Personality Test

A few years ago I applied for a freelance proofreading job. The idea was to find something that would supplement the income I get from my other jobs, and the flexible structure of this one would have fit nicely into my schedule. Plus, I enjoy proofreading, and I’m good at it. I didn’t get the job, though, so I thought now was as good a time as any to criticize and make fun of their interview process, which included a proofreading test (which is standard) as well as a personality test AND an I.Q. test, which I think is pretty ballsy of them, especially considering the fact that they already had my resume, my complete list of writing credits and education, and two professional references. This wasn’t a very demanding position I was applying for. How much more information about my “I.Q.” did they need? I don’t apply for jobs all that often, so I genuinely don’t know: Is this sort of shit typical now?

To his credit, the personable guy who interviewed me over the phone told me that he doesn’t put much stock in personality tests because he finds them “a little weird,” as do I. And it surely wasn’t his decision to give these tests to job applicants, so I don’t blame him for it. I do find fault with whoever it was at this company who thought it made sense to try to gauge my “intelligence” and “personality” using standarized tests, without considering the possibilty that there might be some value in having me COME IN TO MEET WITH THEM. I mean, really. A phone interview and a computerized personality test? How about inviting me to your office? I could get there on the bus in 40 minutes, and then you’d have a chance to shake my hand and look me in the eye. You know, like two human beings. Wouldn’t that kind of exchange tell them more about me than two exams that didn’t test me on anything to do with the job they were considering me for?

If you’re wondering what a personality test is, I can tell you what this one was like. It was comprised of a series of sets of two statements, and I was asked to look at one set at a time and choose the statement I more strongly agreed with. The test was timed, and copying the text from the page was fussy, so I was only able to grab two of the sets to share with you. (I’d actually planned to make poems out of them, so I wish I’d gotten a few more.) Here’s one pair:

I almost always understand and agree with the reason for rules.

I might break a promise to someone if I had no other option.

Among so many other things, I take issue with the way the second statement here is phrased. If I had no other option? If it’s the case that I have no choice but to break the promise, then I must break the promise, right? Am I overthinking this? Or did they underthink it? Either way I found this impossible to answer properly.

Here’s the other pair of statements I copied:

I take my obligations and responsibilities as seriously as most people do.

I enjoy interruptions when I’m completing a boring task.

Now, you know that when you’re given a “test” like this, what you’re trying to do is figure out the answer they want you to give, not the one that’s true to how you feel. I struggled back and forth with my strong inclination to answer honestly and my (sometimes stronger) desire to get a high score on every test I take, and I kept finding myself baffled by this one’s intent, which was baffling by design, I’m sure. But I don’t believe for a second that the people who gave it to me were making an honest effort to assess my personality type in order to find out whether I’d work well with the people they’d already hired, or whatever. The statements tended to be about my feelings toward work and relationships, and just as often about my attitude toward rules and—though they were couched in language about honesty or other moral quandaries—how likely I am to respect the authority of a boss and do as I’m told. If that’s what it means to assess my personality, somebody needs to get a better understanding of what a personality is.

I’m reminded of a beautiful quotation from The Office, a show I quote from about 100 times a day. In this particular episode, the new HR rep calls an ethics meeting, and in it she tells everyone not to steal office supplies and also that wasting time at work counts as stealing from your employer. The office well, actually guy, Oscar, pipes up:

“This isn’t ethics. Ethics is a real discussion of the competing conceptions of the good. This is just the corporate anti-shoplifting rules.”

It’s embarrassing to agree with the show’s annoyingly pendantic character, but this is perfect. These kinds of critiques of corporate culture were one of many reasons the show was so good. 

For a day or two after I applied for the job, I thought about the indignation Barbara Ehrenreich expressed at being given bullshit personality tests like the one I took in her book, Nickel and Dimed. I felt bolstered remembering her conviction that no one who was considering giving her some crummy job (or even a decent job) had a right to try to worm inside her mind in that way. Here is a quote from her wonderful book, in which she says the same thing I have been trying to express, more eloquently and possibly even more angrily:

“What these [personality] tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine since the ‘right’ answer should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of hierarchy and subordination. Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders . . .

The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is always: You will have no secrets from us. We don’t just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them; we want your innermost self.”

Her book was written 20 years ago (and published a few years later), but this kind of everyday mistreatment of workers continues. It has most likely gotten worse, institutionally. Ehrenreich is still mad about it—follow her on Twitter if you don’t already—and so am I. You should be too.


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