The Sharpening Stone – Can You Trust Personality Assessments?

Many companies utilize personality questionnaires or similar psychological tests or assessments to help them decide whom to hire or promote. When good assessment tools are properly used, they can substantially improve your hiring decisions.  The problem is: too many employers rely on tools that are not up to the task, or they fail to use good tools in the correct manner.  And that can lead to poor hiring decisions and possibly to legal exposure.

If you ever took a general psychology course, you may have heard of the Forer Effect.  In the late 1940s, psychology professor Bertram Forer conducted a classic experiment where concocted a bogus personality test and administered it to his students.  After completing the test, each student was given a narrative that was said to describe their unique personality.  In truth, Dr.

Forer gave every student the exact same narrative.  He then asked them to rate how accurately the narrative described them on a 1-5 point scale, with five being the most accurate.  The average score was 4.26!  So this Forer Effect, whereby people tend to accept generalized descriptions of their personalities as true, can give people false confidence in bad tools. When I ask employers why they use any particular personality test, the most common answer I hear is “I took it myself, and it seemed pretty accurate.”  Oops!  Forer Effect.

Unfortunately, there are many well-marketed but poorly constructed personality tests that employers use (or should I say “misuse?”) for important personnel decisions.

A good assessment tool is one that is proven both reliable and valid. Reliability refers to how dependably or consistently a test measures a characteristic.  Your personality does not change that much from one day to the next or even one year to the next.  A reliable instrument will yield a consistent measure over time.

A test’s validity refers to what characteristics the test measures and how well it does so. Validity data show you the linkage between test results and actual performance.  In other words, validity evidence answers the question, “How well does this test predict actual behavior or performance?”

Professionally developed psychological tests are backed by technical manuals, not marketing brochures, that offer reliability and validity evidence, including detailed explanations of how validation studies were conducted. If the test vendor is not willing to provide that information, it should raise a caution flag.

If you want to learn more about responsible use of testing, the Department of Labor publishes its standards for testing and assessments, available online, where the concepts of reliability and validity, and many other important issues pertaining to workplace assessments are addressed in detail.

Psychological assessments can improve your hiring decisions, but you must choose your tools wisely.

About the Author: Rob Skacel, Ph.D.

Rob is a licensed psychologist with senior executive experience. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Franklin & Marshall College, and Master’s and Doctoral degrees from Purdue University. Rob began his career in the field of clinical psychology, splitting his time between patient care and management responsibilities. Within a few years, he began the transition to business psychology specialization. He has since held senior leadership positions in sizeable for-profit and non-profit organizations, where his responsibilities focused on performance improvement and organizational development.

Rob founded True Edge Performance Solutions in 2000, and maintained it as a part-time venture for a number of years as he continued to accrue executive experience. By 2006, True Edge had grown to the point where it required Rob’s full-time attention. Over the years, Rob has provided services to dozens of leaders and their organizations, in a variety of industry sectors such as manufacturing, professional services, health care, agribusiness, construction, education, non-profit, and trade associations.

The Sharpening Stone

The Sharpening Stone is a series of short videos from True Edge designed to sharpen leaders and their organizations.

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