In the October 8, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker worries about taking employment tests:

I’m going on an interview shortly. I was told that prior to receiving an offer there would be some testing. I doubt there are any tests that relate to the job content of this particular job. What other kinds of tests are typically given, and what should I look out for?

Nick’s Reply

employment testsEmployers routinely administer tests without notifying candidates what tests they’re going to give them. That’s not acceptable. You should ask the employer in advance exactly what tests will be administered to you.

Employment testing is a complex issue — there are ethical, legal, and practical considerations. I’ve got my own opinions, but I turned to an expert in employment testing for help in answering your question.

Erica Klein is a Ph.D. Industrial Psychologist who has worked in the field of strategic, competency-based selection and assessment since 1998. She develops and administers employment tests, and she’s taken virtually every kind of employment test herself.

Dr. Klein explains that, when they’re administered appropriately, “Tests can help employers predict who is likely to be successful in a job. In combination with interviews and experience and education screening, tests can provide employers with additional predictive value.” In other words, such tests can actually help you land the right job and avoid the wrong one.

Klein is also the author of Employment Tests: Get The Edge — a new PDF book from Ask The Headhunter. Dr. Klein steps out of her normal role interpreting research for the benefit of employers, to advise job seekers who take tests.


An article Dr. Klein wrote for the ATH website has been so popular that I asked her to write this 36-page PDF book for the ATH bookstore. It’s the only book that you’ll find that covers all 5 major types of employment tests — written to help job seekers.

Order Employment Tests: Get The Edge now!



What kinds of tests might you be given? Erica Klein says, “The most common pre-employment test is a combination of a cognitive ability (intelligence) test and a personality test. Other common types of tests include job samples, integrity tests and situational judgment tests.”

My concern is where a test comes from, because few employers actually create their own.

Klein explains: “Many employers purchase off-the-shelf cognitive ability and personality tests. If you want to research the tests ahead of time you can ask the employer which tests they use. Many employers will tell you but some may not. Even without specific information about the test you can still learn a great deal by researching the general structure, content and purpose of these tests.”

She offers four testing tips from her book:

  • Know your rights. You don’t have to take a test, but if you don’t you will probably not be considered for the job.
  • Learn as much as you can about the tests you will be taking so you can perform your best and avoid common mistakes.
  • Approach testing like an athletic event with proper training, rest and nutrition.
  • Ask for feedback about your test results. Use the results to learn more about yourself and refine your job search.

Clearly, it’s up to you to ask questions and to do your own homework. But you’re not alone. The American Psychological Association (APA) has established stringent codes regarding the administration and interpretation of such tests. These codes dictate that the tests must be valid and reliable, and the results of the tests must be properly interpreted and shared with you.

So, don’t walk into a testing situation blindly. If you want to perform at your best, you need to know what to expect, and you should prepare in advance. If a company doesn’t abide by the APA rules, I’d decline to be tested. You’re not back in grade school, where tests are forced on you. You’re an adult, and you are not required to take any test unless you want to.

You also need to know whether and how the results will be stored — it’s a privacy issue. If you’re uncomfortable, ask questions before you consent until you are satisfied the testing will be conducted properly and how it will be used to judge you.

While some companies administer tests in ethical, appropriate ways, others have little idea what they’re doing–and that puts you at risk. Before you let anyone poke and prod at your personality, make sure you understand the potential consequences. All job hunters should visit the APA’s website to learn about their rights: Rights and Responsibilities of Test Takers: Guidelines and Expectations.

Did you know you have rights when it comes to employment testing? How do you prepare for employment tests? Do employers explain to you the tests and testing procedures in advance? Has your performance on a test ever cost you a job opportunity?

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  1. Nick–Check this article from the WSJ about Xerox using a personality testing to hire call center workers. It’s a bit creepy.

  2. The companies that use screening tests unwittingly reveal their corporate personality by the choice of test. I dodged a disastrous career move where the screening test had nothing to do with the job. The test had probably been been bought up by some HR guru without consulting the engineers who interviewed me for the job. The test was a strange mixture of the old MMPI personality disorder test (recognizable from Psych 101) and pointless calculations such as cube roots and statistics. When the project manager called with an offer (I had the top score), I declined. Turned out the company folded a year later in the midst of a nasty lawsuit over selling equipment containing trojan horses.

  3. I recall a personality test I took once. After the first few questions, I looked ahead and saw that the test consisted entirely of four questions. Each question, with the same set of multiple-choice answers, was repeated many times with variations in wording and incidental details to conceal the similarities. The questions had ethical implications, so the similarities were generally far more important than the differences. I accordingly gave the same answer to each of the four questions every time it appeared, disregarding the variations except in a few cases where they were not trivial. I wasn’t doing this to play games with the test. I just couldn’t think of anything else to do. I got a pathologically low score, far outside the normal range–because my reading and thinking skills were better than those assumed by the people who put together the test.

