Let's say you're a moody cynic with a touch of an anti-social streak. Should you confess it to a potential employer? Whether you're applying to...

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Let’s say you’re a moody cynic with a touch of an anti-social streak.

Should you confess it to a potential employer?

Whether you’re applying to become an accountant or seeking a promotion to sales manager, chances are you may have to submit to a personality test. Increasing numbers of employers are using written mental-measurement tests to weed through applicants and to predict new hires’ future success.

But what if you are, ahem, deficient in certain positive attributes? Or asked point blank whether you’ve ever lied, stolen or shirked your duties? Would it be foolish to be perfectly candid?

Deciphering the questions

Can you guess which personality traits the following statements are measuring? Test instructions say to rate the items on how strongly you agree or disagree on a five-point scale.

1. There is always a better way.

2. It is important for me to do things as perfectly as possible.

Some people assume that extremely positive answers are best, while others think that strongly agreeing will make them appear “too much” of something. But there are no right or wrong answers, just what best fits the job.

No. 1 measures “results orientation,” or a drive to achieve external standards. Strongly agreeing with the statement may be an effective trait for executives who need to develop new products. But it could be a handicap for a production manager whose job is to ensure consistency of manufacturing.

No. 2 measures “desire for achievement,” or drive to achieve internal standards. For jobs where results are hard to measure (such as chief executives), an internal drive is vital. But it could be a hindrance in jobs where key standards are external. In such a job, a person who scores high in “desire for achievement” might deliver great products but miss deadlines.

Source: Bob Lewis, Personnel Decisions International

Job seekers aren’t the only ones thinking about embellishing their personas. Personality-test faking — answering in a way to make yourself look good — is a topic of much debate among researchers and test publishers. They all agree that faking happens, but they disagree about the extent and the consequences.

Some argue that fakers can make better employees because they have to be astute enough to figure out the desired answers. But there are studies that come to the opposite conclusion: that applicants who score high on the “lie scale” make poor hires who continue their deceptive ways on the job.

Whichever is true, test developers and employers don’t want cheating. They use a variety of tactics to outwit and thwart fakers. They embed lie-detecting questions in the tests, apply standard deviations to eliminate extreme scorers and warn against faking outright in test instructions.

“Some people can’t fake it, and some people do a great job of faking,” said Lynn McFarland, who teaches psychology at Clemson University in South Carolina and who is the author of several published papers on the validity of personality tests. “People say your personality isn’t good or bad. But from an employer’s perspective, it certainly is. They want reliable, nonemotional, agreeable people.”

Personality tests are becoming popular because they have proved to be at least as powerful as job interviews or simulation exercises in predicting employee performance. Research during the past two decades has established definitive links between specific personality traits and various job performances. For instance, calm, steady types make ideal supervisors and security officers. People who are persistent and have a strong sense of self, on the other hand, turn out to be well suited for commissioned sales jobs.

Link to job behavior

One of the most widely accepted personality models is known as the Big Five, which sorts personality traits into five broad dimensions: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to new experiences. But employers use dozens of types of tests that are based on different personality theories.

The tests commonly ask applicants true or false questions or ask them to rank statements on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Questions to gauge a person’s openness to new ideas might include whether she avoids philosophical discussions (negative score) or tends to vote for liberal candidates (positive score). Emotional stability (often called by its antonym, neuroticism) might be measured by asking if she dislikes drawing attention to herself (negative score) or is skilled at handling social situations (positive score).

Big Five

The Five Factor model (also known as the Big Five) is the most popular approach for studying personality traits. The Big Five theory, which originated in the 1970s with tests involving thousands of subjects, breaks human traits into five broad dimensions. Take the test online at www.outofservice.com/bigfive or www.personalitytest.org.uk

The five traits

Extraversion: talkative, energetic, assertive, ambitious

• High scorer: Knows how to captivate people

• Low scorer: Keeps in the background

Agreeableness: sympathetic, kind, affectionate, trusting, cooperative, tolerant

• High scorer: Accepts people as they are

• Low scorer: Gets back at others

Conscientiousness: organized, thorough, methodical, dutiful, dependable, careful

• High scorer: Gets chores done right away

• Low scorer: Does just enough work to get by

Emotional stability (antonym: neuroticism): calm, relaxed, confident, easygoing, steady

