Can Personality Assessments Be Bias in the Workplace?

Personality assessments can result in bias in the workplace.

Personality assessments can result in bias in the workplace.

Learning what your personality says about your work style or skills may sound like an informative and entertaining way to find your way, career-wise. But when employers use personality assessments as part of the hiring process or to make any employment decisions, these seemingly innocent tests and quizzes can create a situation that's ripe for cultural or educational bias.

Not Just Entertainment

If your employer asks you to take a personality assessment, and you're tempted to breeze through it, think again. A 2011 study by the Society of Human Resources Management found that although over 75 percent of organizations surveyed do not use personality tests as part of hiring or promotional processes, a majority of those who do use them believe that these tests can predict both future job-related behavior and how well an employee will fit into the organization.

A Back Door For Bias

While a personality assessment may seem like an unlikely way to discriminate against potential or existing employees in the workplace, that's not always the case. The EEOC received 164 charges of discrimination stemming from the use of employment-related tests in a one year period alone, according to ABC News. There are concerns, the EEOC's Justine Lisser told ABC, that personality tests can be used to discriminate against minorities and against those with disabilities, potentially disqualifying them for employment or promotion, both violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

A Legal and Ethical Gray Area

Most employers would not knowingly flout federal discrimination laws by administering personality assessments to potential and existing employees that resulted in bias. However, when personality tests are used in the employment process, they may unwittingly result in discrimination. In 2012, Leprino Foods settled Labor Department hiring-discrimination charges by agreeing to provide $550,000 in back pay to African American, Hispanic and Asian applicants denied employment upon failing a pre-hire test called WorkKeys. Preventing these types of lawsuits may be the reason that the Myers-Briggs Foundation, creator of the popular Myers-Briggs Inventory often used in workplace personality assessments, cautions on its website that "although there are many useful applications of the MBTI assessment in the workplace, there are ethical concerns in using it for hiring purposes."

Closing the Back Door

Employers considering the use of personality assessments should consider the risks involved. Employers can be held liable for discriminatory practices stemming from the use of such tests even if they unwittingly show bias to protected groups, such as minorities and the disabled, particularly if they cannot prove that the variables these assessments measure are linked to job performance. The EEOC is on the case of these types of tests, as well. The potential for personality assessments in the workplace to result in intentional or accidental bias prompted the EEOC in 2012 to include them in their draft enforcement plans for the next four years, giving claims of systemic discrimination in the recruiting and hiring processes -- pre-employment tests like personality assessments included -- high enforcement priority.

 

About the Author

A writer and information professional, J.E. Cornett has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Lincoln Memorial University and a Master of Science in library and information science from the University of Kentucky. A former newspaper reporter with two Kentucky Press Association awards to her credit, she has over 10 years experience writing professionally.

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