[Paleopsych] WP: Employers Relying On Personality Tests To Screen Applicants

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Tue Apr 5 17:36:02 UTC 2005

Employers Relying On Personality Tests To Screen Applicants

[How do the effects of IQ on job performance compare to those the measure 
(other!) aspects of personality? Please forward to Charles.]

    By Ariana Eunjung Cha
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page A01

    UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. -- The 10 young men and women were there to

    Decked out in their best suits, they were vying for hourly work as
    sales associates, ride operators, drivers and cooks at Universal
    Studios Hollywood theme park and its adjoining retail unit. When asked
    their favorite movie, they mentioned ones they knew were produced by
    Universal. When asked what they detested most about their previous
    jobs, they said not much. And when asked what single word would
    describe them best, several quickly offered "happy."

    On the surface, they all seemed promising. But recruiter Nathan Giles
    knew better.

    Even before the candidates had stepped through the door for the group
    interview, their fate had been largely determined by a computer. They
    had taken a 50-minute online test that asked them to rate to what
    degree they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, "It's
    maddening when the court lets guilty criminals go free," "You don't
    worry about making a good impression" and "You could describe yourself
    as 'tidy'."

    A score in the "green" range for customer service gave an applicant an
    83 percent chance of getting hired, "yellow" a 16 percent chance and
    "red" a 1 percent chance.

    Over the past few years, personality assessment tests have moved from
    the realm of experiment to standard practice at many of the nation's
    largest companies, including the Albertson's grocery chain and
    retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Target. A recent survey found that
    about 30 percent of all companies use personality tests in hiring. To
    many companies, the tests are as important, if not more important,
    than an applicant's education, experience and recommendations.

    Some firms give the computer the power to conduct the first screening
    of candidates and do not bother interviewing applicants unless they
    score above a certain level. Universal, however, prefers to put
    everyone through an interview on the chance that assessments are

    Usually they aren't.

    "In almost every case, the results of the test are what we see in
    their interviews," said Giles, who has been at his job for two years,

    Universal said the online exams have made a measurable difference in
    the quality of its workforce. Employee retention and customer
    satisfaction levels are up, while absenteeism and theft are down.

    But the growing use of employment exams worries some, who say many
    aptitude tests lack rigorous review by professionals in the field and
    are crafted too narrowly to accurately judge one's eventual

    "You are really doing a disservice to the complexity of human
    individuality," said Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology and
    human development at Northwestern University.

    Psychologists have long debated whether personality can be reduced to
    a set of numbers, like a person's weight, shoe size or eyeglasses
    prescription. But that has not stopped people from trying. The
    Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which measures four qualities of a person
    -- introversion/extroversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling,
    judging/perceiving -- is often used to help match people up with
    careers. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which
    attempts to measure propensity for substance abuse or other
    pathologies, is regularly used to assess candidates for sensitive
    positions in police departments, banks, nuclear plants and the like.
    The Neuroticism, Extroversion and Openness Personality Inventory
    breaks personality down into five characteristics that some companies
    use to assess traits such as management potential.

    Today, an estimated 2,500 U.S. firms offer assessments that are mostly
    variations on these main tests and are geared toward hiring.

    "A well-developed test is probably the cheapest and most valuable
    selection tool an employer can have," said Gary G. Kaufman, owner of
    Human Resources Consulting near Nashville, who has worked in hiring at
    J.C. Penney Co. and the Internal Revenue Service. The problem, he
    said, is that "personality testing in general is a largely unregulated
    business, which means that anyone can make up a test and put it on the
    Internet and make any claims they choose about the test."

    Some companies, many of which employ teams of PhDs, say they follow
    rigorous scientific methodology. But some reviews by independent
    assessors have raised questions. A survey by the Aberdeen Group Inc.,
    a Boston-based technology research firm, found that 49 percent of
    companies using computerized hiring systems saw no impact on turnover.
    An American Psychological Association study found little evidence that
    tests purporting to measure honesty are accurate. The World Privacy
    Forum and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, privacy advocacy
    groups, allege that more than a few violate the spirit of privacy laws
    by asking sensitive questions.

    Annie Murphy Paul, author of "The Cult of Personality," which is about
    the testing industry, said there is a real danger of stigmatizing
    people who fail certain components of tests. "If we are labeling
    people liars and thieves even before they have seen any propensity for
    them to do these things, it is a real injustice," she said.

    The company that developed Universal's test, Unicru Inc., is among the
    giants in the employment-testing industry. Last year, the Beaverton,
    Ore., company assessed 11 million applicants, which resulted in
    550,000 hires by retailers, grocers, trucking companies and others.
    Christopher Reed, director of marketing for Unicru, compares the
    firm's mission to that of a dating site. "Just like they are trying to
    match up potential mates, we are basically making a prediction of
    whether someone is a good fit or not for a job," he said. The firm
    said its tests have been validated time and again by their success at

    Michael L. Marchetti, executive vice president for store operations
    for the Indianapolis-based Finish Line Inc. chain of sporting-goods
    stores, said company policy prohibits managers from hiring any
    candidate who received a "red" rating.

    "When you see 70 to 80 percent coming back 'green,' why take somebody
    that's a risk?" he said.

    Universal is among those that will consider hiring someone with a low
    score. Kay Straky, vice president for human relations for Universal
    Studios Hollywood, said tests are specific to each job. For example,
    those applying for a sales might also get questions about basic math
    skills and honesty, while those seeking positions as drivers might be
    asked about safety. All, however, measure customer service and

    "We need people to be able to smile at work and show up to work. . . .
    When people come into the park, we want it to be a really positive
    experience," Straky said.

    The company's recruiting office, where the TV sets play Universal
    movies like "Shrek 2" nonstop throughout the day, is filled with
    computers. Each day, dozens of job hopefuls line up to take the online

    They know the odds are against them: Out of more than 20,000
    applicants last year, the company hired 1,900, which represents an
    admissions rate lower than that for Harvard University.

    Travis Beavers, 25, who had recently graduated from City College of
    San Francisco, was applying for a line-cook job. He said he found the
    online test fun but long and "kind of confusing" because it was often
    difficult for him to decide how to differentiate between "strongly
    agree" and "agree" or "disagree" and "strongly disagree."

    Veronica Garcia, a film major who was hoping to work as a sales
    associate, said she thought part of the reason for the test was to
    gauge an applicant's patience. The test took her more than an hour to
    complete, she said, because her "computer was acting up."

    As the candidates sat in the waiting room, a recruiter began to review
    printouts of their assessment results. Some who came in that day
    looked like they might work out -- others less so. One candidate who
    wanted to be a dishwasher rated 35 for customer service and 47 for
    dependability. A rating of "yellow." This person was less likely "to
    maintain a good mood," the computer cautioned. Another was applying to
    be a theater attendant and had strong previous experience but scored
    10 for customer service, 13 for dependability. A "red" rating. This
    person might "be quiet or even unfriendly" and might tend to "waste

    Straky agreed that the person probably was not a good match for
    Universal. "People come to us because they think it's a fun job, and
    it is, but it's also a hard job. They have to be very dedicated. In
    the summer it's 100 degrees and the beach is beckoning just a few
    miles away."

    Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

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