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Who Are You?: The Legal Implications of Employee Personality Testing

Many employers require employees and applicants to take personality testing (think Meyers-Briggs). Others are seriously considering adding this as a component of their hiring and employee engagement efforts. Companies want to get a sense of an individual’s opinions, attitudes, feelings, motivations, preferences, interests, emotional makeup, and style of interacting with others. This information, some believe, can help employers make predictions regarding job performance and success. At the very least, it allows employers to get to know an applicant through more than just the traditional interview process. These tests, however, raise many legal issues, particularly in the areas of potential discrimination claims and privacy concerns.

As an initial recognition, personality is not a protected class. Indeed, courts have routinely held that someone’s personality is a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason to not hire an applicant or take adverse employment action against an employee. Yet personality testing still has the potential of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). For example, if an applicant can show that the personality trait for which the employer screened was really a mask for discrimination of a protected class, the employer could be found to violate federal discrimination laws. So, if the employer is screening for a personality trait it connects with a protected class and makes its decisions based on that trait (possibly as a proxy or substitute for that class), that can constitute discrimination.

Furthermore, Title VII, the ADA, and the ADEA all have requirements for all employee testing that employers must adhere to when giving a personality test. For example, Title VII permits employers to administer professionally developed ability tests and take action based on the result. But, such tests must be implemented in a way that does not discriminate against protected classes, and ideally validated in advance as not having a discriminatory effect. Furthermore, employers are prohibited from adjusting the test scores based on an individual’s protected characteristics; using different cut-off scores for different protected classes; or otherwise altering the results of the test in any way. Lastly, the test must be job-related for the position at issue and consistent with a business necessity.

Testing clearly presents risks – of claims of discrimination, in addition to actual proof of such behavior. There have been numerous lawsuits related to personality testing under the ADA, Title VII, and the ADEA, with topics litigated including:

  • allegations of bias in determining traits important for the job
  • an employer purportedly asking questions that implicate protected characteristics
  • claims of bias in administration and scoring
  • whether the testing is a prohibited pre-offer medical examination
  • whether the test suggests a disability or a perceived disability based on the results, and
  • allegations of administering the test to discriminate based on age.

So, before you implement, add or change tests for employees or applicants, you will want to consider the risks they pose and balance that against the expected benefits of the testing.

Personality tests also raise potential privacy issues. While personality tests do not appear to violate the federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act, they may violate more restrictive state laws. For example, a Massachusetts law prohibits testing that renders an opinion on a job applicant’s honesty. Employers may also face claims based on the intrusiveness of the questioning (i.e., the questions are highly personal and/or offensive), or a failure to protect the privacy of the results. These state-law claims have thus far been brought have not seen notable success, but they have also not been tested nationwide, and new state and local privacy laws are enacted every year.

As personality testing becomes more and more popular among employers, interpretations of existing laws will inevitably become clearer and more settled. But new laws will likely join them, creating regular confusion and doubt. The best bet is to work your favorite employment counsel to help review and craft a personality testing policy that both conforms with existing law and is flexible enough to evolve as the issue changes over time.

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