Recent social and political trends in the United States have not been kind to assessments. For instance, the number of colleges requiring standardized test scores for admission continues to drop.1 As another example, assessments can be collateral damage in the bipartisan movement to re-examine occupational licensing.2 And a growing movement also looks to malign the use of assessments in the workplace, leading to thus far unsuccessful attempts to ban personality tests in the workplace.
Despite this misguided scrutiny, using assessments to inform organizational decisions is more important now more than ever. We had a discussion with some assessment experts at this year’s Annual Conference for the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), and we wanted to share these insights with you.
What is causing this scrutiny?
Although such skepticism is not new,3 it seems to have increased with more public awareness on the use of artificial intelligence in the workplace. Still, several factors play a role.
People sometimes assume results based on assessments should be perfect and error-free. Unfortunately, this is an unrealistic expectation. Virtually all assessments are based upon statistics and probabilities, which have inherent uncertainty. Similarly, assessments measure human tendencies and phenomena, which are impossible to see directly. It’s not as simple as holding a ruler to an object to measure its length. To understand people, we must make inferences based on things we can see.
In other words, assessments can’t perfectly solve all the world’s problems. However, they are useful for facilitating more objective and accurate decisions in the workplace. So, when assessments don’t live up to these unwarranted expectations of perfection, users get disappointed easily and lose confidence in all assessment uses and applications. If the public applied this logic to their medical decisions, no one would take any medications because drugs are not effective for everyone all the time. In fact, many common medications are even less effective than proper applications of psychological assessments.
Misuse of Assessments
Speaking of statistics, designing and validating assessments requires complex analyses and computations. When assessments are used to understand people, who are even more complex, a proper understanding of assessment results requires familiarity with psychology and related behavioral sciences. It is human nature to fear what we don’t understand, and many people don’t understand assessments or how they are used. At Hogan, we do not fear assessments. Rather, our passion for socially responsible people solutions drives us to love assessments. We have decades of expertise designing, evaluating, maintaining, and implementing high-quality assessments. Unfortunately, however, many options that claim to be personality assessments lack the scientific foundation and socially responsible safeguards of Hogan’s assessments.
A lack of understanding can lead to improper assessment applications in organizations. For instance, many are familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and too often organizations use such assessment for hiring. However, the MBTI is not designed for employee hiring.
Another improper use of workplace assessments stems from recent advances in artificial intelligence and large language models. That is, some assessment providers have used these new technologies to avoid offering human interaction in interpreting assessment scores and giving feedback. The problem is that this violates psychologists’ ethical guidelines, which require that only qualified people use psychological assessment techniques.
When personality or other psychological assessments are interpreted incorrectly, the test takers can experience stress and misdirection. When improper uses of assessments go wrong, it is easy to view all assessments as faulty based on these isolated “bad apples.”
What are the implications?
Some version of an assessment, whether a personality assessment or structured interview, is the main way to make more accurate decisions with less bias in an employment context. The scrutiny against assessments and related decision-making tools pushes people to favor more flawed and biased decision-making strategies, such as human judgment and intuition. Because organizations must attend to their brand image and public reputation to support customer relations and effective recruiting efforts, they may follow public opinion—no matter how misinformed—at some point and to some extent. As a result, talent professionals would be left to make decisions without the aid of assessments.
What would the world look like without assessments?
The only other alternatives to assessment-based decision-making are pure human judgment or random approaches. Although it is easy to see the superficial benefits of human judgment, human judgment is severely flawed. In fact, human judgment is problematic in so many ways, one could write an entire book on the topic. Many scholars have done just that (e.g., Kahneman, 2011). Human decisions are shaped by expectations, biases, experience, and heuristics that distort accuracy and fairness, even without the decision-maker knowing. This is precisely why experts started looking into better ways to make impactful decisions: workplace assessments.
With most assessments, the decision-maker is presented only relevant information, such as a personality score. In other words, all they see is a number that tells them about how the individual is likely to behave. The decision-maker does not see the person’s race, gender, age, disability, ethnicity, or any other irrelevant characteristic that could activate problematic biases. On the contrary, when a decision-maker uses only human judgment, we have no way to find out for sure exactly which factors were evaluated in reaching their decision. Unlike human judgment, assessment-based decision-making allows for continuous improvement of tools, protection of individual rights, and evaluation of decision-making practices.
Beyond human judgment, the other alternative to assessment-based decisions is pure random selection, akin to rolling the dice. Although this ensures everyone has an equal chance of being selected, it imposes an unreasonable burden on employers to hire individuals regardless of the ability to perform their work. How would you like to work alongside many incompetent coworkers?
How can we improve the reputation of assessments?
Because organizations will eventually have to follow public demand, it is crucial to take steps to improve the reputation of assessment use in the workplace.
For instance, assessment experts can conduct research and provide education on assessment applications in a way that is accessible and relevant to a general audience. Accurate and engaging stories about proper assessment use and comparisons to alternatives, such as human judgment, seem like promising strategies for connecting with lay audiences. Experts can also work with assessment critics to help mend the breakdown in communication between social scientists and the lay public.
People can also inform themselves of the differences between proper and improper assessment use and increase their self-awareness of their own biases, all of which should help shape more realistic expectations and equip them to protect themselves.
Without assessments to support workplace decisions, employees and organizations will be left to navigate the treacherous world of human biases and error without scientific and evidence-based insight.
This blog post was written by Chase Winterberg, JD, PhD, director of the Hogan Research Institute, and Brandon Ferrell, PhD.
- Nietzel, M. T. (2023, June 13). The Test-Optional College Admissions Movement Continues to Grow. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2023/06/13/the-test-optional-college-admissions-movement-continues-to-grow/?sh=7f2b919b1326
- Cottle, M. (2017, August 13). The Onerous, Arbitrary, Unaccountable World of Occupational Licensing. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/trump-obama-occupational-licensing/536619/
- Highhouse, S. (2008). Stubborn Reliance on Intuition and Subjectivity in Employee Selection. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1, 333–342.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.