Personality tests and recruitment

Personality tests are frequently used as a tool in recruitment. There are pros and cons to using such tests.

I was the CEO of U-MAN in Norway from 1990 till 2000. The company’s main product was selling the Oxford Capacity Analysis as a tool in recruitment for our clients. The OCA test is controversial because it is used by the Church of Scientology and licensed from the Church of Spiritual Technology and 6% of the income from test sales is funneled to the Church of Scientology conglomerate. U-MAN, a WISE company, has later changed its name to Performia. The company has moved its testing online like so many other companies selling personality tests, IQ tests etc.

While I go into greater details regarding both WISE, U-MAN and the OCA test in my book “Nittenåttifire“, I would like to accentuate a few points here.

The OCA test is originally a fork of the Johnson Temperament Analysis (now the T-JTA). Before 1954, Hubbard used many different personality tests to validate changes and progress people had with Scientology therapies. Julia Salmen, an employee of the Church of Scientology in LA was asked by L. Ron Hubbard to come up with a personality test that would be free for Scientology to use. She started out with the JTA and added one personality trait (Certain – Uncertain) – a smart improvement as it enhanced the value of the JTA by adding an internal consistency check of sorts. The OCA test has 10 personality traits with 20 questions determining each trait (the JTA has 180 questions and 9 traits). It may be doubtful that this change actually constitute enough “new work” to void any copyright claims of the JTA.

While the JTA (and OCA) was designed as a general personality test, such tests are also frequently used as a complimentary tool in job interviews. But there is a liability in such use. A similar liability is evident when the employer relies on school grades when recruiting for a position.

When an interviewer has a candidate in front of him, her grades from school and a personality test result with scores and a nice graph, he tends to overemphasize the grades and the test results. Because it has numeric values. The numbers tend to eclipse his own observations. The candidate fades to the background while the grades and scores grabs attention. I know this both from my own recruitment processes and from watching other interviewers. I did more than 6000 test evaluations/interviews, I supervised hundreds of interviews done by others. Whenever there is a test score on the table, it takes center stage.

The OCA test is a really good test. But personality is seldom the main factor in job performance. We would often be surprised when we tested a team of people only to find out that the top performer had the worst test for the job. He could be completely unstructured, irresponsible in life, a nervous wreck and even shy. Still he was the best sales person in the company. When we focused only on selling and evaluating OCA tests, we recommended the wrong candidate for the job maybe 20-30% of the time. As we improved our recruitment services, adding tests for competence, structured interviews, better reference checking, etc. we managed to get as high as 97,4% success rate (checked with the client 18 months after placement). But – and here comes the big BUT – I am sure we missed some fantastic candidates in the process. The most amazing people have quirks, eccentricities. Some are even raving mad by normal standards.

One should be cognizant of the tools one uses. One should master the tools and never let the tools take center stage. People should be the focus of attention.

For what it’s worth, I leave you with a book I wrote while I worked in U-MAN – The Evaluator’s Bible.

In the next blog post, I will relate a recent story of a very different interview I had with an amazing person.

21 Comments

  1. I have used the OCA test for recruiting for small companies and up to now, but my figures are low in number, I helped to hire about 20 people without failing none, but Ihave to say that I use the test to get rid of the ones who could be a real problem for the company and then I use the tool of the interbìview to see if the person is a producer.

  2. Dear Geir. As you know I have quite some experience in using the OCA/U-test. I also remember it being a good test judging by feedbacks both from customers and candidates. At the time we were highly successful in seiling testing as a stand-alone service despite ongoing critisism from both competitors and “experts”.
    Over the past years I have extensively studied various theories behind personality tests including terms as “validity” and “reliability” And how test items and questions correlate. These are as you know statistical numbers obtained through objective measurement and necessary to get a test “approved” by for example DNV, just to name one.
    With regard to The OCA test: Why have these values never been submitted? Much of the critisism towards the OCA revolves around this. Yes I guess one can always be critical towards “authorities” that “approve” or “disapprove” but it sure would make marketing the test A LOT easier.
    I enjoyed reading your article by the way.
    Best regards,
    Eric Bontenbal

    • Hi Eric :-)
      My guess is that the values for validity and reliability was never of interest to the CoS. And the values would on any case be the same for 9 of the 10 traits as the JTA – which seems very well documented. It was only when the test became a sold product as these values became important, and U-MAN didn’t have the finances required to do the needed statistical leg work. And lending the numbers from the JTA research would validate the link to that test and potentially put the copyrights into question. Hth.

