There is no denying that personality tests are continuing to permeate our daily lives. There’s also no doubt that many readers who follow ERE regularly have had a chance to hear myself and other regular ERE authors discuss the ins and outs of the use of personality testing for employee recruitment, selection, and development. There is good reason for this. As more individuals begin to understand the value of assessment tools, and as technology continues to make it easier to integrate these tools into the hiring process, interest in assessment tools has continued to grow. Without a doubt the most commonly used type of assessments are personality inventories of one type or another. When used correctly, these inventories can be highly useful, supporting decision-making by providing important insight into how candidates may be expected to behave in certain work-related situations or how well they fit into a specific work environment. While most of my work with personality testing is related to matching people with jobs, I think that we hiring professionals can stand to learn from some of the other uses of these tools. One such case involves the use of personality profiles to match people with other people. Yes, I am talking about online dating. Before you close your browser window and move on to your day’s work, hear me out on this. I think there is a lot to be learned from a comparison between the use of technology and assessments to match people with jobs and the use of these same basic type of tools to compare people with other people. So hang in there and read on. In order to learn more about how online dating works, I decided to log on and check out eHarmony, an online dating site that advertises its use of personality profiles to help people find their ideal mates. (For the record, yes I am married and yes I did receive full permission from my wife for this official business-related research!) Once on the site, I went through the process of setting up an account and creating a profile in order to gain insight into how the eHarmony system works. The end result provided me with some answers about online dating as well as some information I could use to make comparisons to my specialty area, online hiring. My experience allowed me to make step-by-step comparisons between online dating and online assessment, which appear below. Please note that while the focus of my thoughts here is on the role of personality testing, in both online dating and online job searching a personality profile is just one component of a larger system. This means we must discuss the use of personality profiles within the context of a system or process that gives them meaning, which reinforces the central message of this article: that personality testing alone is not sufficient for making important decisions. Looking For Something New? The reason both screening and assessment systems exist is to help search for something new. The web has really changed our lives in amazing ways; it allows us to cast a net that will reach far and wide in order to find what we are looking for. People looking for jobs or mates can now virtually search the globe for the right match instead of being limited to only what they can find locally. In both cases we find people going on an electronic fishing expedition, a core part of which involves reaching out and projecting an image of who they are into the unknown and looking for the right return response. Of course, switching jobs is not as serious of a commitment as finding a mate, but it is hard to argue that both jobs and relationships hold front and center positions in most of our lives. While thinking about the motivation behind online job and relationship searching, I couldn’t help but draw the comparison between passive job seekers and “passive daters,” who may use the system to see what’s out there even though they are “currently employed.” Defining Who You Are In both cases, the first step to casting your virtual line is defining who you are. It is not possible to make accurate matches of any sort unless you have defined the parameters on which the matching will take place. In both online job seeking and online dating this involves creating a profile that captures the specific details of who you are, what you are looking for, and what you have to offer to others. While there are some major differences between the two (who has ever heard of a dating resume?), both online dating and online job searching can involve the following basic steps:
- Set up an account and create a profile. In the case of eHarmony, this required a 30-minute process that involved answering quite a few questions about myself and my personal preferences.
- High-level knock-out questions. The eHarmony profile creation process involved the use of certain questions that I felt were, in a way, very similar to those found in online hiring. For instance, questions that ask right upfront whether you would date a person with children, a person in a certain age range, or a person of a certain religion have many similarities with screening questions that remove folks who do not meet certain basic qualifications (i.e., willing to relocate, an appropriate degree, etc.).
- Personality testing. The eHarmony system used a lot of questions that seemed very familiar to me as someone who has used and validated many personality tests. There were questions that probed my stability, how reliable I am, how adventurous, etc. There were also questions about my likes and dislikes. This step does represent a major difference from the norm in online job searching. While online job applications often involve the use of personality profiles, they are most often not part of the initial searching and matching process. There may be some value in creating a job searching or matching system that involves the use of certain specific personality elements, but the possibility of legal issues related to such a system has thus far limited the number of these types of systems to a very few. Still, no matter where it comes in the process, personality testing is still a major element in many online hiring scenarios.
