Are Workplace Personality Tests a Scam?

Personality test reaction Gary Dumais

What if I asked you to describe yourself in three words? You might say, “smart, responsible, and caring”. What if I then produced a “predictive” report saying something about you like:

“At work, you are likely to be a good problem-solver (smart) who can be counted on to follow-through on your commitments (responsible), while also attending to the emotional needs of your coworkers (caring) …etc.”

Would you be astonished about how accurate my report was? Would you believe I have great insight into your personality and how you’ll perform in the workplace? Or would you consider me to be a decent creative writer who can leverage a thesaurus?

The example above illustrates how some personality tests essentially work: they ask people to choose adjectives that describe them, which are then used to produce a summary narrative that describes them. It certainly isn’t rocket-science.  And yet, these types of tests are widely used by many companies for hiring and developing their employees! How do I know? Because I’m a Business Psychologist with a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, and about twenty years of experience in psychometric assessment.

To be fair, adjective-based personality tests can be useful. If the test-taker has an accurate understanding of themselves, and they honestly choose adjectives that represent them, then the resulting narrative could effectively describe their personality. In that instance, people who describe themselves in certain ways (e.g., “outgoing”) could be compared to people who describe themselves in other ways (e.g., “reserved”), and practical predictions can be made about how their personality fits a role (e.g., salesperson).

The adjective-based testing process can also provide efficiencies. It can be easier for people to describe themselves when they’re given words to choose from, rather than a blank page to fill. And it can be easier to make apples-to-apples comparisons between test-takers’ descriptions because they choose from the same set of words. Similarly, the summary reports produced by the process can make it easier for test-takers to discuss their personalities, which helps with teambuilding, conflict resolution, and the like.

However, the upsides of adjective-based personality testing largely depend on test-takers’ honesty and accuracy of self-perception. Yet, “blind spots” in people’s self-awareness are common. And people tend to portray themselves positively, especially when being evaluated. Thus, the utility of self-description personality testing is limited.

There are other types of personality tests that don’t rely on self-descriptions, but rather, the test-taker’s responses to things like true/false questions. Essentially, the test compares how much the test-taker’s responses match previous test-takers’ responses who have a prominent personality trait. For example, if a test-taker responds to questions in the same way as arrogant people do, then the test-taker is probably arrogant too. However, to work well, these tests often require the test-taker to answer hundreds of questions. The tests are also very difficult to create, requiring extensive research and complicated statistical analyses – so there aren’t many available. Still, their accuracy is relatively high, and they’re difficult to “cheat”, making them useful for things like evaluating job candidates.

And yet, there are tests that are even better at predicting people’s job performance – like cognitive tests – although they don’t assess personality. Rather, these tests evaluate things such as logical reasoning and decision resilience. While these tests can be very useful for identifying the best problem-solvers and decision-makers, they don’t help with identifying the best personality fit for a role. Thus, cognitive tests are often used in conjunction with personality test.

So, overall, are workplace personality tests worth it? Well, they can be if the right ones are used in the right way. It’s important to consult with an expert before using them, especially since there are so many different tests available. For more information, please email me, Dr. Gary Dumais, Psy.D., SPHR at