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PERSONALITY PUT TO THE TEST MORE FIRMS USE PERSONALITY TESTS TO SCREEN JOB APPLICANTS
=BH FRED O. WILLIAMS

Before hiring a salesperson, John Casciani tries to peer into the applicant's psyche.

With six salespeople responsible for bringing in all the revenue at Buffalo country music station WNUC-FM, one poor-performer can put a financial drag on the company. So station-owner Casciani administers a personality test, to see if the candidate has the right mix of drive, friendliness and organization skills.

"Sales is a little more challenging in radio," he says. "It's intangible -- you don't have a physical product you can show people."

How loyal, receptive, dominant or timid are you? Do others see you as conscientious and polite, or defensive and opinionated?

Those are some of the questions you might be asked when applying for a job these days. Sure, you've got personality -- but does it match the employer's task and corporate culture?

As the labor market tightens, more employers are turning to personality tests to limit turnover and improve performance from current workers, personnel experts say. A bad hire can cost a company four to six months' pay, with missed sales, unhappy customers and a disrupted work force to boot.

Now, with low unemployment shrinking the pool of applicants, some companies are using personality tests to tailor a job around an applicant who isn't quite perfect. Knowing a worker's shortcomings and correcting for them can head off a crisis later, said Mary Ruth Austin, marketing director for the Omnia Group, a testing company in Tampa, Fla.

"If a person is not detail-oriented, maybe there's a quality control that could backstop
them," she said. "Maybe there's a good secretary who's not as friendly as you want, but you can provide her a script for answering calls."

Omnia's test asks candidates to pick from a list of 82 words -- including receptive, assertive, understanding and adventurous -- that describe personal attributes. The mix of answers indicates a respondent's energy, intensity and other qualities, Ms. Austin said. Inconsistent replies may indicate stress, or finger a candidate who's trying to please.

At WNUC, Omnia's test helps tap the right candidate three out of four times, Casciani said. "It's amazing how much they can tell about you," he said.

No magic bullet

But profiling is far from a magic solution for picking the right person, according to personnel experts.

Twenty-two percent of companies administer personality tests for both non-management positions and management jobs, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. Employers may develop the tests in-house or buy them from a testing service.

"There are still people who don't agree that it's the greatest indicator of future performance," association spokesman Barry Lawrence said.

Among the tests' drawbacks are potential legal problems, he said. Some employers have been taken to court over tests that tended to favor white males over other applicants.

"Even if you don't intend to discriminate, a test can have a 'disparate impact' that's discriminatory," Lawrence said. However, employers can spot and replace tests that have a discriminatory effect, he said.

While larger employers develop their own in-house test and monitor its success rate, smaller companies frequently purchase a test from a service that has the expertise to analyze the results. Costs and turnaround time can be other drawbacks to buying tests, the association said.

Omnia's profiles cost $100 each, or $120 for a fax response within 30 minutes, Ms. Austin said. An independent assessment, conducted by interviewing friends of test-takers, found that Omnia's evaluations were 97 percent accurate, she said.

Personality predicts behavior

Most personality tests, from Omnia's evaluation to the well known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, are based on the theories of Carl Gustav Jung, the German psychologist. In his 1922 book "Psychological Types," Jung advanced the idea that certain common personality traits can be identified and used to help predict behavior.

Such tools are best when used as part of a larger hiring process, experts say.

"I never took it (the test results) that strongly," said Patrick X. Crotty, a former corporate personnel administrator who does consulting nationwide from a base in Orchard Park. Crotty used personality tests as part of the selection process, but gave them less weight than the interview, he said. Although it's possible to determine the profile of a successful applicant, people with a bad match still may be able to adapt and perform well on the job, he said.

Experience still a key

"Past performance is the best predictor," he said. Finding the answer to "what have you done?" is more meaningful than asking "who are you?" he said.

For example, one company he worked for wanted to hire salespeople who would build relationships with customers through long-term consultation, instead of focusing on closing a quick, one-time sale. Spotting those attributes would fall beyond the scope of a personality test, he said, but not beyond the ability of an experienced interviewer.

Crotty, whose consultancy is called PXC Associates, sees more Western New York businesses testing employees after they're hired, to improve communication and teamwork. The most common test is the Myers-Briggs test, named for developers Peter Myers and Isabel Briggs. The "MBTI" uses questions about values to identify people who prefer definite judgments to open-ended plans, or those who like to think a while before putting their ideas forward.

"There's no right, wrong, good or bad," Crotty said. "It tells you what your strengths are." When co-workers share results among themselves, they gain insight into different styles of approaching a problem or conveying ideas.

"You see light bulbs going off," Crotty said. "Almost always people take it beyond the workplace -- they say, 'can I take one of these home to my wife or husband?' "

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