Agree Or Disagree? Are Employment Personality Tests Fair?

October 9, 2014  |  

More and more employers are using online personality tests. In fact they have surged in the past decade. But how fair are these tests?

Some of the questions on these tests do seem bizarre. RadioShack Corp. asks applicants in their online personality test if they agree with the statement: “Over the course of the day, I can experience many mood changes.” McDonald’s Corp. asks applicants if they agree with this statement: “If something very bad happens, it takes some time before I feel happy again.”

Companies are using these tests to examine the personality, skills, cognitive abilities and other traits of 60 percent to 70 percent of prospective workers in the U.S. The use of these tests has increased  from 30 percent to 40 percent about five years ago, says Josh Bersin, principal of consulting firm Bersin by Deloitte, a unit of auditor Deloitte LLP, reports Yahoo! And it’s big business–a $500 million-a-year business that is growing by 10 percent to 15 percent annually, says Hogan Assessment Systems Inc. But while companies seem to like them, civil rights groups aren’t too thrilled. They charge that data-driven algorithms powering the tests could make jobs harder to get for people who don’t conform to rigid formulas, reports Yahoo!

Even though the FCC doesn’t have the power to step in on workplace issues, Julie Brill, a Democrat on the Federal Trade Commission who has looked at companies’ use of data, claims algorithms designed to reduce bias “ironically could have the effect of creating a new kind of discrimination.”

Some companies that once used the tests realized that personality isn’t all there is to a good employee. Xerox quit looking at data about job applicants’ commuting time when Xerox managers realized the data could put applicants from minority neighborhoods (usually located further out) at a disadvantage in the hiring process.

Now, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating whether personality tests discriminate against people with disabilities. “As part of the investigation, officials are trying to determine if the tests shut out people suffering from mental illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorder, even if they have the right skills for the job, according to EEOC documents,” reports Yahoo!

But test sellers counter that their own studies show personality tests don’t have an adverse impact on applicants based on race or gender. There has been, however, very little research done on disabilities.

In 2011, drugstore chain CVS Health Corp. settled a civil “charge of discrimination” filed by the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, which claimed the companies test “could have the effect of discriminating against applicants with certain mental impairments or disorders.”

The troubling test question asked potential employees to say whether they agreed or disagreed with statements like “People do a lot of things that make you angry,” “There’s no use having close friends; they always let you down,” “Many people cannot be trusted,” and “You are unsure of what to say when you meet someone.”

Have you had to take an online personality test?

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