Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/24/2006 11:25:03 AM ET 2006-10-24T15:25:03

Victoria Nguyen has taken personality tests in women’s magazines, but she never took them seriously. Things changed this past summer when she applied for a job as an administrative manager of a New Jersey-based public relations firm and was asked to take a personality test.

“They told me there was a three-part process for hiring,” she says. “First was the interview, then the personality test and the third step would be meeting everyone else at the company.”

It was the first time Nguyen had ever taken such a test for a job position, but she took it in stride, answering all the questions honestly and fully. She was asked how she would deal with different situations, including what she would do if given a project and had no idea how to begin.

“I would ask for help, but I am also the type of person that learns things better on my own,"  she explains.

Her answers must have been right. She got the job.

Some of what clinched it for her, according to her new boss Jeanne Achille, chief executive of The Devon Group in Shrewsbury, N.J., was her high scores in logical thought, problem solving and conscientiousness.

It’s not enough today for a manager to just interview a job candidate. More and more companies are turning to personality tests to find out if you’re the right person for the job. The goal is to figure out what you’re really about. Will you be a team player?  Will you crumble under pressure? Will you steal from the petty cash drawer?

In an age of corporate belt tightening, companies of all shapes and sizes are doing everything they can to make the best hire because it costs them big bucks to train new employees who end up not working out.

Employers figure such tests, often created by psychologists or Ph.D.s, can tell them more about you than meets the eye. Jack Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, says exams that are well researched and have a solid reputation for evaluating potential employees can provide a window into “the general operations of an individual’s nature, their mental and behavioral patterns — motivation, emotion and integrity.”

These types of tests have been around for decades, but in the past few years they’ve experienced a growth spurt. About 35 to 40 percent of employers personality tests today, up from barely more than 10 percent just five years ago, says Steve Miranda, chief human resource and strategic planning officer for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. He expects the number to continue to rise past 50 percent in the next few years, in part because the tests are so much easier to administer and score using online technology rather than paper and pencil.

But there are major pitfalls, everything from loss of privacy to possible discrimination.

Some personality tests have come under legal fire on the theory they may discriminate against certain applicants based on their disabilities or religious beliefs. Massachusetts has banned so-called "honesty exams," while California and Rhode Island have laws suggesting personality tests should not be the primary basis for hiring, says Joseph Schmitt, a Minneapolis-based labor attorney.

Given the problems, are applicants allowed to just say no?

Not really. Miranda of the human resource society estimates that 99 percent of employers will reject an applicant who refuses to take a test.

Bottom line: If you have an ethical problem with such a test, refuse to take it and find comfort in the fact that the place of employment probably is not the best environment for you anyway. Lewis Maltby, president of the National Work Rights Institutes in Princeton, N.J., advises that applicants “decide what’s more important, getting the job or your privacy rights.”

That said, if you still really want the job, take steps to prepare before you plunge into the test-taking pool.  Often you can ask your prospective employer the name of the exam and research it on the Web so you’re prepared for the questions, says Ben Dattner, a New York based management consultant and adjunct professor at New York University.

These tests are hard to fool because they are designed to spot liars, but it is important to think logically when answering the questions, Dattner says.

If you’re applying for a job as a sales person that will require you to interact with people day in and day out, make sure you keep that in mind when asked questions about social interaction. Saying you don’t like to mingle at parties might not be a great idea. But be honest if you want to make sure the job is a good fit and are not just out to make a quick dollar.

Besides the job interview process, personality tests might be a good tool to help you figure out what kind of job or career might be right for you. College students and alumni can go to their school’s career development offices, where tests are often available for a nominal fee or free. Many reputable personality test companies allow individuals to take the exams on their own for as little as $15 a pop.

Looking back, Nguyen says she was happy to take the test.

“If I didn’t get hired I would imagine my answers didn’t fit in with what they were looking for and it probably wouldn’t have worked for me either,” she adds.

Eve Tahmincioglu is a regular contributor to many business publications and author of "From the Sandbox to the Corner Office."

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