The Promise of Trait-Based Hiring

TSP • @myTSPnet


The first modern personality test appeared in 1919 when the U.S. Army sought to screen recruits who might be susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder. Since then, private employers have embraced these tests to weed out job applicants. Personality tests appeal to entrepreneurs who want to streamline the hiring process because analyzing an individual’s behaviors, attitudes and beliefs can eliminate some of the uncertainty when evaluating a new hire.

When selecting new employees for customer-facing roles, the best approach is to give more weight to personality traits than to previously acquired skills and experience. The technical aspects of the job can be taught to nearly anyone, but personality traits tend to have calcified by the time an applicant reaches adulthood. If you hire an employee who lacks the right personality for service, you’ll find that they struggle in their role, even if they’re qualified.

Your gut instinct for finding qualified future employees is probably not as spot-on as you think it is. Just as almost every driver on the road believes their own driving skills are above average, a lot of hiring managers and leaders believe they have above-average abilities when it comes to identifying high performing candidates.

This common, yet unwarranted, hubris of leaders is caused by a psychological phenomenon called self-serving bias. Self-serving bias causes us to attribute whatever successes we have to our talents and ascribe any failures we experience to bad luck and external factors.

The self-serving bias misleads hiring managers into thinking they have a special gift for hiring by crediting themselves for good hires while rationalizing bad hires as rare occurrences. Instead of going with your gut, try bringing science into the hiring process, eliminating as much coincidence as possible.

There are essential Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforceable practices you need to follow when screening and selecting employees. It’s crucial to apply any screening across all applicants and ensure the nature of the screening is equitable. However, this doesn’t cover everything.

It’s important to license a diagnostic profiling tool that screens for the characteristics necessary for your open role. Then, you can broadly verify the applicability of your new profiling tool by asking a few of your best employees to go through the profiling and also having a few of your less distinguished employees do the same.

Can the profiling tool distinguish between these two categories of employees? Do your existing outstanding employees look as good on paper? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, you can be confident you have roughly verified the profiling tool’s validity. 

Unfortunately, data suggests that most traditional job interviews simply show us who’s good at being interviewed, rather than who’s qualified for the job once hired. If you base your hiring decisions on interviews, be sure to include a lot of, “Tell me about the time you did...” type questions and go easy on the, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” questions. You’ll get a more complete picture of your candidate if you lean toward behavioral interview techniques.

Hiring the right candidate can help reduce turnover and retain talent. With trait-based hiring, you can screen candidates more efficiently and judge whether a candidate is likely to stay in the role and fit in the company culture.

To assess if a candidate is the right fit for a position, consider his or her passion for learning, overall ambition, ownership, initiative, empathy, communication skills, collaboration and critical thinking. Employees that aren’t the right fit for the job will eventually underperform.

Remember that by getting scientific about hiring, the goal doesn’t become to end up with a homogeneous, clone-like group of employees. In reality, your goal should be the opposite. Done correctly, selecting employees based on traits should open up a wider group of potential employees to consider. Trait-based hiring is designed to discover what lies underneath and find qualified employees who are different in age, gender, appearance and personal backgrounds.

With these factors in mind, consider how trait-based hiring could improve your hiring process and ultimately your company culture — your future self will thank you.