Should Employers Use Intelligence and Personality Tests in Hiring?

When vetting job applicants, employers want to use as many tools as possible. In addition to testing for particular skills, employers may consider intelligence or personality tests. But these types of tests may be a bad idea: they have questionable benefits and can put the employer in legal hot water.

Because of criticism that standardized “intelligence” tests tend to measure not basic intelligence but language skills more readily acquired by middle-class whites than low-income members of minority groups, use of these tests has come under fire from both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the courts. Consequently, the status of intelligence tests as lawful screening devices remains in doubt, at least when such tests tend to have a disparate impact on minorities. Once disparate impact has been shown, the employer has the substantial burden of establishing a connection between success on the test and success on the job.

In addition, the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (29 CFR pt 1607; adopted in California as 2 Cal Code Regs §11017(a)) require that any test that will have a disparate impact on minority applicants must be “validated” before it’s used; this is generally an extremely difficult procedure. By contrast, tests relating to professional or technical skills required on the job are less subject to criticism than general intelligence tests and may be less difficult to validate.

Courts have applied the “80-percent rule” found in the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures to determine adverse impact in testing. Under this rule, if the selection rate for any race, sex, or ethnic group is less than 80 percent of the group with the highest rate, it will generally be regarded by the federal enforcement agencies as evidence of adverse impact. 29 CFR §1607.4(D).

Personality testing has always been controversial, although it remains popular with many employers. In fact, Camille Chatterjee in an article for MSN Money cites a report that “62% of human resources professionals are using personality tests to vet candidates in the hiring process.” She explains that employers “want to not only weed out someone who won’t perform” but they also want to “avoid hiring a candidate who will flee the minute the next big thing comes along.”

If an employer is going to use a personality test, Dori Meinert in her article on SHRM.org cautions that employers should “focus on what they are trying to achieve.” It’s important to research the test options available, which are growing with “technological and scientific advances.”

The primary mistakes that employers make in using personality tests are failing to properly validate the test or using a test that asks discriminatory questions. An employer who’s interested in using a personality test should

  • Make sure it has been validated for the employer’s own employees and that the instructions for administering the test are carefully followed;
  • Make sure the test doesn’t ask any questions that could be considered discriminatory or invasive of the applicant’s privacy;
  • Avoid using the test as the sole measure of selection, but rather, include other criteria such as past performance, interview responses, and skills tests; and
  • Give the applicant feedback on how he or she did and allow time or a venue for the applicant to ask questions about the test.

For more guidance on hiring standards that avoid discrimination, turn to CEB’s Advising California Employers and Employees, chap 15. For help avoiding problems that arise from missteps during the hiring process, check out CEB’s The Basics: Hiring and Employment Agreements, available On Demand.

Other CEBblog™ posts you may find useful:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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