If you applied for a job recently, there’s a good chance that you were subjected to a personality test. In some areas, the tests have become ubiquitous as U.S. employers seek ways to make the hiring process more efficient.
That’s unfortunate, because the tests might be filtering people out according to traits that bear little or no relation to their potential as employees.
For minimum-wage work, personality tests are designed to find the people most likely to stay in jobs, reducing the turnover that can be a major expense for call centers and retail stores.
Ideally, all the innovation saves time and money for everyone, but Personality tests can be biased in undesirable ways. They can, for example, filter out people with a history of mental illness – becoming a sort of health exam, which is prohibited as part of the hiring process under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Several years ago, CVS agreed to remove certain mental-health-related questions from its pre-hire questionnaire after a Rhode Island human rights commission found “probable cause” to conclude that they violated state law.
More recently, job applicant Kyle Behm personally experienced the discriminatory effects of personality tests (as reported in the Wall Street Journal). As a college student in 2012, he sought work at a Kroger store but failed a test designed by the company Kronos, which licenses hiring software to many large stores.
His father, Roland Behm, was a lawyer – a professional to which most applicants for minimum-wage jobs don’t have access. After getting Kyle to apply to six more companies that used the same personality test, which he duly failed, Roland filed complaints – some jointly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – against all seven companies for violating the ADA.
Setting ADA violations aside for a moment, there’s increasing evidence that personality tests aren’t very successful at finding good employees. A recent study found that the test results are poorly correlated with job performance, especially when compared with other types of assessments.
So why use them? Roland Behm offered one convincing reason: Maybe all employers really want is a tool to help them reduce the huge pool of applications they receive for any given position.
Thanks to the lawsuits, some companies appear to be reconsidering their practices. One of the companies Kyle applied to, Lowe’s, said it had changed its online application process “to ensure people with mental health disabilities can more readily be considered for opportunities.” The statement was issued jointly with the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, an advocacy organization for people with mental health disorders.
We should make sure that personality tests are working not just for employers but also for the public at large. Considering their pervasiveness, they could systematically exclude an entire population with disabilities from work – precisely what the ADA was meant to avoid. Let’s hope other companies follow the example of Lowe’s and take steps toward avoiding that outcome.
O’Neil is a mathematician who founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company.