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January 01, 2002
Personality Testing: Benefits and Risks Galore

By LINDA TRAINOR
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Improving the quality of your workforce is often a struggle. You can try such things as training and development, mentoring, coaching, and employee-assistance programs, but if an employee's values and behavior don't fit with the rest of the organization, look out for problems that could impact the entire workplace. That's why more companies are including pre-employment personality testing in their hiring practices.

Pre-employment testing is not new. Aptitude and practical-skill tests have been common for decades. Even cognitive-ability psychological tests are fairly widespread. Personality tests are less commonly used but gaining in popularity. The reasons vary. An employer may want to gauge the introvert/extrovert tendencies of sales applicants in hopes of matching their characteristics to those of successful incumbents. A police department might want to use a test to screen for mental instability or psychopathology tendencies.

David Shaffer, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Thelen Reid & Priest, says there are both benefits and risks to using personality tests. On the basis of his extensive legal background and work with experts in the fields of statistics, labor economics, and industrial-organizational psychology, he offers the following observations and advice.

Benefits

Personality tests are self-report measures of what might be called traits, temperaments, or dispositions. The benefits of using these tests include an increased ability to predict probable attitudes and behaviors that could ultimately influence the individual's success or failure and, therefore, impact the company's profitability and efficiency. Additionally, companies that adopt pre-employment personality integrity tests can often reduce their exposure to negligent hiring claims.

While number of measures is almost infinite, Shaffer says the most common are honesty and integrity tests. There are three basic types of integrity tests:

Overt integrity. These are specifically designed to predict the predisposition of job applicants to engage in on-the-job theft and other counterproductive job behavior. The tests typically include questions about beliefs regarding theft as well as requests for admission regarding theft and other wrongdoing. The items in these types of tests are targeted to assessing job-related content. Research has shown that integrity-test scores can reliably predict theft-behavior patterns.

Personality-oriented. These tests try to predict a broad range of counterproductive work behaviors by measuring personality dimensions such as reliability, conscientiousness, adjustment, trustworthiness, and sociability. Many of the items in these tests are clearly not job-related.

Clinical measures. These types of tests may focus on specific areas such as psychopathology, but can also provide insight into honesty and integrity. Again, many of the items included in these tests are clearly not job-related.

Risks

There are a number of legal concerns related to using personality testing. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1998 prohibits employers from using a pre-employment polygraph to screen applicants. There is currently no federal regulation barring the use of integrity testing, although a few states have restricted their use under their state antipolygraph statutes. So it is important to beware of state laws when considering or using personality tests. In addition, you want to be cautious about how personality testing is designed and administered to minimize potential legal exposure under other federal laws relating to employment issues such as civil rights, disabilities, and privacy.

Civil rights. If personality or integrity tests are used and/or administered inappropriately, an employer could be charged with violating federal civil rights laws, especially when circumstances point to possible race or gender discrimination and disparate treatment or disparate impact.

Disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gets trickier every day. According to EEOC guidance, employers may give psychological examinations to job applicants as long as the examination is not medical. While most integrity tests would probably not be considered medical examinations under ADA, prudence and professional counsel are advised.

Privacy. Invasion-of-privacy claims can be predicated on the federal constitution, state constitutions and statutes, and common law. The privacy issue is heating up, and experts don't see much relief in sight. Prudent employers will keep a close eye on developments in this area and seek good advice. An experienced employment lawyer can alert you to potential problems and help minimize your exposure to liability.

Shaffer concludes by stating that, "although there are real benefits to using personality or integrity tests in employment, employers should carefully weigh the risks and benefits. It may be helpful to consult with an industrial-organizational psychologist and an employment attorney."


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