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Why don't government agencies use personality tests for pre-employment?
December 1, 2014 7:00:00 PM EST   By Mike Russiello

Why don't government agencies use personality tests for pre-employment?

Both private and public organizations perform pre-employment testing to evaluate candidates. However, the two groups often test differently. Government agencies rarely use personality measures, focusing instead on knowledge, skills, and abilities measurements. Private companies, on the other hand, often evaluate 'Job fit' via lengthy personality inventories.

Why is that?

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There is no easy answer, of course. Here are a few possible explanations offered by my colleagues:

  1. Government agencies are more concerned with the apparent fairness of their hiring processes.
  2. Government agencies are less concerned with retention.
  3. Private companies are more concerned with teamwork.

Let's explore each of these ideas.

First, are government agencies concerned with the apparent fairness of their hiring practices in the eyes of the public? Well, of course they are. But are they more concerned about this than private companies? That's hard to say. So, let's put it another way. Are government agencies, in general, more risk averse? Given the consequences of negative press and congressional inquiries, the answer must be yes.

So, does this higher aversion to risk result in less use of personality-based measures for government agencies? The most likely answer is yes, since personality-based questions often appear intrusive and non-job-related to candidates. Candidates who see the questions as too personal and unconnected with their ability to do the job are likely to complain that the tests are unfair.

On the other hand, knowledge, skills, and work-related abilities tests, such as writing a brief for an analyst test, are not personal in nature and are more clearly job-related. As a generally risk averse government manager, which types of questions would you choose to ask?

The second idea is that government agencies are less concerned about employee turnover. This may be true, since turnover is not a huge problem within the government, where people tend to stay a long time. Personality factors measuring so-called 'Job Fit' traits can highlight issues that could cause an employee to leave an organization prematurely, which means wasted training, selection, and on-boarding costs. For government agencies, the benefit probably doesn't outweigh the potential risk of fairness complaints. However, in the private sector, employee turnover can be a serious and costly problem that justifies use of more risky measurements.

Finally, are private companies more concerned with teamwork? I doubt many government managers would agree. Once again, I'd suggest that the benefit doesn't outweigh the need to appear fair from the government perspective.

Are we asking the right question?

We started by wondering why government agencies don't use personality tests very much. After the discussion, it appears that the reason is to avoid personality tests to reduce risk of fairness-related complaints.

But is this the right question?

Perhaps we should ask instead why the private sector doesn't do more knowledge, skill, and ability (KSA) testing. Meta-analysis studies have shown that the highest performance-related validities are obtained when KSA tests are mixed with the conscientiousness scale of personality tests. So why don't we see more hybrid (KSAs and personality) testing in the private sector?

That's a good question. At HR Avatar we combine KSAs with conscientiousness in our tests. We think that's the best way to go. We'll expand more on this powerful combination in later articles. In the meantime, if you're a private sector employer who uses personality exclusively to evaluate candidates, we suggest you re-evaluate your approach. A change could produce a higher level of perceived fairness and better performing employees.

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