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Employers relying on personality tests
Increasingly, applicants’ fates sealed before live interview
By Ariana Eunjung Cha

Updated: 7:09 a.m. ET March 27, 2005

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

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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 wrong.

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.

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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 performance.

"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.

Employers relying on personality tests

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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.

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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 companies.

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 dependability

"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 test.

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 time."

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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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