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Are Personality Measures More Than Just A Bit Of Fun?


Wyn Davies from Talentlens UK explores the results of a recent large scale personality study and demonstrates the importance of measures of personality to the recruitment process.

Earlier this year, 400,000 people in the UK completed a personality questionnaire as part of a project led by the BBC and Cambridge University, with the aim of studying the “psychological landscape” of the UK.

It intended to reveal whether any of the stereotypical traits and behaviours attached to people from different regions were a fair representation.

So what did the study discover? In some cases, it seemed to add weight to old stereotypes but it also provided the first valid basis for mapping the UK's personality types.

From a talent assessment perspective, the survey demonstrated why personality questionnaires are increasingly viewed as a valuable tool by recruiters.

However, a question often asked by those who are sceptical about the value that personality questionnaires can bring to the recruitment process is are they any good and aren’t they easy to fake?


Basket or bin?

Before answering if they are any good, it is worth looking at what they are designed to measure.

Trait questionnaires are the personality instruments most commonly used by recruiters. Most instruments are built on the work of Raymond Cattell, who identified a number of “source traits”.

According to his research, source traits lie under the surface behaviours that we term personality.

Many researchers have combined these source traits into what they call “The Big 5” personality traits – and this is reported in the BBC survey.

Whilst behaviours, that are influenced by other things apart from just traits, can be modified, it is harder to change your traits which have both a genetic and environmental components (nature and nurture).


The nitty-gritty

The results of each scale in a trait questionnaire are most commonly presented in a scale ranging from 1-10 and this means that scores can be compared between individuals.

Point 1

The first important point is the personality questionnaires are self-rated so if the person completing the questionnaire has a skewed or warped perception of their own traits and behaviours then this will be reflected in the results.

This can sometimes be the reason where someone may disagree with their results.

We all know people who would say something like “ I think I am really friendly and supportive” when those who know them might describe them as unfriendly and un-supportive.

By the time most people are adults however, many have have a better self-awareness of their personalities, behaviours and preferences than in their youth.

Point 2

The second point is that a person’s answers are all compared against other people – a normative reference (or norm) group.

This is not a new concept as people do this all the time. For example someone might say – “I thought I was tidy and organised but compared with person X I am really untidy”. 

When compared against a large group of representatives from the general population or a group carrying out a specific role then the results may differ.  It is important that all applicants for a role are compared against the same norm group.

One common (but expensive and resource-intensive) way to measure somebody’s traits at recruitment is to actually observe behaviours (in a role play or assessment centre exercise).

Another way, that is not possible in most recruitment contexts, is to ask the person and others to complete a 360 degree questionnaire. This gives a measure of how you see yourself and how others see you.


So how much value do they offer recruiters?

Personality questionnaires offer insight into the likely “fit” between a person and role in terms of required personality and behaviours.

You may have identified an applicant with the required technical skills, experience and/or academic qualifications but you have very little insight into their actual behaviours.

Take for example a customer facing role with the following job spec.

The ideal person will:

  • Have high levels of stress resistance
  • Be friendly and work well in a team
  • Have high levels of energy to work in a dynamic fast-paced environment
  • Be persistent

Now look at the SOSIE questionnaire trait scale scores of two candidates - which one is likely to have a better fit to the role in terms of their traits and behaviours? 

The scales in italics have relevance to this role.


SOSIE Scale 

Area of measurement

Dominance Social confidence and verbal influence
Responsibility Perseverance to finish a job no matter what
Stress Resistance Ability to handle pressure
Sociability How sociable one is 
Cautiousness How ponderous one is
Openness to experience Open to new things
Personal Relations Levels of trust and friendliness
Vigour    Level of dynamism and energy


As illustrated below, the orange candidate has self reported higher scores for responsibility, stress resistance, sociability, personal relations and vigour than the purple candidate.  From their profile it looks like they might may have a better fit to the role.

This is only a hypothesis, however, and could be explored further at interview and further discussions about the nature of the role. 


What about the potential for faking?

Surely if people know what traits and behaviours are required for a role, won’t they just fake the responses?

This is a possibility and some applicants do it. For that reason, many recruiters choose ipsative versions of personality tests that are less transparent and, therefore, considered by many harder to fake than normative versions of tests.

Faking a test, however, opens up the possibility that the test-taker might end up doing a job they neither like nor are particularly suited to. This can lead to a lose-lose scenario for both individual and employer.

Nobody would offer a job based solely on the profile from a personality questionnaire but they are certainly useful tools at highlighting likely fit and areas of a person’s personality that can be explored further in other stages of the assessment process.


And finally....

Personality tests, therefore, offer useful information which when combined with other assessment data can help recruiters gain as much information as possible, in order to make an informed hiring decision. Tests from reputable test publishers, like Pearson, are thoroughly researched, reliable and valid.  

SOSIE is a measure of personality traits and values published by Pearson Talentlens and has 20 scales 




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