Mind over patter

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2007, 12:00am

Outgoing or introverted, intuitive or analytical, empathetic or judgmental? Personal chemistry and temperament are key factors in how well we work together, which is why more employers are turning to personality tests to screen job candidates.

'It's hard to quantify the effectiveness [of the tests],' says Wing Yau Wing-yuk, director of Culture Homes (Elderly Centre). The company, which specialises in catering, care services and centres for the elderly and employs about 250 staff, uses the Enneagram system as part of its hiring consideration - and not just at the managerial level.

Even so, Yau says 'it helps reduce the turnover rate, from three out of 10, to one out of 10'.

There are no figures on the number of companies in Hong Kong that apply personality tests as a hiring tool. However, more companies have begun to include them in recruitment since they surfaced in the city 15 years ago. In the early 1990s, personality tests were mostly employed by big multinationals. But in the past five years, they have become almost standard for mid-size and large companies, says Ritchie Bent, group head of human resources at Jardine Matheson.

One reason for the more widespread use is cost. 'It's always important that you find people who can work in the culture of your organisation in a productive way,' says Bent, who also chairs the human resources development committee of the Hong Kong Management Association. 'You don't want people who are massively destructive, and [drive] everybody to resign.'

The Enneagram is among many personality tests available on the market. Based on theories developed by Bolivian-born psychologist Oscar Ichazo, it classifies people into nine personality types: 1) reformers, 2) helpers, 3) achievers, 4) individualists, 5) investigators, 6) loyalists, 7) enthusiasts, 8) challengers and 9) peacemakers.

According to the system, everyone has a dominant personality that determines how they adapt to their surroundings. For example, type twos (helpers) tend to be more caring and eager to please other, and therefore better suited to nursing or marketing. Fours are sensitive types who need to express themselves, and often end up as writers, musicians and actors.

Of course, people are more complex. 'You should find a little of yourself in all nine personality types, but one should stand out as being dominant,' says Gloria Hung Suk-yee, director of the Enneagram Institute of Hong Kong. 'Our dominant personality is like built-in computer hardware that determines how we perceive things, react to people and situations, and handle conflicts.'

At Culture Homes, Yau quizzes applicants on nine aspects from the 144-item Enneagram questionnaire to try to match them with a particular position. For example, types six and nine may be more suited for clerical work because they're better at taking instruction and are more methodical.

'But that's not to say we exclude people who don't fall into these two types,' she says. 'Their academic background and work experience also count.'

As Yau points out, personality has always been an important factor when hiring. 'It's just that in the past we would assess a candidate's personality mainly through interviews,' she says.

Now, companies use a combination of indicators to gauge whether candidates have the right experience, ability and aptitude to match employers' requirement, Bent says.

'Many people say they can tell straight away if a person is suitable but that's very dangerous,' he says. 'Interviews are inherently incorrect because some people who conduct them aren't trained for it.'

Bent says an inexperienced interviewer wouldn't know how to quiz candidates on their resumes. 'CVs can be misleading; about 75 per cent are inaccurate. It's a sales document - no one writes a CV which is absolutely true.'

A recent survey of 360 firms in Hong Kong by British manpower assessment company SHL found that 80 per cent of respondents were concerned about applicants cheating in the recruitment process. But can you fool a personality evaluation?

A reliable test should be able to allow for inconsistency, says Molly Lim, director of Profiles of Hong Kong, a corporate solutions provider.

'It's difficult to cheat because there're some 'catch questions' that rephrase the query in different ways,' she says. 'If there are contradictions, your report will appear confusing. And the recruiter may think you're a very confusing person, too.'

Lim says there's no way applicants can prepare or rehearse for a personality test. 'The only thing you can do is be clear-minded and calm.'

For all the corporate fascination with personality tests, experts say they're only useful if used appropriately. Not all evaluations are designed for recruiting personnel.

Some companies adopt the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator method, a widely used profiling system that classifies people into 16 categories. However, the system shouldn't be used for recruiting personnel, says Robin Ball of Management Development Services, which has the sole licence to confer accreditation to run MBTI tests in Hong Kong, Beijing and Taipei.

The method is designed for team-building, coaching and resolving conflicts, rather than to select candidates because it doesn't have a 'lie detector' embedded into the assessment, he says.

Fanny Cheung Mui-ching, head of psychology at the Chinese University, says companies should be careful when investing in personality tests.

'A comprehensive test has to be well developed and validated,' she says. 'Companies should check whether the test has been developed through rigorous research and is up to international standards.'

Some evaluation systems may not have been professionally adapted to the local situation.

'Most tests are developed in the west and the norm they set is based on sampling from western countries. So when tests are used in Hong Kong, employers have to make sure candidates have the proficiency to understand the language,' Cheung says.

'Even if the test is translated into Chinese, employers need to know if the translated version is equivalent to the original test and professionally adapted to Hong Kong culture.'

Every organisation has its unique culture and staff at different levels should be assessed against different requirements, Cheung says.

Although no employer would recruit staff solely on the basis of personality tests, Bent suggests a good selection process should combine various forms of appraisal, such as structured interviews, group discussions, and tests to assess a candidate's verbal reasoning, numerical skill and innovative thinking.

'People will sell many different tests promising that you'll get a 100 per cent result. But in reality nothing is 100 per cent,' he says.

'Personality tests are additional assessment to help you in the decision-making process. It's important not to stereotype people. They merely give you a new insight and additional information about a person before an interview.'