The benefits of diversity are increasingly clear; more diverse companies perform better and employees stay longer. And the research on personality inventories offers “scant evidence” of their effectiveness. Why, then do employers the world over, including scores of Fortune 500 companies, use personality tests for hiring and training purposes, even though this could undermine their efforts to increase diversity?
Writing in The New York Times, Quinisha Jackson-Wright describes her experience with a required Meyers-Briggs analysis at a job where she was the lone Black woman. She’s an introvert and was already aware of differences in work style and personality with her colleagues before her manager mandated that team members share their assessment results.
She wondered whether the codification of a “poor cultural fit” through test results provides an easy excuse for managers who feel uncomfortable with employees whose personalities, backgrounds, and perhaps values differ from their own.
“While not intentionally discriminatory, these assessments tend to box individuals into a narrow stereotype, which can have a negative professional impact on those with less-desired personality traits,” Jackson-Wright wrote.
Desired personality traits reflect stereotypes and cultural norms; the image of a leader in the United States, for example, is a charismatic extrovert. “Introverts have long been marginalized in professional environments. In American office culture, where break room small talk, brainstorming meetings, and open office layouts are all commonplace, there seems to be little tolerance for the solitary nature of the typical introvert,” she wrote.
Though top executives come in all personalities, colors, and genders, the myths persist. In this light, requiring employees to take and share personality assessments is problematic.
Personality assessments show … what?
In Personality Inventories: Fiction, Fact, Future, Jane Bozarth wrote, “there is scant evidence that most personality assessments measure anything useful in a way that is either valid or reliable.” Her review of research on personality testing in hiring, promotion, and training questions “the continued appeal of personality inventories and why organizations persist in pursuing them—often at considerable expense—despite the general lack of validity or predictive value.”
Bozarth also presents a list of potential harms, ranging from students and early-career employees being steered away from challenging jobs or questioning their “fit” with their companies to managers using assessment results to explain workplace problems, rather than acknowledging errors in management or poor decisions—and figuring out solutions. Sharing personality test results can inhibit efforts to build collaborative teams by spotlighting differences between colleagues and reinforcing the perception that these innate differences are insurmountable.
Impact on diversity
The most pernicious effect might be creating (or reinforcing) the belief that only people with specific traits are able to succeed in an organization. Whether personality assessments are formally considered in promotion and training decisions or not, the fact that managers encourage or require employees to complete them implies that they will consider the results.
This can stifle diversity, as people who don’t fit the perceived company mold fail to advance or leave the company, as Jackson-Wright did, soon after the team retreat where the tests were required.
That’s a push in the wrong direction in an era where a renewed emphasis on efforts to improve diversity at many companies is the norm. And, ultimately, it hurts the company: 2018 McKinsey & Company research found that “Companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 percent more likely to outperform on profitability and 27 percent more likely to have superior value creation.” The report also found that “Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33 percent more likely to have industry-leading profitability.”
In addition, a 2013 Deloitte report found that employees are 83 percent more likely to innovate when they “think their organization is committed to, and supportive of diversity and they feel included.” These employees also report being more responsive to changing customer needs and experiencing better team collaboration.
With the potential to derail inclusiveness and harm diversity—and little or no evidence of a benefit—using personality assessments to make personnel decisions or for “team building” seems misguided.
Dig into the research
Bozarth’s report is available for free download to all Guild members. Dig into her findings on personality assessments for a deeper understanding of the problems with misusing a broad instrument to attempt to gauge aptitude or ability.
Network with your peers
Senior L&D leaders are invited to the annual Executive Forum at DevLearn 2019 Conference & Expo. The Forum, a full-day event on October 22, offers opportunities to network with fellow CLOs, explore critical L&D topics and technologies, and examine several case studies. Learn about the newest learning strategies and technologies and hear about your peers’ experience with them. Forum participants gain exclusive use of the Executive Lounge throughout DevLearn, which takes place October 23–25, 2019, in Las Vegas.