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At the end of the day, both systems rely on a standardized data collection process that includes a variety of things that have been determined in advance to collect data that will facilitate matching. In the case of online job seeking, this involves matching a person to a specific job, while in the case of dating, it involves matching a person to another person. Comparing Data Once profiles have been created, both systems take the data in an individual’s profile and use it to drive a matching process. Both systems use some form of algorithms to compare profiles and calculate matches. This area is one in which there are significant differences between the two types of systems. Many job boards or other online hiring system do not make matches in a very sophisticated manner. Online dating should teach us that making a match involves more than just a keyword search in a database or the use of a few key profile elements. Job matching, like matching someone with another person, involves a variety of subtle elements that must be accounted for in order to facilitate accuracy. But no matter how much data you collect, there is no way to make predictions that are 100% accurate. After all, in both cases we are dealing with humans and their behaviors, a subject matter that flat out defies the ability to make perfect predictions. In both cases, though, the ability to account for key elements that clearly have a relationship to one another is what good matching is all about. Reporting Both online dating and online hiring involve the use of reporting. One major difference is that, in online dating, you are provided with the results of your personality profile to help you better understand yourself in terms of what you need in a relationship. Unfortunately, in online hiring this is rarely the case. Almost without exception the results of your personality profile are never shared. I have consistently expressed my disappointment with this state of affairs; but, unfortunately, it is somewhat necessary, as providing job seekers with feedback about themselves that may be viewed as negative has a number of consequences. Both systems provide users with feedback on potential matches right away. In the case of online hiring, you are able to see job descriptions or learn more specific information about a job for which you are a supposed match. In the case of online dating, you get to learn about how other potential matches answered specific questions and view more information about them. You then decide whom you want to reach out to. In fact, the eHarmony platform has a dashboard you can use to keep track of your potential matches. Follow Up In both systems you are able to use your profile to search for others who match your parameters. Both systems also email you and alert you to individuals with whom you are a good potential match. In both cases, there is only so far one can go without some mutual interest from the other side of the ether. There must be some response from the other party involved to move the process forward. All the data collection and personality profiling in the world isn’t enough to allow for the complete automation of the matching process. The process still requires human attention and interaction to evaluate the data that has been presented and use it to drive some form of decision making process. In the case of online dating, this often goes no farther than a picture of the person on the other end (something you have to pay for when using eHarmony). In the case of online hiring, it requires the judgment of an experienced hiring manager or recruiter. The important point here is that, in both online hiring and online dating, the personality profile is only one element among many that helps provide the data needed to make a decision. Imagine if people selected mates by looking only at a personality profile! Sure, a profile will tell you some important stuff about a person, but it falls far short of representing the whole of who they are relative to your goals. What Can We Learn While there are many differences between online dating and online hiring, there is enough in common between the two to make some important points. Both systems potentially involve the use of personality testing to help them achieve their core purpose ó making matches. But personality testing is only one part of a larger process. Even in online dating, where the personality match is emphasized, it is not the sole piece of information that is used to help support decisions. In both situations, high-level qualifying questions not related to personality also have tremendous value in making the match. Follow-up actions are also required to learn more about the other party. In both situations, personality profiles lead to more in-depth discussions that allow expert decision-makers to collect more data. While personality profiles do tell you something about yourself, they are not useful for decision making unless they can be compared to a second set of data that will help promote an understanding of congruence between the person profiled and a set of specific criteria. In both systems, this means that care must be taken to understand the relevance of specific criteria to outcomes that are desired. While this is easy to understand when it comes to online dating, in online job searching this part of the process is often overlooked. Frequently this limits the accuracy of any subsequent decision-making. I think a great way to summarize this discussion is to reference a chat I recently had with Annie Murphy Paul, author of the book, The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves. While I don’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions about the negative aspects of personality testing, I do feel that her message is relevant to the present discussion. Her message is that, as personality tests gain in popularity in all phases of our lives, we should not blindly accept their use in any and all situations. We need to understand what they are and use them in the manner they were intended. We need to be sure we don’t rely too heavily on them when making important decisions. I think the comparisons in this article reinforce her point. When chosen correctly within the correct system, personality tests can be used to enrich our lives in many ways. When chosen poorly or relied upon exclusively for classification or decision making, they can often have a negative impact.