A marketing software company likes to ask prospective employees, “How weird are you on a scale of 1-10?” A business technology company challenges job candidates to a game of post-interview ping pong to catch a different side of them.

At Home Depot, candidates undergo a Situational Judgement test, in which the subject answers a series of 50 questions designed to test their skills and experience, along with True/False and Agree/Disagree questions on their work habits and attitudes, in addition to a Basic Math Concepts quiz, geared to a seventh-grade level.

Perhaps most famously, Google has devised analytical interview questions such as “Which do you think has more advertising potential in Boston, a flower shop or a funeral home?” or tests ingenuity with instructions to “design an evacuation plan for the building.”

These examples are loose variations on the employee personality test, which is typically based on a series of questions, the answers of which are expected to reveal key behavioral and emotional traits of the test taker. The results are used as guidance for hiring decisions or, in some cases, to determine the suitability of an employee for promotion. And boy, are they popular. According to one 2014 trends report, more than 62 percent of human resources professionals use psychometric, or psychological, personality tests to vet job candidates, and 30 percent indicated that they would use them in the future.

“I was paranoid the whole time I was taking it,” says one executive who questions the test she took during her interview process for a media job (that she ultimately took). “I wasn’t drug tested but my character was tested, which was as much of an intrusion. There were some questions I answered by guessing what would make me look best. Why do my employers need to know my fears and insecurities in life to determine how well I will fit into their culture and perform my job?”

Personality Tests Are Big Business

Nevertheless, the personality test industry thrives, despite the fact that the tests are poorly regulated, leaving it up to companies to either buy or make up the tests they use. In 2012, personality testing was a $500 million industry and it was expected to expand by 10 percent every year. Popular tests include The Caliber Profile, a multiple choice test that measures traits the job would likely tap; Gallup StrengthsFinder, which identifies the top five strengths of the prospective employee out of 34; and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MTBI), in which questions are posed in an A/B format from which your “type” is determined, having implications for your hiring and training. MBTI has been used extensively at Fortune 500 companies.

How Much Stock Do Employers Put In Testing?

Some experts cast doubt on the validity of personality tests. “Every test is odd and somewhat difficult as nobody can guarantee that they are fully valid and reliable in forecasting the best high-performing candidates,” says Bahaudin Mujtaba, professor of human resources and management at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Aethos Consulting Group, a global hospitality advisory firm that conducts executive searches, developed a tool called 20/20 Skills that they use in their own searches and sell as a standalone to companies such as Royal Caribbean Cruises and Orient-Express Hotels. The company usually administers it before a one-on-one interview with a prospective employee because “it prepares us to do a better interview,” says Keith Kefgen, Aethos’s managing director. “I don’t believe in [typical] personality testing. A Type A doesn’t mean much in terms of performance. We endeavor to put people on a spectrum of capabilities. We think [of the test as] a component of a larger interview process.”

Are Personality Tests The New Drug Test?

Drug testing is another widely used method by which to vet prospective employees or test current employees on a random basis. The basic purpose of drug testing (mostly in the form of urine samples but also using hair and saliva samples) is, according to Michael Frone, senior research scientist in Social/Organizational Psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, “to identify and exclude job applicants or to identify and sanction or terminate current employees because of their illicit drug use and, less frequently, alcohol use.”

The practice took off under President Ronald Reagan when he made drug testing mandatory for all federal employees. Today, about 56 percent of employers in the U.S., including major corporations, banks, nonprofit organizations and others, administer pre-employment drug tests—though few companies will discuss their policies. (Ninety-two percent of Fortune 500 companies use drug testing either with prospective employees or current employees on a random basis.) The typical test detects the presence of five drugs in the system—marijuana; cocaine; amphetamines and methamphetamines; opiates; and phencyclidine or PCP.

The Practical Problems With Testing

The practice of using drug tests in pre-employment assessments (and random drug testing of existing employees) has come under fire from the start. Frone says, “Despite many [sources] providing putative facts about the benefits of employee drug testing, very little research has evaluated its practical effectiveness” on productivity and attendance. Today, marijuana accounts for more failed workplace drug tests than any other drug, and the changing policies around its use, both medically and recreationally, complicate the issue. A study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences (and backed by the American Civil Liberties Union) found no evidence that marijuana use was any more of a workplace detriment than alcohol.

In a recent report, Alcohol and Illicit Drug Use in the Workforce and Workplace, Frone points out that even if employees fail a test, it doesn’t prove that they were unproductive on the job. Traces of most illicit drugs are detectable in the body for some time, so the results don’t necessarily show that drugs have been used in the workplace. In addition, “there has been no credible evidence that testing programs deter workers from using drugs,” writes Frone.

Moreover, experts maintain that there is bias implicit in how employees are targeted for drug tests. Among West Coast technology companies, for example, “high-tech companies are adopting policies that require screenings for blue-collar and out-of-town staff, but protect programmers and executives in tight labor markets such as Silicon Valley,” according to one article on the subject that ran in the Los Angeles Times. According to a former Amazon employee, white-collar workers there were shielded by a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy because management was concerned about what they’d find, which then they’d have to deal with, upsetting the office culture. (Amazon denies this.)

Bias In Testing

Personality tests have been similarly scrutinized for bias. As the co-writer of a 2015 report “Personality Tests in Employment: A Continuing Legal, Ethical, and Practical Quandary,” Mujtaba writes, “My goal [with the report] was to provide some … practical recommendations for [recruiters] so they can … select the right individuals for their open positions.”

“There are legal and ethical [issues] that managers must consider before using any personality tests as part of their hiring processes,” says Mujtaba. “HR professionals should be careful to make sure that personality tests do not have a negative impact on qualified candidates, especially those who fall in the protected category based on disability, age, gender, race, and religion.”

Lotus Yon, director of HR and Learning at Northwest Community Healthcare headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois, goes further. “Personality tests are not a good measure of performance, potential or fit,” she said in a Forbes Human Resources Council roundtable. “Even with a test that tries to eliminate as much bias as possible, the people looking at the tests are biased. Also, it decreases diversity because you are hiring people with the same types of personalities.”

Others simply dismiss personality tests as pseudoscience. Writes science reporter Annie Murphy Paul in an article on NPR.org, “Personality testing is an industry the way astrology or dream analysis is an industry: slippery, often underground, hard to monitor or measure.”

Executive leadership coach and consultant Sheldon Romer has administered a variety of such tests to employees over the years. Romer currently works with the The Leadership Circle assessment tool, which he describes as “the Rolls Royce” in its field. “It’s a complete 360-degree view [of a person],” he says. “But it’s a look at somebody in a specific place and time in their lives, so it has to be used carefully. Personality tests can be helpful as long as they’re viewed as a tool not a truth.”

Last Updated: Feb 26, 2020