  3. fuck it! as you would say, lol, why get into all this mojo?

    unemployment is high, just hire a team of interns for free and let them compete for the position, throw the dogs in the pit and the weak ones die

    sounds sarcastic but it’s true, if all you want is high performance who cares about a silly test result when you can audition someone or make it a temp to hire

    if you’re about the people not performance then invite the recruits out to drink and hang out and pick whoever you get along with best and share the most hobbies with…

    • Yeah – fuck it. But in a different way than you propose. See my next blog post.

      Your methods, while they may sound good, neat or avant garde, would not be viable for a business for the following reasons:

      1. Hiring lots of people (free or for pay) to see “who works out” generate lots of internal commotion and noise and is actually quite costly. Also, the long term bad PR generated by such moves should not be underestimated.
      2. Hiring “those you get along with” or “those you share the most hobbies with” will seldom get you the top producers or the people that complement your team.
    • I know Mårten Runow very well. He was the owner of U-MAN Norway almost since I started there (I was put in the position as the CEO when I was 23 by the previous owners so that they didn’t sell the company with no CEO to Mårten). I ran his company for 10 years. At the end of my decade with U-MAN, I also served as the OES Internationally.

  4. Geir, thanks for this informative post about the origins of the OCA. It answers some questions I always had. :)

    One thing I wanted to mention has to do with what you here:

    “I am sure we missed some fantastic candidates in the process. The most amazing people have quirks, eccentricities. Some are even raving mad by normal standards.”

    Possibly the operative words in the last sentence above is “by normal standards” if that would amount to relatively extreme quirks and eccentricities. Then it would make sense, because (as you undoubtedly know) LRH made it policy to use this test as part of hiring staff – and the understanding I got was that the purpose for so doing was to weed out truly psychotic people.

    People who pass for normal can be raving mad psychotics, such as some serial killers, for example, who were considered “normal” by people who knew them. From what I understand, this is the idea expressed in the book *The Sociopath Next Door* by Martha Stout, and by others in the mental health field.

    • My point is not regarding any “psychotics” but rather that using the test as a primary recruitment tool habitually misses out on the creative geniuses, the oddball mega-producers and the people that are strange but amazing. It may help you avoid mistakes (as our statistics shows), but it very seldom lands you the Steve Jobs, the Isaac Newtons, the Nicola Teslas or the Thomas Edisons. That is the real liability here. And I know this because we often tested teams and found the real powerhouse producers and creative geniuses with tests that would disqualify them in a recruitment process. Luckily, they didn’t use the test when those guys were hired.

      • Hi Chris,

        I wondered if LRH was the one who devised the OCA, which I sort of assumed he did – and how he figured it all out, because it did seem to me to be able to discern personality traits. As a Public Reg, I did quite a few evals on people. The eval consists of simply reading what is already written out for the score of each individual trait. And some of those descriptions to be read to the person were pretty ruthless. You probably remember all this.

        Anyway, I never heard a word about how the OCA was researched so I assumed LRH worked it out through supernatural means :D

  5. “Corporate personality tests” have been big in the USA for over 20 years. Flooded with applicants for entry level jobs, many retail businesses turned to personality testing com[panies which offered to winnow the applicant pool to those who were worthy of interviews, thus saving mangaers many many hours they might otherwise trying to interview applicants who appeared to be qualified on paer.

    About 14 years ago, while still in high school, when he was applying for his first job my son ran afoul of one of these tests. There was a video rental store near our house, and as he was long interested in games and movies, he wanted to work there.
    The manager was on vacation for a week, but my son was told he could take the test at a kiosk installed on the counter, to start his application process. Lo and behold, he scored too low on the test to get an interview! He was crushed. I decided to take the test myself to see what it was all about – and scored almost as low as he did. Had I wanted to work there, I could not have gotten an interview either.

    It turned out that if he had waited for the manager’s return, he would have been coached through the test and would have been interviewed for the job and likely gotten hired.

    This is a scene that repeated all over the country thousands of times every year. The companies that devised these tests basically sold them to and worked mostly with the largest national retail chains for the obvious reason – the more of the testing terminals they deployed, the more money they earned. In consultation with the company ownership, they would customize tests for different levels of the company hierarchy once, then make money deploying testing stations and getting paid for producing the test scores for each applicant. The managers were happy, because it reduced the time they had to spend interviewing.

    I believe there have been some lawsuits based on considerations of “discrimination”, but at this time these testing systems are commonplace in America.

  6. Pingback: A very different interview | Geir Isene - Helping people outperform themselves

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