Can companies make employment decisions based on personality tests?

In recent years, personality tests have become a standard part of the job application process as employers look for ways to reduce turnover and prevent lawsuits alleging negligent hiring practices. Personality tests are used to assess job applicants based on patterns of behavior and reactions to various situations. These tests may help an employer identify how well the applicant will work with other people, his or her attitude toward certain workplace behaviors, and whether he or she is likely to engage in misconduct in the workplace.

While some personality tests are designed to predict an applicant’s actual ability to perform the job, others elicit responses on topics that have nothing to do with the workplace. Some of these personality tests are permissible and others might violate an applicant’s legal rights.

Inappropriate Personality Tests

There are several laws that protect job applicants from inappropriate personality tests that ask non job-related questions. For example, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits non job-related inquiries that directly or indirectly express any limitation, specification, or discrimination as to race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, physical or mental disability, medical condition, marital status, sex, age, or sexual orientation. Personality tests that delve into any of these areas may be unlawful.

An employer can try to overcome this prohibition by showing that the question is sufficiently related to an essential job function. For example, if the test assesses an applicant’s physical capabilities to lift a certain amount of weight, because the job requires an employee to do so, the employer may be justified in his or her inquiry.

Personality Tests & the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also bars employers from asking applicants about disabilities. This includes asking applicants to complete pre-selection medical examinations. While the ADA does not define medical examinations, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines them as “procedures or tests that seek information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health.” Personality tests that are designed to identify a mental disorder or impairment are likely in violation of the ADA. 

Employers who wish to use personality tests to select job applicants should try to ask only job-related questions. If personality tests ask questions meant to obtain religious beliefs, sexual practices, or race, the tests are probably illegal and the applicant may have a legal claim against that employer. Additionally, some states severely restrict or ban personality tests altogether when used for employment purposes. Check your state’s regulations for more information.