If you have been in the workforce for any length of time at all, the chances are that you have taken one or more tests designed to determine your “personality type.” These tests, the most common of which is the Myers-Briggs, typically ask you to choose among various tasks, occupations, reactions to various situations and self-identified character traits, and then apply those choices to a formula that yields a particular workplace personality type. Myer-Briggs, for example, has sixteen categories; all of them are described in positive terms.
Thus test-takers whose answer reveal themselves as “ENTJ” personalities are…
Frank, decisive, assume leadership readily. Quickly see illogical and inefficient procedures and policies, develop and implement comprehensive systems to solve organizational problems. Enjoy long-term planning and goal setting. Usually well-informed, well read, enjoy expanding their knowledge and passing it on to others. Forceful in presenting their ideas.
The tests are often administered by the Human Resources staff, and are common features of retreats and team-building exercises, with everyone sharing their test results. More often than not, employees enjoy the tests, which are a little like finding your sign in astrology. They can be traps, however. Personality is far too complex to be measured with absolute precision, especially in a 60 minute multiple-choice test. The tests reduce everyone to a predictable stereotype, and in many of the tests, there are negative qualities assigned to each category as well as positive ones. Sometimes, ominously, the test-givers have access to descriptions of the types that the test-takers do not. How does an employee know that the results of that “fun” personality test won’t disqualify him or her for certain positions, opportunities and promotions?
The employee can be sure that the test won’t become a career millstone if only the employee knows the results of it. Then the individual can, if he or she chooses, use the information to address work habits and personal conduct that affect his or her job performance, or seek tasks that compliment apparent strengths—if the personality test results seem to be accurate. ( If they do not, is it because the test-taker is deluded and unaware of his or her own basic tendencies, or is it because the test failed, as any such test may? Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell.) If supervisors and colleagues will see the results, however, the potential for bias is great.
The Myers & Briggs Foundation’s website correctly warns that it is unethical to use the results of the Myers-Briggs tests to make decisions regarding work assignments, and that is true all of the other tests too. Most employers, however, administer the test without making the dangers clear, giving assurances regarding how the test will be used and who will have access to the results, or guaranteeing confidentiality. Most employees happily go along with the process, either because they feel coerced, because everyone else in the office is doing it, or because they haven’t considered the danger.
I know this, because I have been given such tests in every place I ever worked, and not once received any assurances of confidentiality or was given the chance to refuse to participate. Naively, it never occurred to me that the test results could be used unethically and to my disadvantage. (Maybe this is why I work for myself now.) As Lily Garcia wrote in her jobs column for the Washington Post, you should feel comfortable refusing to take any personality assessment test if its confidentiality is at all in doubt, and if anyone but you will have access to the results. I would add that you should be wary of the various group exercises that often follow once “only you” know your results, as they often involve openly announcing which personality type you are at some point. That fun company retreat competition or team-building exercise where each “type” was put in a group and asked to solve a problem or complete a task might be what kept you from the promotion you wanted.
If you want to take a personality test, you can take some perfectly good ones in the privacy of your own home or office…here, for example. Then be prepared to remind your employers that giving such tests in the workplace without ensuring confidentiality, or using them to make assignments and personnel assessments, is unethical. Your employers should be grateful, for that will tell them something important about your personality. You don’t like being coerced or manipulated, you want to be respected as an individual and treated fairly, and you have the courage to stand up to authority for what is right.
If they don’t appreciate those traits, then you have learned something very useful about them.