HomeBusinessThe Ethical Implications of Personality Testing in the Workplace

The Ethical Implications of Personality Testing in the Workplace

Almost all of us have taken a personality test before, idly clicking through a “Which High School Musical Character Would You Be?” quiz on Facebook just to enjoy a moment of righteous indignation upon learning that we’re soul sisters with Sharpay. However, some businesses believe that personality tests can actually shed light on the way a person functions within the office environment and have begun utilizing them as a tool in the workplace—in spite of the questionable effectiveness and even more dubious legality of this method. The most popular assessment employed is, of course, the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs test.

What Is the Myers-Briggs Test?

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, commonly known as the MBTI or the Myers-Briggs test, is a 93-question survey that purports to measure an individual’s personality by categorizing them as one of sixteen different personality types. These types are defined by four different categories, each of which offers two diametrically opposed preferences: introversion vs. extroversion, sensing vs. intuition, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perceiving. After taking the test, which is entirely self-reported, one is assigned a four-letter acronym corresponding to their rest result, i.e. “INFJ” for someone whose personality is determined to be “introverted-intuitive-feeling-judging.” The intended purpose of the test is to identify an individual’s preferences, strengths, weaknesses, and compatibility with other personality types.

Where Did the MBTI Come From?

The Myers-Briggs test was developed by Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers in the 1940s. A highly-educated woman who struggled with the tedium of life as a housewife, Briggs filled her days at home by developing theories on social development and classification that were heavily inspired by her days in agricultural college as well as the writings of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (with whom she shared a lengthy, if irregular, correspondence).

Isabel became intrigued by the possibility that her mother’s theories could be put to use in the war effort by helping to place soldiers and personnel in positions best suited to their character.

While neither Katharine nor Isabel had any formal training in psychology, they went to work formalizing and refining the personality assessment that would come to be known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Today, the MBTI is taken by more than two million people annually and is believed to be the most popular personality test in the world. It also brings in more than $20 billion to CCP, Inc., the Myers-Briggs test’s publisher, each year.

Is the Myers-Briggs Test Accurate?

Popularity, however, does not necessarily equate to accuracy—and the MBTI has many skeptics in the field of psychology. “In social science, we use four standards: Are the categories reliable, valid, independent, and comprehensive?” explains Adam Grant, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “For the MBTI, the evidence says not very, no, no, and not really.”

“Reliability” refers to an assessment’s ability to return the same result when retaken on a later occasion. While the MBTI website claims that 75-90% of repeat testers receive the same result, independent studies have found that the test varies in reliability up to 50% of the time.

Many also question the inherent validity of a test that limits individuals to sixteen personality types and argue that this model is not comprehensive because it does not account for traits such as neuroticism and deceitfulness. And, because the test is published by a private organization that makes substantial profits on MBTI-related toolkits and merchandise, it cannot be considered a truly unbiased and independent assessment.

How Is the Myers-Briggs Test Being Used in the Workplace?

More than 88% of Fortune 500 companies use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a tool for cultivating and maintaining their office environment.

Managers might require all employees to take the Myers-Briggs test in the hopes that having a working knowledge of their employees’ behavioral predilections will help to nip workplace tensions in the bud. For instance, a manager might try to avoid placing an INTJ employee on a project with an ESFP employee because these personality types are theorized to be more likely to conflict. Instead, the introverted INTJ employee might be assigned a solo project while the ESFP employee might be put on a team with a group of other gregarious extroverts.

Some companies even make use of Myers-Briggs types in hiring. For example, a few studies claim that thinking-judging personality types, or TJs, tend to excel in fields related to computer information systems. With this in mind, hiring managers might choose to immediately discard any candidates whose results show they learn more toward the feeling-perceiving, or FP, dichotomy.

Why Is This Problematic?

There are a number of moral issues at play regarding the use of Myers-Briggs tests to classify employees. Think of the first example above: even if the INTJ possessed a great deal of relevant expertise, they would miss out on participating on the project because their supervisor made an arbitrary judgment about their qualifications based solely on their personality type.

The example regarding the use of MBTI in hiring, however, goes past the boundary of “problematic” and into “downright illegal” territory. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars employees from discriminating during the hiring process based on aspects of an applicant’s race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. A court of law could argue that “personality” is a nebulous enough term that it could be used as a cover to discriminate against an individual for any of the traits listed above, making the use of Myers-Briggs results to screen potential employees technically unlawful.

Additionally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated that any testing procedure used in hiring “must be job-related and its results appropriate for the employer’s purpose.” Certain states also have privacy laws in regards to hiring practices that protect prospective employees from having to disclose information about their character and personal beliefs—both key components of the Myers-Briggs test. Even the Myers-Briggs website warns that “it is not ethical to use the MBTI instrument for hiring or for deciding job assignments.”

What Is the Best Way to Use the Myers-Briggs Test?

In spite of the flawed science behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, some psychologists point out that the MBTI can be a useful tool for self-reflection and may help users to better empathize with those who socialize and process information differently than they do. If used to assess and appreciate the diverse strengths of a workplace team rather than as a strict classification system by which to sort employees, the Myers-Briggs test has the potential to lead to an increased sense of comradeship and greater job satisfaction within the workplace.

Sophie McIntosh is a Brooklyn-based writer and dramaturg hailing from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Her plays have been produced by Imaginarium Theatre Company, Platform Production Company, and in the Boston Theater Marathon. Check out more of her work at sophiemcintoshwrites.com!

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