Can you save the forest? The Intricacies of Pre-employment Tests
Imagine yourself in a beautiful, serene forest teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. As you begin to appreciate the scenery, an unexpected, urgent dilemma emerges: the animals are rapidly falling ill. Your task? Diagnose and act swiftly to protect this ecosystem.
To me, this sounds like an engaging video game scenario. But in reality, your performance in maintaining this virtual forest might dictate whether you secure a job at consulting firm McKinsey or not.
At other firms, with arguably less creative testing styles, you may stumble across questions like this:
Are you generally an optimistic person?
Do you start your day on a cheerful note?
Do you find it easy to get along with people you don’t agree with?
Among the following, which resonates the most with you?
You believe you are superior to others.
You enjoy working only on what you're good at.
One might pause at this last set of options. Pitting a belief of superiority against a preference for playing to one's strengths? It's almost as if the question asks candidates to choose between boasting or finding solace in their comfort zones. Such binary choices seem less about genuine insight into a candidate’s personality and more about boxing them into an oversimplified dichotomy.
If you have submitted any type of job or internship application recently, chances are you have come across similar questions as part of a series of pre-employment tests. Whether it's a high-flying corporate position or a sales role at Tesco and John Lewis, candidates frequently undergo situational judgement and personality tests. The Talent Board UK's 2016 report revealed a staggering 82% of companies implementing such pre-hire tests.1
Historically, hiring screening hinged primarily on resumes, with employers seeking future potential based on past roles and academic achievements. The issues with this approach are many, principally in terms of equity. In the US, candidates who are black are less likely to have an academic degree than white candidates.2 Resumes can often be a great signifier of access and privilege, with ‘whitened’ resumes still outperforming minority resumes.3 Furthermore, with behemoths like JP Morgan receiving 270,855 internship applications for a mere 4,604 positions, filtering candidates becomes a Herculean endeavour.4
Early-stage pre-employment testing can be effectively utilised to screen candidates, ensuring only the best applicants progress to the next stage of the process and reducing the number of interviews that need to be conducted. Employers like assessments because in the long run, they greatly cut the cost of recruiting and hiring. Additionally, the ability to administer these evaluations remotely and process them electronically broadens the ambit of potential candidates.
Thus, personality tests, along with competency and skill-based tests, flourished, supplemented by innovations like HireVue's virtual interviews. This platform, leveraging machine intelligence and deep learning, analyses 500,000 data points from video interviews, including word choice, intonation, and non-verbal gestures.5 Qualities like enthusiasm are reduced to numbers, with over a quarter of your score coming from non-verbal features. These are then scored against the most important predictors of future performance for specific job roles. Analysing humans like this could end up penalising non-native speakers, visibly nervous interviewees or anyone else who doesn’t fit the model of an ideal candidate in look or speech.
Another staggering fact: 50% of new hires fail within 18 months.6 Not only is the cost of replacing an employee great, ranging from 46% of annual salary for a mid-level employee, to 200% of annual salary for a high-level executive,7 but it shows that companies have not been able to match themselves to an employee.
Personality and aptitude tests pledge to remedy this less than fortunate statistic. Many organisations are seeking more of a "whole person" gauge of candidates, assessing not just skills or intellectual horsepower but also personality traits, cultural fit and motivational drivers that can prove the difference between candidates who thrive over the long run and those who quickly derail. Personality and aptitude tests work by collecting hundreds of data points and scoring them against the “ideal job candidate” profile or desired trait ranges for the role. Candidates are often asked how they would react in imagined situations, or self-report how likely they are to identify with certain character traits.
It makes sense. Think of two roles: sales and accounts, and then think of the ideal candidates for each of them – they differ. Ignoring experience and competence, a salesperson probably has to be much more flexible and definitely a fantastic persuader. Proficiency in structure, attention to detail, and the ability to focus on one task for long periods may be most beneficial to the accountant.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the personality testing industry reached $2.3 billion in 2019 worldwide and is predicted to increase to $6.5 billion by 2027,8 as companies continue to buy into tests in search of their next star employees.
This touted solution though is not all that it seems. The effectiveness of personality and aptitude tests in predicting future job performance and enjoyment is highly disputed. While some well-designed tests perform far better than others in this regard, demonstrating a moderate correlation,9 many contend that personality tests offer uncertain forecasts at best, with some researchers comparing their use to a Magic 8 Ball.10
Sanjay Srivastava's research, involving over 132,000 adults, underscores that personalities are more malleable than static.11 Yet, many personality tests employed in recruitment processes operate under the flawed premise of unchanging traits. This fundamental misalignment can render their results misleading.
The ethical minefield of these tests extends beyond mere inaccuracies. Kyle Behm, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, filed complaints to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) after discovering he had been rejected from a supermarket job at Krogers as his tests indicated he was likely to ignore customers when upset. The commission found that the tests were used to effectively discriminate against an applicant, based on presumptions about his mental health: a flagrant breach of the Disabilities Act of 1990.12
Furthermore, between 2003 and 2010, Best Buy's application of personality assessments was alleged to disadvantage potential hires on racial and national grounds. The episode culminated in a 2016 settlement with the US EEOC and a subsequent commitment from Best Buy to discontinue the use of personality tests in recruitment.13
Today, personality tests have been developed and iterated again and again to be more accurate and fairer than their predecessors, but the danger still remains. It is still commonplace to be given statements to agree or disagree with such as, “Over the course of the day, I can experience many moods”, or “If something very bad happens, it takes some time before I feel happy again”. If a hiring decision rests, even partially, on the answer to these questions, it is easy to see how a discrimination case could still be made.
Personality tests, despite their allure of cost-saving objectivity, come with risks of perpetuating biases and making inaccurate assessments. Relying too heavily on them can potentially overlook the very talent companies seek, costing employers unknown quantities. Employers should view these tests as merely one tool among many in the hiring arsenal, ensuring decisions are rooted in a comprehensive understanding of a candidate's potential. Clearly, personality tests alone are not the path out of the recruitment wilderness.