Published: Jan. 19, 1998

A new study by a team of researchers led by CU-Boulder management Professor Joe Rosse finds that many job applicants can and do lie on personality tests to get jobs they aren’t qualified for.

According to the study, prospective employees fake their answers in order to make themselves look better in the eyes of the prospective employer.

The study, titled “The Impact of Response Distortion On Pre-Employment Personality Testing and Hiring Decisions,” has just been accepted by the Journal of Applied Psychology. Its authors –- including Rosse, Mary D. Stecher of the University of Northern Colorado, Janice L. Miller of Norwest Bank, and Robert A. Levin of the Center for Human Function & Work –- found that most applicants distort their answers to some degree and a smaller number exhibit extreme levels of “response distortion,” or faking.

Rosse said many items on personality tests are transparent and that it’s often relatively easy to guess which response is “right.”

“Job applicants usually have substantial motive to make themselves look as attractive as possible. And applicants generally have ample opportunity to get away with faking because there is no objective way to verify a person's answers,” Rosse said.

The Boulder researchers compared responses from job applicants with those from current employees on tests designed to measure personality and the potential for response distortion. Compared to the current employees who had no particular motive to fake their answers, job applicants had more favorable scores on most personality dimensions and substantially higher scores on the response distortion scale.

Personality testing has recently become more popular as a way of assessing job applicants’ “behavioral” qualifications. Organizations are more dynamic and need employees who have many skills so that they can adapt to different jobs. Thus, personality traits are important.

“Take a high-tech firm for example,” Rosse said. “You need to know if your applicant works well with other people, adapts easily and is flexible. A personality test can tell you these things.”

How can personality tests help employers? Questions about an employee’s emotional stability and agreeableness help employers decipher how well an applicant works with other people, Rosse said. “If this is an important part of the job, employers need to pay attention to these questions. For example, if the test shows this person is an extrovert who is motivated by other people, he or she may not be a good candidate to telecommute.” Questions that explore an applicant’s level of conscientiousness help employers discover how well applicants pay attention to detail.

Rosse said the results of this study suggest that employers need to use tests that are designed to detect faking and that they need to know how to use the results.

He also said managers who hire someone who would lie on a personality test need to be wary. “It’s a risk to assume they won’t engage in other examples of stretching the truth if they did so in order to get the job,” Rosse said. However, he noted that the relevance of the “cheating” depends on the job. “If you’re hiring an auditor, you want someone who will not stretch the truth. If you’re hiring for a creative spot like an advertising representative, it may not be such a crucial matter.”

Does faking have any impact on who actually gets the job? It depends on the percentage of applicants who fake their answers and how extreme their responses are. “The conventional wisdom has been that if everyone tries to make themselves look good when seeking employment, there's no real effect on hiring decisions. That is, everyone's score will be a bit higher than it should be, but the rank-ordering of job applicants will not change,” Rosse explained.

But the study found that not everyone fakes the same type or number of responses. Some people are brutally honest about themselves, whereas others are willing to make up whatever will get them the job. As a result, the rank-ordering of job applicants is affected by differences in willingness or ability to distort responses. “In fact, it is the less qualified applicant who is most able to take advantage of faking because highly qualified applicants don't have much room to improve their scores,” Rosse said.

“In the sample we studied, more than half of the top-ranked applicants had sufficiently high response distortion scores to suggest that they were making up many of their answers.”

So, should employers give up on personality testing? Rosse said no.

“It is critical that personality tests be chosen carefully on the basis of their relevance to specific job-related requirements,” Rosse said. He also recommends using the personality test as part of a comprehensive hiring system.

Examples of the types of questions found on personality tests

Job applicants would be asked to answer true or false to 150 or more questions similar to the following:

• I always try to see the other person’s point of view.

• I enjoy helping people.

• I’m uncertain what to do with my life.

• I set high standards for myself.

• It’s better to be feared than liked.

• I enjoy being in the company of others.

• I try to keep my nose out of other people’s business.

Avoid the employee from hell workshop: Joe Rosse and Bob Levin, authors of this study and of “High Impact Hiring: A Comprehensive Guide to Performance-Based Hiring,” will present a workshop titled, “Avoiding the Employee from Hell: Hiring Safely In Today's Marketplace,” from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, at Dandelion's Restaurant, 1011 Walnut St. in Boulder. The presentation is in conjunction with employment attorney Jude Biggs of Holland and Hart. The $50 registration fee includes a continental breakfast and a copy of “High Impact Hiring.” For information call (303) 295-8533.