Personality questionnaires have long been used to predict performance in the workplace. The problem: Job applicants often lie on them. Or stretch the truth.
Now, psychologists from the University of Toronto have developed a personality test that can predict who will excel in certain areas, even when respondents try to fake their answers.
"Cheaters should be worried," says Jacob Hirsh, a doctoral student and lead author of the report published today in the Journal of Research in Personality.
In a series of questions, people are asked to choose between a pair of scenarios that illustrate two desirable - or undesirable - character traits. A sample question might read: "Do you have a soft heart, or can you handle a lot of information?"
By forcing respondents to decide between two characteristics, Dr. Hirsh said, employers can avoid a common loophole that appears in other tests that ask people to rank their aptitude in a particular trait, such as creativity, on a scale of 1 to 10.
Those self-reported tests are "dependent on honesty," he said. "You can be perfect at everything."
Though the questionnaires showed remarkable accuracy in the study, which asked students to judge their own academic and creative skills in an online survey, even one of the test's developers isn't sure how many businesses will be interested in utilizing them.
"It isn't precisely obvious to me that businesses want tests that work," said Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and co-author of the paper.
For years, Dr. Peterson has marketed various aptitude and personality tests through his company, ExamCorp.com. But on the whole, he says, most businesses seem to be interested in hiring someone quickly rather than spending the time and money to choose the best possible candidate. Others, he said, are looking to hire and then train someone.
"[Human resources]people suffer from the delusion that training works," he says. "And there isn't really that much evidence that it does. Even if you're going to train, you should select people for whom training is going to be very efficient."
But some in the staffing industry say the tests are the problem.
Hassan Deeb, senior recruiter at BizNets.com, which recruits engineers, skilled workers and information technology professionals for Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia, says he uses rigorous interviews to select candidates, and uses personality tests only when companies insist on them - which happens rarely.
"I'm not a huge fan," he said from his office in Cambridge, Ont. "I believe it can be detrimental. Because if there's some error made, it could eliminate a very good candidate."
He's skeptical that any tests can be fake-proof. But others are willing to give it a try.
After hearing about the University of Toronto study, Joe White, who is working on his second textbook about becoming licensed to be a mortgage broker in Ontario, called Dr. Peterson's company.
"This almost seems too good to be true, but it's worth a look," he said.
In Mr. White's previous career at a mortgage brokerage, he found it difficult to determine who would be honest and ethical based on interviews. He used personality tests, but didn't put much faith in them because it seemed so obvious what the correct answers should be.
Similarly, Robert Colson, of the Teplitsky Colson LLP law firm in Toronto, had been frustrated when trying to pick hardworking staff based on interviews and background checks.
"It's very difficult to interview people for things like, 'Do you have common sense?' You can ask those questions, but we all know what the answers will be," he said.
He had been reluctant to use personality tests for fear of insulting candidates he was trying to attract. Lawyers "tend to have rather large egos," he said.
But after a period of high turnover earlier this year, Mr. Colson decided something needed to change.
Since May, he has hired four people using Dr. Peterson's personality tests as part of his hiring process, as well as a test that assesses cognitive skills such as speed and accuracy.
"I'm delighted so far," he said. The candidates have been "exactly what they seemed to be."