Monday, November 9, 2009

Personality Tests: Survival of the Phoniest

Having recently finished a novel I've been meaning to get written and now finding myself in need of more money to supplement my shoddy income as a videographer, I have been sending applications out to various places in hope of getting some retail work for the holiday season. Make more money. Comfort myself with more financial security. Contract some H1N1.

One thing I noticed during the application process was that several retail places no longer administrated their own hiring process. For efficiency's sake, they have outsourced the tedious task to a third-party "workforce management" company called Kronos (see The Kronos company, according to their website, specializes in giving companies "the tools they need to help them control labor costs, minimize compliance risk, and improve workforce productivity". More importantly, it ensures that organizations "hire the best people and make smarter decisions".

One of the ways Kronos has gone about finding "the best" workers for their client companies is by developing an electronic employee application that includes something called a Unicru personality test (Unicru was the company that initially developed the test, but was bought out by Kronos in 2006). Many of you out there are probably familiar with this test, as it is reportedly used by nearly 16% of all retail organizations in the United States. The test consists of a series of statements and you are supposed to respond to each statement with whether you strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree. For example, there will be a vague statement like, "Any trouble you have is your own fault" or "You are careful not to offend people" or "Your moods are steady from day to day" and you're supposed to choose whether you agree with what is said.

Upon completion, the tests are "graded" by Kronos with three colors: green, yellow or red. Green means the applicant passed the test with flying colors. Yellow means they did so-so. And red means they failed. This color-coding system is used with the intention of making the hiring process easier for the employer. Instead of sifting through an enormous pile of applications and looking over each applicant's work experience and education background and references etc., all the employer has to do is look through a Unicru report, see who the "greens" are and then call those people for an interview, for it's the greens that (according to the test) are the best candidates for employment.

Of course, it doesn't take a genius to figure out what is wrong with this kind of shallow, oversimplified means of hiring employees. In the words of one flustered personality test-taker quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal news article, the test is "just a way for companies to hire robots. A lot of people who scored green just figured out a way to cheat the system, or are just the 'yes' people, and I don't believe it makes them more capable than anybody else."

With statements like "You agree with people more often than you argue", "You are careful not offend people", "You avoid arguments as much as possible", "You finish your work no matter what", and "You are somewhat of a thrill-seeker", it's clear that the intention of the Unicru test is to weed out the people who are most likely to be 'insubordinate', get in the way of productivity and, in turn, decrease company profits. In other words, the test ends up favoring those who never argue, upset others, disobey orders, offend people, seek short, those who are the least human. Kronos apparently believes that the most dehumanized individual will make a company run at its most productive level, like an ever-predictable mechanism within a large machine.

But its favoring of dehumanized individuals isn't all that's wrong with the Unicru test. As I personally took the 99-question test - determining whether I agreed with the various statements - I found myself inwardly conflicted when coming up with my responses. On one hand, I knew what my honest responses were to the various statements...but I also knew that my honest responses were not what the Kronos people were looking for.

For example, when I was faced with statements like "Many people cannot be trusted", "People do a lot of annoying things", "People do a lot of things that make you angry", and "There are some people you really can't stand", my first inclination was to "strongly agree" with all of the above. I mean, yes, a lot of people out there really bother me and do a lot of annoying things that make me angry, and I'm sure the majority of people out there share this sentiment. But I knew that "strongly agreeing" with those statements would only make me look like a negative malcontent and wouldn't test well with Kronos. So I essentially found myself forced to choose a phony response that I knew would ensure my chances of passing the test. I knew that the 'right' answer was to "strongly disagree".

In other words, I came to the realization that lying was the only way I was going to get the job. And I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling this way. I'm sure most people who take these tests find themselves responding dishonestly for the same reasons, especially in the midst of today's horrible economy where people have never been so desperate to get the job. People will do whatever it takes to get an interview, even if it means lying and bullshitting their foot in the door.

So, in effect, what the Unicru personality test really ends up doing (intentionally or not) is it weeds out people who tell the truth and rewards those who lie. Where the test's intention is to act as a kind of Darwinian means of selecting 'the best' to work for a company, what it really does is ensure that the liars and bullshitters and phonies thrive in our society while the honest people get left to rot in the gutter. It's a selection of the phoniest, not the fittest.

Now, it's very possible I'm looking too far into all this...but I don't think I am. Look at the gravity of the situation on a greater scale: I guy gets a job because he is dishonest on his personality test. He leads a dishonest life as a dishonest employee. He is never truthful. He never says what he really means. He never argues. Never offends. He acts the way his employer wants him to act, not the way he wants to act. He makes a dishonest living at this dishonest job and starts a dishonest family, and teaches his children to be dishonest so they, too, can get a dishonest job and make a dishonest living and start another dishonest family. One dishonest generation after another is born. Over time, the world turns into a completely dishonest place where nobody exists as their true self; they exist according to how others (in this case, their employers) want them to exist.

Of course, things haven't gotten this extreme...yet. Only 16% of retail companies have subcontracted their hiring process to Kronos Corp., which is a high percentage, but it could be much worse. And although personality testing is reportedly a $450 million industry (and expanding by 10% every year), not everybody's using the tests; in fact, a lot of companies (Whole Foods, Spencer Gifts, among others) have come to realize how flawed the test really is.

However, with the economy in the condition it is - a condition that will more than likely get worse before it gets better - companies are becoming more and more desperate to find the "best" employees, which means more and more of these companies are going to use personality tests that, they think, will make it easier for them to do this. And, with people becoming more and more desperate to find a job, people will do whatever they need to do to survive, submit to the test, even if it means lying and being a phony.

It hasn't quite happened yet, but our culture is undoubtedly headed in a direction where it will become its phoniest ever. In today's job market, 'truth' has become an inconvenience, something that only gets in the way of our financial survival. But 'truth' is, always has been and always will be the most important thing to preserve, even if it makes life a tad more financially insecure. In the words of Martin Luther, "Peace if possible, truth at all costs."

To see the complete Unicru personality test I took, click here.

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