19/myers-briggs-test-unscientific Cox, A. (n. d. ). I Am Never Lonely: A brief history of employee personality testing. Retrieved from http://www. stayfreemagazine. org/archives/21/personality_testing. html Gauchman, D. (Nov. 2012). Workplace Personality Tests: Total Waste. Retrieved from http://www. forbes. com/sites/dinagachman/2012/11/16/workplace-personality-tests-total-waste/ McCrae,

R. and Costa, P. (1989). Reinterpreting the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator From the Perspective of the Five-Factor Model of Personality. Retrieved from http://leadu-library. com/mj/2007/club/MBTI/MBTI-5factor. pdf The Myers Briggs Foundation: Ethical use. (n. d. ). Retrieved from http://www. myersbriggs. org/ frequently-asked-questions/ethical-use/ Pittenger, D. (1993). Measuring the MBTI…And Coming Up Short. Retrieved from http://www. indiana. edu/~jobtalk/Articles/develop/mbti. pdf


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