    Just like HR people, psychologists are generally given a blank check by their employers as far as credibility is concerned. Accountability is rarely a factor. The results are the same. People in core production functions don’t get that blank check, and smoke-and-mirrors generally doesn’t cover them when they consistently get bad results. Guess which group tends to be smarter. You can’t devise competency tests for people who are more intelligent than you are, who have mastered skills that are judged sharply by real-world results.

    Even general psychological research, on which the tests are based, is very often subject to the same debasement. Check out this recent article in Science News: “Closed thinking: without scientific competition and open debate, much psychology research goes nowhere”, at“.

    Especially for people who can pick and choose between job prospects, and above all for people with a record of success, picking the right employer means picking one who doesn’t use any such tests.

  4. When I was in college taking psych 101, we were required to participate in 10 experiments put on by grad students. I signed up for my 10 and thought nothing of it, until I got a call from a full professor asking me to come in. Turns out I had taken a modified Myers Briggs test and I had an unusual score. So the prof asked me to take a formal Myers Briggs test. I did.

    My score was STRONGLY dominant in 2 areas and subdominant (but almost dominant) in a third. The prof used this score to show the students that all rules about humans are subject to being broken.

    Can you imagine what kind of results I’d get if an HR flunky saw a score like that? I’d be miscast 3/4 ways. That’s why I don’t take psych tests given by employers.

  5. @Bob,
    The Myers Briggs is not valid for use for selecting employees – I agree if a company used that test, they are making improper use of the test. The company that owns the MB makes it clear that employee selection is an improper use.

    @Chris Walker – thanks for the link – the WSJ article does a nice job of explaining how a personality test can be used to predict tenure. Companies that make a big investment in training want to select employees who are more likely to stay.

    Great discussion – Erica Klein

  6. This topic reminds me of a test I took long ago in Chicago. The job was to create a very confidential membership database for a non-profit that counted quite a few celebrities in its listings. The manager was fixated on enneagrams, a metaphysical method for matching personalities that was a minor fad at the time.

    The testing was both verbal and written, and struck me as odd, but who knew? Anyway, I passed and was hired – and six weeks later we agreed to part.

    I’m not putting down metaphysics, and I’m reasonably sure she thought she was doing what was best for the organization (or maybe I was the only viable candidate for the night shift in the middle of winter). And this was in the old days before so many legalities came onto the scene. I’m just saying there are a lot of ways to test potential hirees, and it’s up to the individual to determine whether the job is worth it.

  7. @Chris Walker-creepy indeed! But employers think this is the bees knees of hiring these days.

    @MWilson- Dead on! If they don’t incorporate their total human instinct and gut in the hiring process, something is definitely off. I do not think tests accurately define and pinpoint the “best” viable candidates.

    My grad school psych professors thought that the MMPI-I was invalidated and openly expressed dislike for it. Being the reason was that I believe it used only men and from a correctional facility at that (I think, not sue). But as I may not remember the EXACT reasons why for their distaste, I distinctly remember their disapproval for its validity and reliability when using it in the normal human population. I do remember the advice given, “If an employer uses this as a hiring tool, you may want to reconsider taking the job.”

    …but it seems testing for candidates is what it is…

  8. oh and @Ken Dezhnev, I agree with mostly everything in this article. Articulately and well written about how psychological science operates. My thesis was based on a similar observation about judgment and biased and closed thinking processes. Thanks for sharing!

  9. A company wasting their time on psych test for professional employees is telling you they don’t know how to hire. Hiring is the most important professional challenge.

    Why do you want to work for a company that can’t perform again?

  10. Companies that make a big investment in training want to select employees who are more likely to stay…..

    Counterpoint. Companies you want to work for hire the best people they can find. , then RETAIN them with good HR practices!! I cannot imagine hiring top sales people on a “likely to stay ” criteria

  11. @Erica Klein, You are correct but I’m old enough so that I was tested (in the dark ages) when MB was considered THE test to take.

    And despite the fact that it’s shine has been reduced, a lot of companies still use a modified form of it, even today. If a person takes that test, it is subject to mis-interpretation because the HR version is a short form of it. And it is subject to min-interpretation because people’s personalities don’t fit in boxes. That is why I brought my experience up for discussion.

