Companies are turning to personality profiling to find the right candidates for roles and promotions. But the use of such tests raises some important questions.

Are you the sort of person that reads all of the instructions before beginning a task or do you prefer to jump right into things? Would you say you are outspoken with your opinions and can be demanding at times, or are you fairly reserved?

Most people wouldn’t expect such personal questions in a job interview. We’re more likely to walk in anticipating a discussion about our professional experience or the skills we have that are relevant to the role in question.

Personality identification tests, such as the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment, have long been used by some companies as a team bonding tool. Workers can identify their personality types and, by extension, the best ways of working together in the light of their differing, or similar, traits. New companies such as Saberr have also jumped on the bandwagon, offering apps and software that provide similar services.

But increasingly, managers are turning to personality and behavioral assessments to sort through job candidates, and even to help them manage employees once they are on board.  A 2014 survey of global HR professionals by CEB, one of the largest providers of online talent tests, indicated that 62% of respondents used some sort of personality test pre-hire. Thirty percent indicated that personality assessments would be used to identify high potential talent in the future. By contrast, a 2001 survey of managers from the American Management Association found that 29% of employers used a psychological measurement or assessment.

Neil Cleaver, co-founder of management training consultancy EML UK, conducts psychometric workshops as part of the team building services he provides. He says that  in addition to an uptick in firms being familiar with personality and behavioral assessments, he’s also seen a difference in what companies are hoping to get out of them.

  There’s been a steady trend with the global financial situation, with companies expecting more return on investment. They want to be more forensic

“Before the big crash 2008 it was very much about cohesion—let’s have some fun together because business is going great,” he says. “Now there’s been a steady trend with the global financial situation, with companies expecting more return on investment. They want to be more forensic. They still want events to be fun, but it’s more about what it means and how they can use it.”

The right stuff

So what can looking at personality, rather than just raw ability, tell an employer about a potential hire?

Research shows some measures of personality can predict job performance and employee motivation. A 2016 meta-analysis of personnel selection procedures found that a general abilities test combined with an integrity test, which is correlated with personality traits, was one of the best combinations for accurately predicting job performance.

"There are two parts to anybody's work performance. One part is maximal performance, described as ‘can do’ behavior. The other is typical performance, described as ‘will do’ behavior,” says Deniz Ones, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. “What personality predicts well is typical performance."

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Ones is quick to point out that workplace assessments typically only measure normal adult personality traits, and are distinct from the diagnostic tools used by psychologists, although these do play a role in the selection process for specific occupations where it’s necessary to screen for things like emotional stability, such as in pilots or law enforcement officers.

Still, her studies have illustrated just how consistent people’s personalities are at work and at home. In one, counterproductive behaviors in someone’s personal life, such as deception, were correlated to counterproductive behaviors in the workplace, including embezzlement.  “There is an underlying behavioral tendency that is not that different, it's just a different manifestation,” says Ones. Ones has also found that conscientiousness is predictive of positive work behavior while she says extroversion is indicative of good performance in managerial jobs.

In another study, four of the Big Five personality traits - extraversion, agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness - predicted the performance of medical students in the later stages of their clinical training. By their seventh year of medical school, students who were higher in extraversion, agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness had higher grades.

An imperfect science

A crucial step for companies looking to use personality assessments to hire new staff is to identify which personality traits work for them, but this is not a trivial task. Few of us can be easily packaged into neat, predetermined profiles. Desired traits can vary widely across departments, roles, and even geographic location, since the culture might differ from office to office, and the desired profile takes a lot of careful consideration.

“The key is to develop the instrument in the right way, put the science behind it, test it over time [and] create a conversation within the organization about what it means them,” says Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and well-being at performance management consultancy Gallup and coauthor of 12: The Elements of Great Managing. “It isn’t perfect, but it improves your chances [of selecting the right candidate] substantially.”

Some of the most widely used assessments are based on the DISC Theory, which was developed by psychologist William Marston in the 1920s. It categorises people into four categories - dominance, influencing, steadiness and compliance. Several companies have developed different assessments based on the theory, including TTI Success Insights, which says it has generated 28 million DISC reports for its clients since 2000.

