The Ethics of Workplace Personality Tests

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.

13 thoughts on “The Ethics of Workplace Personality Tests

  1. I spent 5 years selling workplace personality tests — not the MBTI, but the Team Management Profile, designed for the workplace only (the MBTI is a whole personality test and does not discern between private and workplace preferences). We were told, and we told our clients, that it was illegal for HR choices (hiring, firing, promotion, etc.) to be based upon results of any such “tests”. I’m assuming that is still true.

  2. Once upon a time I was late for an organizational retreat and the group at large “took” my Myers-Briggs for me (!). They decided I was an “ENTJ” — a compliment in their terms to be sure, but I was incensed, and refused to participate in the ensuing discussion.

    Myers-Briggs can be helpful if taken honestly, and privately, under the supervision of a psychologist or other mental health professional. In an employment situation, it is a scam, like the SATs, GREs, MCATs, LSATs, etc. If you know how to take that kind of test, if you know what the testor wants, you’re golden. (My 15-year old son tests beautifully on ANY such test, regardless of the subject matter, because he knows how to “play” them.)

    But with Myers-Briggs, which attempts to delve into your inner personality, it is a true invasion of your privacy if it is not confidential.

    How can employers or potential employers use Myers-Briggs when even M-B says it’s unethical to use it for employment purposes? Find the ultimate team player? Find the person who will perjure him/herself when the company gets in trouble? Find the person who will “go with the flow” — against his/her ethical standards — to support the company?

    Just don’t see the purpose here. Unless it is basically an evil one. I’d like to see the CEOs of Enron, AIG, Bank of America, etc., take the test. But then again, they probably know how to “play” the test as well.

    Bottom line: Since when does a prospective employer have the right to examine any applicant’s psychological profile? Based on a multiple choice test or anything else? If the interviewers can’t ask the right questions in an interview, then shame on them. If they can’t vet a resume, shame on them, too.

    Hooray for the woman who questioned the use of the test in her situation. No one should be so desperate for a job that he/she should allow his/her privacy to be invaded, or be humiliated. In this climate, potential employers think they have power they shouldn’t have. This is yet another test case that should be fully examined.

    • Hi Elizabeth, I enjoyed your spirit and agree with you. My investigations have revealed that once these tests are taken, without a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement, it moves into the public arena. Once information is in the public it can be used quite freely and with near impunity for the user. Therefore, if we wish to protect our rights to privacy in matters such as these, simply keep them out of your head. Supreme Court rulings state that the exercise of a constitutional right can not be criminalized, however, in a private venue it gets a bit fuzzy. (We have the right to refuse service, et-cetera…)

    • There is no perfect personality type, and any employer beknighted enough to seek out only one personality “type” will find that their workforce lacks dimension and ability,
      Tests, assuming that people respond honestly, can be used to determine preferred communication and work styles. These can help figure out how to most effectively work with people and what sorts of work, they are likely to be most effective at.
      Your test should have revealed that you are paranoid.

      • This type of testing isn’t even scientifically proven. People change with events; daily to yearly so to incorporate this as a tool for specific jobs (I.e. public safety) is invalid.

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  5. I took the Myers-Briggs on 3 separate occasions, and received 3 different results. I therefore drew the conclusion that the test was not reliable, and thus not valid, at least for me. Perhaps the test measures the current state of a person, rather than enduring traits. I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I would never use the test based on my experience with it.

  6. I had an unfortunate experience working for an individual who required me to take personality tests the first day I started. Believing them harmless, I complied. From then on he insisted that I was a certain type of person, despite my protests that I felt his description wasn’t accurate. He assured me that they were indeed accurate and that I had always had these traits but just didn’t know myself.

    He would use the reports to manipulate his staff and pitted his staff against each other. Then he would use the personality reports to “coach” us.

    He claimed to have developed his own personality model despite not having the educational background to do so nor affiliation with any university or institution. He claimed to have conducted experiments to prove the validity of his model, but would not say how he acquired test subjects.

    Other disturbing incidents happened unrelated to personality testing, so I decided to resign 8 months after I started. I enjoyed the work, but the environment was utterly toxic due to the actions of this manager.

    Although it is only a feeling, I suspect that he used his subordinates as unwilling test subjects.

    I think that personality tests can be useful if validated, but from experience I can definitely attest to the fact they can and are misused.

  7. Personality is a Fluid concept and not a static idea! The Myers -Briggs
    Measure is a static measure much like a picture of yourself ,while in bed ,sleeping without considering who you are while awake!
    Let not this profile dictate or limit how we envision our potential .
    Will I Was

  8. Oddly enough if you are a non-at will employee (such as a government union empoyee) refuse based off of potential discrimination. Would be funny to see a supervisor try to make me do this because I would A) Tell them its a violation of my privacy. B) Could potentially be used against me. C) I’d have my union rep shoved up their a@@ and file to have the supervisor removed…which would happen where I work considering personality testing is part of the MMPI.

  9. Working in counseling and in vocational rehabilitation, I can tell you that these tests are pretty accurate but they aren’t really for business retreats or facebook. Interpreting personality scales and using that information is generally the domain of professional. We live in an era with immediate access to a diverse world of information and most people – it’s a broad statement, but I believe it – most people are simply not qualified to do anything with the information they get. Those people then run off into the world and poison the well with their half-assed assumptions and sophomoric knowledge.

    A good rule to remember is that if you’re being administered a test that has relatively heavy psychological implications, if it isn’t being administered by a psychological professional of some kind it’s probably being done incorrectly, which invalidates the results and most everything that can be learned from those results. Even if it’s just for fun, sometimes the labels we get stick with us and we may behave or be treated according to our reaction to those labels.

    My advice is leave it to the experts. Unless it’s being administered properly and with informed consent, just opt out and if someone has a problem with it, try to remember what I said here.

    …though based on the dates of the various comments, it’s unlikely anyone but me is going to see this.

    HI MOM!

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