Casting to Type

More companies are using personality tests to assess job candidates and develop new hires.

If I’m ever asked to take a handwriting test for a job, I’ll probably say no. That’s because, according to handwriting and document examiner Ruth Holmes, my penmanship reveals that I am, among other things, stubborn, highly analytical, and skeptical of authority. Based on these results, I’m not sure I’d hire myself. But my reaction to her analysis is beside the point, explains Holmes, founder of Pentec Inc., a 21-year-old forensic and personnel consulting firm that serves corporate clients, individuals, law-enforcement agencies, and the legal community. The issue is whether someone else would hire me.

As employers start to hire again, they are increasingly taking steps to ensure that the hires they make are a good fit — not only with the job description but also with the people with whom they’ll be working. Companies are doing this through handwriting analysis and other types of personality tests. Among the latter, the most commonly used are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment, which uses multiple-choice questions to determine the test-taker’s four-letter personality “type”; and the Rorschach, in which the subject is asked what images he or she sees in random inkblots, the results of which are then analyzed by a psychologist.

Although a survey by the American Management Association shows that the percentage of companies doing such testing fell off between 1999 and 2001, a spokesman for the group says employers will resume testing as hiring activity increases. PepsiCo, Sara Lee, and Hewlett-Packard have all used such tests in hiring or management training, and companies that use them swear by their ability to dig beneath such issues as credentials and experience and get at the basis of a person’s character, aptitudes, and weaknesses — information vital to assessing whether an applicant can succeed in a given position.

Lower Turnover

Leslie Murphy, managing partner of client services at 1,400-employee accounting and consulting firm Plante & Moran, in Southfield, Michigan, is one longtime fan of the tests. In fact, the firm gave her one before hiring her as an auditor in 1973. “We don’t make any experienced hires without personality testing,” says Murphy. “The firm has been doing it for 50 years.”

Murphy says that testing is essential to preserve the culture of the firm. “We need to hire people who are supportive” of that, she adds. It seems to work: she says the firm has half the turnover of its competitors, that the tests help managers train and communicate with employees better, and that “over time, you understand what type of person works well in which role.”

Of course, Murphy has an interest in extolling the virtues of such tests: Plante & Moran not only uses them internally but also sells assessment services based on them. The tests can be expensive, with the price for some running into the thousands of dollars. But because of the potential for increased turnover and training costs, forgoing them can be even more expensive, says Steve Gravenkemper, manager of the assessment and organizational development practice at the firm. Making a bad hire can cost from 30 to 150 percent of an employee’s salary, depending on the person’s position in the company, he says.

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