How to Deal

Weighing the pros and cons of taking a personality test at work

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 14, 2010; 10:40 AM

My employer is an NGO [nongovernmental organization]. They have recently announced that they want all staff to undergo Myers-Briggs testing. I am strongly opposed to undergoing this testing. While I might do it personally, doing it at the workplace and having the results shared with colleagues seems to cross a big privacy line for me. (They say results will only be shared in aggregate, but given our teams are small it will be easy to see who's who, and I don't trust that they will be confidential at all). Furthermore, I fear it could be harmful to me in terms of projects I am considered for. And basically, I'd just rather not be defined by a label. Do I have any rights to refuse this testing? Is it normal at an NGO to be asked to do this? Any other thoughts on the pros/cons of the testing?

I am not sufficiently familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality assessment tool (or MBTI) to outline the pros and cons of this particular instrument. I can, however, offer my opinion of the use of personality tests for team building purposes generally.

You have aptly identified the two primary concerns of employees who are asked to participate in workplace personality assessments: invasion of privacy and the imposition of reductive labels. We may be very capable of friendliness at work, but it is not a context in which one necessarily expects to divulge psychological intimacies. This feeling of unease is heightened by the fact that good assessments are designed to elicit honesty. In other words, the questions are written in such a way that the significance of the answers is not clear. The fear of being typecast is another major issue that arises in the context of workplace testing. And it is not an illegitimate one. Once your coworkers learn your "type," they may tend to make unfair assumptions about you on that basis ¿- regarding your motivations, your capabilities, your tolerance for certain workplace stressors.

Then again, the sharing of test results in the aggregate can also facilitate understanding of diverse personality types and lead to more collaborative working relationships. This is the main benefit of a team personality assessment exercise. It is rarely a bad idea to bring a team together to discuss their work styles and how they can improve upon their results. The process also allows individual insight into work preferences and issues that may be interfering with productivity and enjoyment.

According to information posted on the Myers & Briggs Foundation's Web site, it is unethical to use the results of the MBTI to make decisions regarding work assignments. Qualified MBTI administrators, furthermore, will insist that taking the assessment be entirely voluntary and that the individual results be shared with individuals only. The results may be presented to groups in the aggregate, as your organization has informed you. Yet, once you have taken the assessment, you are not bound to the results and you are free to choose a different "best-fit type" to describe you.

The leaders of your organization who have organized the MBTI exercise should be prepared for concerns of the sort that you have raised. No employee should be coerced into taking a personality assessment, especially when it is to be shared with others in such a way that absolute confidentiality is not guaranteed. Ask specifically whether the assessment is being administered by a qualified MBTI administrator. If so, you can rest assured that you will not be required to take the assessment and that certain other ethical norms will be followed. If the assessment is not being administered by a qualified MBTI administrator, probe further about the qualifications of the person. In either case, ask whether you may speak with the administrator directly to ask any questions that you might have.

Whatever you may learn about the exact nature of the process, you should feel confident in declining to take the assessment on grounds that you are uncomfortable sharing such personal information in a group setting. This is not based on any legal right to privacy, but rather on principles of common sense management that the leaders of your organization should readily understand. You should, however, be a thoughtful and active contributor to any group discussion concerning the aggregate test results.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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