Incorporating “Personality” Into the Hiring Process

May 24, 2004

Before we start, I want to emphasize that there is no generally accepted definition of personality among professionals. Since nature abhors a vacuum, I’ll just provide one of my own. “Personality” in this article is defined as the “specific attitudes, interests and motivations” associated with job performance. For brevity’s sake, we’ll call these AIMs. Personality and Job Performance A coin has two parts: 1) the metal it is made from, and 2) the stampings on its sides. The stampings do not define the metal; they merely identify how it is used. Job performance also has two parts: 1) hard skills, and 2) AIMs. AIMs do not define an applicant’s planning, cognitive, or interpersonal skills; they identify how the applicant uses them. Most research shows that combining AIMs tests with skills tests can double productivity. As long as people have the right skill set, those who enjoy their work tend to outperform those who do not. People who dislike work tend to do just enough to stay employed. Magic? Not really. Just common sense. “Specific” Attitudes, Interests and Motivations The term “specific” is not used lightly. A personality trait should lead directly to either high or low job performance. Many training vendors have broad-spectrum personality tests they use for training and communication workshops. But as anyone who has ever attended a communication or leadership workshop can attest, personality test scores and job performance ratings are not always correlated. If you are using a personality test now and you want to know if it’s any good, ask your vendor: “Was your test developed to predict job performance?” If you get any answer other than an unqualified “Yes!” then think about what happened to the roof of your mouth the last time you bit into a molten-hot cheese pizza. It does not take a personal message from Stephen Hawking to learn that any hiring test that was not designed to predict job performance, probably won’t predict job performance! Job-Related AIMs As far as we know, there are only a few personality traits directly related to job fit and job performance. The initial work was published by Dr. John Holland over 20 years ago. Since then it has been expanded using meta-analytical personality research. Today, we know that the critical AIMs associated with job performance include:

  • Problem solving. This factor provides information about a person’s attitude toward solving complicated problems. People with high scores tend to prefer jobs that require a mental challenge and enjoy using their minds to solve complex problems. Positions that do not provide a mental challenge may prove boring to people who score high on this factor, while mentally challenging positions may intimidate people with low scores.
  • Idea generation/innovation. Not everyone likes jobs that require freethinking and creativity. Some people just want to produce a steady stream of traditional work. On the other hand, some organizations expect their people to continually generate new and better ways of producing work. It would be de-motivating to put a person with high creativity interests in a position requiring repetitive, unchanging work.
  • Administration. There are many jobs that require methodical administration and follow through to see that tasks are accomplished on time and on schedule. The traditional middle management position requires maintenance and oversight of systems. Other jobs require a more freewheeling style, such as sales or positions that require making up rules as you go. Sample item: I like to play it safe and go by the book.
  • Resistance to change. Some jobs are steady, while others change from day to day. People who thrive on fast pace and change enjoy jobs that challenge them to keep pace. People who prefer stability would burn out with the pressure. This factor indicates a person’s resistance to change on the job.
  • Self-centeredness. Being self-centered can be very damaging for both the organization and co-worker relationships. Self-centered people spend much of their time thinking about themselves and the impact of decisions on them personally instead of worrying about out producing and out-smarting the competition. People with high scores on this scale indicate that they focus more on themselves than others.
  • Teamwork. Teamwork has been linked to success in many organizations; however, managers are often surprised to find that some people prefer to work by themselves. People who enjoy working in teams are naturally more productive and satisfied when working closely with other people. People who like working alone are more productive working by themselves.
  • Expressiveness. There are many jobs that require outgoing personalities, such as sales, management, public relations, or jobs that require positive public contact. People who score high on expressiveness label themselves as outgoing and having many social contacts. Low scores indicate the person may not have the interest or willingness to stand out in social settings.
  • Impulsiveness. Jobs that require fast decisions and quick actions require people who enjoy that type of environment. Too much impulsiveness, however, can lead to the “ready, fire, aim” syndrome. Some people are driven to knee-jerk reactions that get them into trouble because they did not think through the consequences of their actions.
  • Perfectionism. A small amount of perfectionism goes a long way. People with high perfection scores may never be satisfied enough with the end product, causing unnecessary delays and reductions in output. People with too little perfectionism may be sloppy and unconcerned with quality.
  • Attitude toward work. For some people, the office is a battleground between good and evil. These people are neither able or willing to pull together for the common good nor focus on the primary importance of the customer. Their attitudes tend to sap energy and can be destructive to both morale and productivity.
  • Truthfulness. In addition to the ten personality factors listed above, an imbedded lie scale helps determine reliable responses.

Any good AIMs hiring test has several characteristics: 1) it will be normed based on an applicant population, 2) it will have a “lie” scale to identify skewed responses, 3) it will use 5 to 10 items to measure each factor, 4) scores will not be entirely based on averages of “high” producers (i.e. it will not have “hard” cut-off points), and 5) the truth is in the patterns. Norms Quick, which audience do you think will tend to exaggerate AIMs scores? A group of people about to attend a communications workshop or a group of people applying for a job? You get a gold star if you said, “Applicants!” It is human nature to present oneself in the most favorable light when applying for a job. Don’t use tests whose scores are compared with a group of employed engineers, salespeople, or managers. Comparing test scores from one group with another only shows whether the groups are different. It tells you nothing about cause or individual performance. This goes for both occupational groups AND performance “groups.” “Lie” or “Consistency” Scales AIMs are not like math or programming skills. You either know how to add and code or you do not. AIMs can be exaggerated because there is no easy way to verify the answers. This leads to a condition called “differential validity” óthat is, you can probably trust unfavorable scores (i.e., “I am a closet psychopath and hate all living things”) substantially more than you can trust socially desirable scores (i.e., “I love working long hours for little pay so my boss can purchase his own private jet”). A lie scale consists of questions the test developer knows have a normal distribution. If an applicant’s score falls in either the top 15% of bottom 15%, the administrator can suspect that scores on the rest of the items were either abnormally high or low, as well. Stable Factors Suppose you want to predict (based on test scores) if a person is male or female. You could ask a single question about carrying a purse, or you could ask a series of questions about shoe size, height, weight, wardrobe expenses, and mechanical skills. Clearly, a single test item would contain a significant amount of error. Taken as a group, though, a cluster of test items would be much more accurate. Be wary of any test that uses less than five items per factor because it is probably going to be inaccurate. Save these definitions. We’ll refer to them in the next few articles as we learn more about interpreting and using job-personality scores.

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