• High scorer: Is not easily bothered by things

• Low scorer: Is often in the dumps

Openness to new experience: wide interests, imaginative, insightful, cultured, creative, broadminded

• High scorer: Believes in the importance of art

• Low scorer: Tends to vote for conservative political candidates

Source: Tom Buchanan, University of Westminster, England

Researchers can correlate just about any personality characteristic to precise job behavior. In 2003, Jeff Conte of San Diego State University and Rick Jacobs of Pennsylvania State University collected data on 181 train operators to study the effects of polychronicity, the preference for juggling several tasks simultaneously, on work habits. They found that polychronic workers were more likely to miss work and were tardier than employees who liked to finish one job before starting another.

Easy to manipulate?

Despite the fact that they supposedly have no right or wrong answers, some experts contend that personality tests are surprisingly easy to manipulate to get “right.” Experiments have shown that people consistently score higher in positive attributes on personality tests when they think they’re applying for a job than when they’re simply instructed to answer truthfully.

McFarland says the two personality scales easiest to fake are neuroticism (whether you are anxious, moody or insecure) and conscientiousness (methodical, dependable and organized). McFarland says verifiable questions, like, “Are you often late to work?” or “Do you get into arguments with others?” tend to elicit more honest answers than general questions like, “Are you agreeable?”

Several researchers have suggested that faking may be more common among less-qualified applicants; after all, they have the most to gain by fudging. That may lead to their getting hired in disproportionately large numbers. Other experts warn that people who rate themselves highly on the test may in fact possess those qualities — or at least believe they do — and that dismissing them as fakers would penalize the best applicants.

In a 2005 study by McFarland and four others, blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans scored higher on the lie scale than whites. The researchers gave personality tests to 1,063 people who were applying for jobs as sales representatives with a Midwestern company. The tests contained seven questions, including, “I never feel envious of other people,” designed to measure how often they engage in undesirable, but common, behaviors.

The differences in the “lie scale” scores between minority groups and whites persisted even among employees already on the payroll, who presumably had no reason to present a false image. McFarland believes that cultural reasons may explain the discrepancies:

Blacks omit more answers than whites, perhaps because they distrust questions that ask them to admit wrongdoings.

Asian Americans, especially those who are foreign born, lean toward conformity and may be more concerned about presenting themselves appropriately, McFarland wrote.

Bob Lewis, vice president of research for Personnel Decisions International in Minneapolis, distinguishes between people who simply lie on personality tests and those who try to inflate their scores to match what they think the employer wants.

“Figuring out what people want and giving them that is an adaptive behavior,” said Lewis, whose company publishes several selection tests aimed at executives, managers and sales workers. “If you hire them, they tend to do pretty well on the job.”

“Some people overthink it”

Lewis contends that bluffing on personality tests is tricky because the “right” responses depend on the nature of the job. Conscientiousness is generally regarded as the most important personality trait across all occupations. But retail clerks and production workers may require the “rule following” type of conscientiousness whereas managers and executives might need the “do what you say you’ll do” type, Lewis said.

Charlie Wonderlic, president of Wonderlic Inc., an employment recruiting and assessment company in Libertyville, Ill., said a person applying to become a butterfly catcher might not realize that persistence is one of the key requirements for the job. Without that knowledge, Wonderlic said, the applicant likely will have difficulty falsely passing himself off as persistent, especially since questions might be asked seven or eight different ways.

If you’re gaming the test, “You’d better know what you’re doing because you have to do it consistently,” Wonderlic said.

McFarland, of Clemson University, warned would-be fakers about outsmarting themselves.

Some people deny any and all improper behavior, from going over the speed limit to fibbing about their age. That’s a quick way to trigger the lie scale. Others worry about appearing too good.

“Some people overthink it,” McFarland said. “Maybe I should say I’ve stolen or something like that.”

(Hint: As a rule, less lying and stealing is better than more.)

McFarland advises test takers to consider whether lying is even worth it.

“You may get the job, but you may hate it,” she said.

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or ksong@seattletimes.com