The $3 billion question of who you are at work

At Scotiabank, which employs 90,000 people, executives decided in late 2020 to no longer screen the resumes of applicants leaving the school. The campus hiring program is now partially focused on Plum results, and the new approach brings in more diverse candidates, the bank said, because hiring managers look beyond familiar credentials. The proportion of blacks among Scotiabank’s new employees rose from 1 percent to 6 percent, and more than half of the new hires are women.

Personality testing acolytes, however, are cautious about how the results should be used in workplace decision-making. They should be one factor among many, proponents say, with an understanding that there’s a gap between how people present themselves on a test and how they behave on a given Tuesday or in a fight on Slack.


The “Big Five” personality traits that psychologists have found to be consistent across demographics are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.Credit:one

Critics are quick to point out that some of the tests, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which produces four-letter distillations of personality, are about as reliable in predicting success in a professional endeavor as sorting of candidates according to astrological signs or magic 8 balls. Research by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has uncovered biases in some recruitment processes that rely too heavily on personality testing without scientific psychological support.

But personality tests have also become stricter in recent years. Organizational psychologists have developed assessments that are fairer and more research-based. Some of these tests use the “Big Five” personality traits that psychologists have found to be common across all populations: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

“Human behavior is complex, people are complex, situations are complex,” said Ben Dattner, organizational psychologist and executive coach, noting that studying personalities in all their complexities is still helpful for career development. “Psychometrics can help identify potential areas where a person may need coaching or feedback, or where a person may have blind spots.”

And many companies are embracing its benefits. Almost a third of respondents to the 2017 Society for Human Resource Management Membership Survey reported using personality tests to fill leadership positions. At McKinsey & Co., some consultants perform “due diligence” when staffing projects, which often means looking at the balance between introverts and extroverts on a team. There’s a joke that the company is full of people who brought ENTJs to Myers-Briggs (the outgoing and organized type of person most likely to run for student council president). College fundraising offices love the color code, which, among other things, tells you who is best with the phones (Yellow).


Often the tests aren’t a diagnosis, but rather a nudge for people to talk about the softer side of office life: their relationships. Color-coding yourself as blue might not feel as relevant to quarterly sales figures — but it can be a conversation starter, at least among teammates.

“The biggest thing that struck me was that I really cared about people’s perceptions,” said Robyn Ross, Head of People and Talent at Burgundy Asset Management, describing her experience with the PrinciplesYou assessment, which showed that she is an “Inspirant.” “My natural inclination is to care for people.”

For Ross, that result explained why she’d had such a hard time calling Burgundy’s 150 staff back to the office. “Ask people to do things that they don’t naturally want to do was quite difficult for me,” she said. “It was such a stroke of luck to see it through this test.”

Caitlin MacGregor, co-founder of Plum, a research-backed testing company, attributes her initial enthusiasm for personality testing to an experiment she conducted for a previous employer. She reduced a pool of 80 applicants to two: one that stood out on a CV and one that stood out in a psychometric assessment. She hired both; Her boss had said the cost of picking the wrong person was $300,000. The applicant who beat the psychometric test rose to the top of the company within a year and a half.

MacGregor argues that an element of fairness can be built into testing when done properly because it can identify “diamonds in the rough” who have natural skills rather than fancy degrees. This can be even more important when the interviewers do not meet the candidates in person.

“For a long time, people have been comfortable making decisions about talent based on face-to-face interactions,” she said. “More and more companies have a distributed workforce. It’s harder than ever to get to know your people.”

In an area as strained as personality — how people are and could be — it’s no surprise that disagreements have arisen as testing spread. Psychologists dispute the validity and fairness of various assessments, and more recently, whether the tests have kept pace with changes in the workplace and workforce. After all, a test developed a century ago might be difficult to use to assess whether an employee feels fulfilled just meeting her boss via Zoom.


In remote jobs, “it’s a different style of work, which means different traits are going to come into play,” said Matt Spencer, who founded a personality testing company called Suited in 2019. “Initiative, self-determination, ability to manage one’s time, the way someone works together.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Brian Lowry

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