Thursday, 1 August 2013

Who feels treated unfairly after taking an assessment?

Applicant reactions are the feelings people have about taking a given set of assessments in order to secure employment. We know that assessment design matters: applicants are happiest when given scope to show their capability through relevant challenges that did not demand inappropriate information.

Applicant factors matter too - obviously passing or failing the assessment can colour their perception, as can their 'attributional style' - but up to now there has been no consistent effect of applicant personality. Recent research takes a different angle that suggests perceptions of fairness depend on the applicant's personality type .

Finnish researchers Laura Honkaniemi and team suspected the problem with previous applicant reaction research was that it focused on correlations with personality traits - individual qualities such as extroversion, neuroticism and so on. This presumes that personality has its effect in a fairly linear way - 'more extraverted people will be happier in assessments', rather than involving an interplay between different features. Honkaniemi's team, working with personality data from applicants to Finnish Fire and Rescue Services, used an analytic technique to find four different personality types within the group of 258 applicants, which I describe below.

These individuals had all completed a set of physical assessments and then a psychological regime including interview, cognitive tests, a group exercise and a personality assessment (the Finnish version of the PRF). The final research sample (40 participants opted out of this) detailed applicant reactions, specifically on the use of psychological assessment, by rating items like 'I don’t understand what the psychological tests have to do with the future job tasks', after the assessment but before the outcomes were known. These items related to three areas: face validity - did the assessments seem relevant to the job?, predictive validity - do I think they can predict job performance? - and fairness perceptions - do I think this is a fair way to do things? No effect was found for the first two variables, but fairness was influenced by personality type for both successful and unsuccessful candidates.

Two of the personality types saw the process as significantly fairer than another. The first, typified by high conscientiousness, low neuroticism, and above average agreeableness and extraversion, is commonly identified within this personality typing process and labelled the Resilient type. Another hasn't been previously reported, the researchers dubbing it the 'Bohemian' due to its combination of low extraversion and low conscientiousness. In contrast the Overcontrolled group gave significantly lower fairness ratings. This is another classic type involving high neuroticism and low extroversion and agreeableness. Previous research has suggested this type is more likely to infer malevolence behind ambiguous behaviour, so their negative perceptions are consistent with this. Conversely, the Resilient profile, as the label implies, carries with it a strong tendency to adjust to circumstances and move forward, so less concerned with picking apart perceived wrongs. The authors speculate that the new type of Bohemian may have a  'let all flowers bloom' approach, their impulsive, uncompetitive nature making judgment unlikely.

A few notes: firstly, these personality types are rarely 'pure' but reflect nuances of the larger sample. Here, the Undercontrolled had higher extroversion than the Resilients, the opposite of what is seen in other studies. Secondly, the personality types are more than the sum of their parts: all these effects were obtained while controlling for the effects of the 14 individual personality traits within the PRF.

Applicant reactions matter. They can influence test performance, sour opinions of the employer, and affect a new hire's self-perception. Understanding who may experience a process as more unfair might be useful to employers for offering targeted support and feedback that takes their likely reactions into account.

ResearchBlogging.orgLaura Honkaniemi, Taru Feldt, Riitta-Leena Mets├Ąpelto, & Asko Tolvanen (2013). Personality Types and Applicant Reactions in Real-life Selection International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 21 (1), 32-45 DOI: 10.1111/ijsa.12015

Further reading:
Ployhart, R. E., & Harold, C. M. (2004). The Applicant Attribution-Reaction Theory (AART): An integrative theory of applicant attributional processing. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 12, 84–98.

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