Their DISC assessment consists of 24 questions, with each consisting of four statements that users rank from the most to least “like them.” In the final report, individuals are scored on each of the four DISC work styles to provide clues about how they might fit into the professional environment. Hirers can then look at the report and compare it to the reports of those already in the company who are known to be superior performers.

The only problem with that, if you only have average people as your top performers, and you hire more like that, they will not be superior

The problem with that strategy, warns Rick Bowers, president of TTI Success Insights, is that companies may end up hiring the same types of people over and over again, and in doing so miss out of the benefits of diversity. If you’re hiring people just like your superior performers, you might miss out of the people that could be even better. “So the best way is to have a brainstorming session for why that job exists and create the key accountabilities for the job, and answer the questions with those in mind.”

The Caliper Profile is an assessment used by companies including Johnson & Johnson and BNY Mellon. It consists of 150 personality questions and cognitive ability tests, such as number and visual pattern recognition. Like TTI Success Insights, Caliper has also developed models for specific jobs that it says can help identify the right people for a role.  

“If someone’s using it for hiring for a management role for example, we can give them a report that indicates this person is X percentage fit for this position based on competencies that we know are related to success in a management role,” says Mark Greenberg, president and chief executive of Caliper. He warns that the Caliper Profile should only be one of many factors under consideration when making a hiring decision.  “But it weighs very heavily for some of our clients when hiring talent.”

There are other assessments being used by companies, however, that are not designed for candidate selection at all. The publishers of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, for example, have explicitly indicated that it is unethical to use the assessment for selection purposes.

Jim Kelly, a certified user of MBTI who runs assessments for various companies, describes the test as being an indicator for personality preference, akin to being left or right handed. While two people might be right handed, one might be better with their left hand than the other is with either hand, he explains. The real power of tests like MBTI is improving the way people work together.

“I’ve seen it used to make the workplace more comfortable for people,” says Kelly. “I’ve seen it improve teams and office environments, and help people get over obstacles in communication.”

Technology is also offering companies new ways of using the information about their employee’s personalities once they have assessed them

Profiling pitfalls

Even when it’s not part of the hiring process, many employees feel uncomfortable about personality tests. Even when they’re administered with development, rather than selection in mind, assessments can feel intrusive, arbitrary, unfair or irrelevant to some, and their use can have unintended and counter-productive consequences.

Jeanette Hayman, an archeologist for an environmental science company in Seattle, did a team-building workshop with a practitioner licensed by Insights, which was founded in Scotland. Their flagship assessment, Insights Discovery, categorises people according to their responses to certain statements, placing them into four colour energies, “Fiery Red,” “Sunshine Yellow,” “Earth Green” and “Cool Blue.”

Hayman says she wasn’t surprised that she was considered “overwhelmingly yellow,” which corresponds to people who are sociable, demonstrative, and persuasive. She says the workshop was useful in improving how team members communicate with one another.

“What’s helpful to know is when talking to a red person for example, you should be brief and to the point,” she says. “And it’s good to know that that’s not because they’re mean, it’s just their personality.”

But the system also means she might get pigeonholed for specific uses or may be overlooked for leadership or management opportunities. “My manager might actually say ‘I need your yellow to shine on this project,’” Hayman says. “But sometimes I want them to think of me for my ‘red.’ I have leadership skills too.”

Luckily, Hayman’s company will re-test the team in a couple years. “I hope I’ll go in and be as honest as possible,” she says. “But now that I have more work experience, that probably means I’ll answer a little differently.”

Gaming the system

So what should you do if you the company you want to work for places a personality test in front of you as part of the application process? The answer depends on who you ask.

“Game the system if you want the job,” Kelly says with a laugh. Certainly, there’s nothing stopping a candidate from taking the assessments privately to understand what their answers might say about their fit for a job. Cleaver says he had one client who was so familiar with the Myers-Briggs test that he could manipulate it to come off as how he wanted others to see him.

Ones, however, recommends a more honest approach. “Getting feedback that you're not a good fit for a job or organisation based on a personality inventory is not an indictment of your personality, it's just a realistic statement.” she says. “Perhaps there are other employment and career opportunities you should pursue for your own career success and your own career good.

“The best advice is to complete personality questionnaires as you are. You'll do yourself a disservice, if you do not."

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