  12. @Bob, good point – the model underlying MB is not the five factor model of personality that is most often used to make useful predictions about behavior. The five factors are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and emotional stability. It depends on the job, but conscientiousness is a good predictor of performance in most jobs, and extraversion in many jobs. I discuss this in more detail in the book and you can find many great readable scholarly articles (free) online by searching on five factor model. Erica Klein

  13. @VP Sales: “A company wasting their time on psych test for professional employees is telling you they don’t know how to hire. Hiring is the most important professional challenge.”

    Tests may have a place, but more and more it seems HR uses tests to avoid being accountable for hiring decisions. You’re right: They simply don’t know how to hire. It’s long past time that C-level management took a hard look at the assumptions their companies are making in the hiring process.

  14. Good post and discussion this week. It seems to me that tests are the latest thing HR uses to screen OUT applicants, when ATS, keywords, and computerized methods aren’t enough. God forbid that anyone actually use their brains, or meet and/or talk with applicants first. Shame on management for letting HR get away with it.

    That said, SOME tests do have their uses; in one of my first jobs after college, I worked for a management consulting firm, and sometimes the consultants used the MBTI test, but the purpose wasn’t for hiring but one of many tools to help businesses improve. It doesn’t make sense to use it as a way to screen applicants or as a way to try to figure out who to hire.

  15. I just took a test for a large Internet company.

    While I think it is a step in the right direction, there are some constraints with testing, especially technical ones, over the iInternet.

  16. @Dave: Oy vey. Internet testing. Like that isn’t prone to all kinds of problems. ATSes work so well, might as well do testing over the internet. I used to score those MBTI tests, in that job with the management consulting firm, and everything was done ON PAPER back then. Paper didn’t have system failures, didn’t kick you out, time you out, or get stuck.

  17. Great observation about internet testing. How can they tell if it’s really you taking the test and how can they tell if you get help or cheat? One thing to watch out for – sometimes you might be asked to take the same test a second time, this time in a proctored (observed) setting and if you score significantly lower, the employer might assume you cheated the first time.
    Erica Klein

  18. @Erica

    They record your session on the website. Part of the problem I had is that they put time constraints on it – so it does breed a bit of cheating.

  19. If you fail a personality test, are you never likely to get a foot in the door at the company who administered it? I fear the answer is yes, because HR people are overlooking experience and everything else in favor of these tests… and because most people believe you can’t teach attitude. Skills can be taught to you, but personality most people think is baked into the cake.

  20. @Erica

    A lot of companies prefer to hire extroverts. Now, I’m not the most introverted person in the world– I’m about the 55th to 60th percentile of extraversion– but with all the emphasis on soft skills and emotional intelligence, I worry that’s not good enough for the majority of American employers.

    My precise situation is, I enjoy being with people unless I sense they won’t reciprocate. The problem is, that’s pretty frequent. When very often happens is I put myself out there, and people don’t reciprocate. (Not “like”– respond to me in the way I hope they will.) And you can’t force someone to reciprocate your social overtures… they have to enthusiastically consent to it.
    Because my guidelines are pretty stringent here– I don’t think my outgoingness counts unless I’ve gotten enthusiastic reciprocation– I’ve never felt particularly socially adept, and therefore I feel like a lot of jobs are closed to me. Even more, with this testing craze potentially outweighing everything else I, or any other job applicant, bring to the table.

    Personality and psych testing have intimidated me. I can’t stand the prying into my personal life, the feeling like I’m putting my entire life on trial every time I look for a job. These tests have made me feel, among other things:

    –like I’m disadvantaged in the job market because I didn’t play sports in high school… never mind that it was almost 20 years ago;

    — like because I’m single, I’m disadvantaged compared to a married person, because married people have this ongoing piece of evidence that they are likeable, sociable people… and because many people believe relationships make you healthier;

    –like every social faux pas, every argument, every person I fail to charm or persuade (or get to reciprocate) is going to follow me around the rest of my life;

    –like I pursue my hobbies and pastimes at my peril; lest the “wrong” combination of passions and interests mark me as “not a good fit” for a certain job.

    I’m probably reading a lot more into this than I should; but the way they are often used to disregard everything else about a person has snuffed out my belief in myself and put the kibosh on my hustle.

    I mean, really, Xerox? Creative people are likely to stick around in the job but inquisitive people aren’t? Don’t creativity and asking lots of questions go together like peas and carrots?

  21. @Lucy, if you are excluded from a job because of your score on a personality test, you are not necessarily excluded from that employer. First, some jobs have specifically tailored personality profiles so your results may exclude you from one job and include you for a different job. Second, many employers do not save personality test results for very long so each time you apply you might get to take the test again. Your score will vary since people seldom give the exact same answers each time. Usually your score won’t vary by much but maybe enough to get a passing score.

  22. @Erica thanks for the response. I feel better assured.
    It’s just hurt so much over the years.