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A Hire Power: Do You Really Want Potential Employers Inside Your Head?

The proliferation of psychological assessments, writes Andy Levinsky, suggests a larger question: What information can a potential employer require of job applicants? (rawpixel.com/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
The proliferation of psychological assessments, writes Andy Levinsky, suggests a larger question: What information can a potential employer require of job applicants? (rawpixel.com/Unsplash)

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You’re applying for a job and your potential employer asks you to respond to 90 statements like this one:

"I get really angry at co-workers or customers who are annoying."

Your choices range from “strongly agree,” to “strongly disagree.”

Do you:

a) Go with your initial impulse and "agree"?
b) Play it safer and "agree slightly"?
c) "Strongly disagree," assuming that's the answer the prospective employer wants to hear?

Such is the dilemma you are likely to face (if you haven’t already) as a job applicant today. More than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies use online psychological assessments, ostensibly to determine if your personality is a potentially good fit for a particular job and their corporate culture. They have become a hurdle nearly as ubiquitous as the SAT. Dallas-based OutMatch says it provides more than 10 million pre-employment assessments annually for companies ranging from 99 Restaurants to Raytheon. Their assessments are designed to be completed by candidates for every job, from mailroom clerk to CEO.

Some of the statements the OutMatch Science and Research team developed seem rather innocuous: “I find myself having little to say at parties,” and “I like my work stations to be clean and orderly.” Others are worded in a way that suggests that they can and may be used against you: “I get upset easily at work," and “I hold grudges against people who offend me.” You don’t need a psych degree to figure out that these could be used to weed out candidates most likely to “go postal.” Ensuring a safer workplace is a noble goal, but such statements could also ensnare those who don’t pose a safety risk. Similarly, an affirmative response to “When I am working, I sometimes feel sad for no reason” could convince an employer that a job-hunter is depressive, and therefore, less productive or more prone to absenteeism.

'I get really angry at co-workers or customers who are annoying.' Your choices range from 'strongly agree,' to 'strongly disagree.'

Greg Moran, president and CEO of OutMatch, explained to me that his company doesn’t provide individual responses to employers, only aggregate profiles. As a result, he insists that “One answer by itself will not make or break an assessment.” But how many times have we learned of data breaches by supposedly secure companies? What if this potentially sensitive information is disclosed, nefariously or inadvertently, not just to a single employer, but to all that a company like OutMatch works with?

I consulted Randy Cohen, The New York Times Magazine's original “Ethicist” and author of the book, "Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything." Cohen believes that it's "ethically dubious to ask such intrusive questions to achieve such meager results.” And, he worries how employers will apply the answers. “Who knows how this information will be used?”

Or even if the information is accurate. These assessments are only as reliable as the responses candidates are willing to share. A savvy applicant will be able to anticipate how certain responses might reflect negatively on their profile and gauge their answers accordingly. And honestly, how savvy do you need to be to know how to respond to this statement: “I can be pretty creative when trying to get around company regulations”?

Dr. Carol Jenkins, who led the team of psychologists responsible for the OutMatch assessment, told me that “While it may be possible to ‘fake’ an answer to one question, it is more difficult, perhaps impossible, to do so on multiple questions.”

And honestly, how savvy do you need to be to know how to respond to this statement: “I can be pretty creative when trying to get around company regulations”?

I asked Kelly Marinelli, a human relations professional who served as members of the Talent Acquisition Panel for the Society for Human Resource Management, to assess these assessments in terms of the applicants’ ability to game the system. “Testing companies claim that assessments are designed to minimize the risks that applicants can skew the results by choosing not to be truthful,” she replies. “However, there is no way to completely rule out a lack of candor [on] the part of participants that could affect the reliability of the results.”

Faced with an involuntary intrusion into their psyche in order to compete for a job, applicants can hardly be blamed for crafting their responses carefully instead of candidly.

I’ll confess: I could not imagine responding to some of those questions without thinking about how my answers might be interpreted (or misinterpreted). “I occasionally get into arguments with my co-workers.” Well, who doesn’t? But what if they're really wondering if I’m inclined to initiate shouting matches? “Most employees bend company rules when they can get away with it.” Are they really asking me to speculate on what most employees do (I have no idea), or implicitly asking whether I think it’s okay to bend the rules? Why should I have to guess — and why should my answer have any bearing on my job qualifications?

The proliferation of psychological assessments as part of the employment process suggests a larger question we should all be asking: What information should an employer be allowed to require of all applicants? In order to complete an online application, some insist on a social security number, which raises security concerns, or other personal information. But I believe the least scrutinized and most potentially problematic requirement is these assessments. We try to guard our financial information and medical history zealously, yet we willingly turn over our psychological profiles to potential employers and their third-party surrogates who, whether nefariously or inadvertently, can share it with complete strangers.

“These tests seem to me to be just the latest HR fad, and one with the potential to do real harm but little good,” Cohen concludes. “I say dump them.”

Spoken like a true ethicist, but OutMatch president Moran is probably right when he concludes, “The traditional way HR has been done is dead.” Lawmakers may not be able to turn back the clock on assessments but they could ensure that applicants are evaluated based on their aptitude for a specific position, not generic, vague psychological profiling. Legislators could require that turning over personal information — such as assessments — is voluntary and that applicants could opt out without affecting their candidacy. The most pressing question for job seekers is if they will.

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Andy Levinsky Cognoscenti contributor
Boston-area writer and editor Andy Levinsky contributes essays, features and profiles to a wide variety of publications.

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