The screenshot for a video game prototype by that simulates the experience of working on an oil rig, created by HR firm Mercer.
The screenshot for a video game prototype by that simulates the experience of working on an oil rig, created by HR firm Mercer. - 

Workplace personality tests are a multimillion-dollar business for the companies that make them. Basically, these are screening tools  online tests candidates take before they get to the interview stage. They’re designed to find out what makes you tick. But as they’ve gotten more popular they’ve also come in for criticism. Some candidates have even sued, saying the tests discriminate.  

New Yorker Jorli Peña recently interviewed for a job at a startup out of state, but before the company flew her out to meet with them she was asked to take a couple of brief online tests. The second test asked her to assess the way others saw her, and how she saw herself. She had to pick from an assortment of adjectives, and spent a few minutes on the task.

Soon the results came back. Peña was shocked.

“I started scanning it and I just thought … this isn’t me,” she says.

Peña, who considers herself an outgoing marketing specialist, was described as ill-at-ease in social situations, formal and reserved. She was afraid she wouldn’t land an interview. Maybe because she knew the company’s founder, she did. Others have fallen at that first hurdle.

These tests have been around a long time, says Barbara Marder of Mercer, a human-resources consulting firm. The tests may adequately screen for some jobs, but for other positions it may be much more important to look at a candidate's cognitive makeup, she says. 

One way to do that is through gaming. When someone plays a game, you can gauge a job candidate's potential by studying what they do during play, Marder says.

“You’re really figuring out how someone thinks,” she says, “how they make decisions, how they problem solve.”

Her company recently created a prototype 3-D video game for the oil and gas industry that requires a candidate to simulate a worker's role on an offshore oil rig. At one point, an alarm on the rig goes off and the candidate has to figure out what caused the alarm and how to respond to the emergency. All the while, the potential employer is judging the performance.

Simulation is one route to an employee’s potential. But there are plenty of other ways games can reveal your strengths and weaknesses, as I found when I began to play a number of games designed by a startup called Pymetrics.

One game measures how well I read other people’s emotions just from looking at the expression in their eyes. I have to pick the word that best describes what they’re feeling. It was quite tricky but also fun.

Games like those are aimed at millennials, says Frida Polli, CEO of Pymetrics’ and a graduate of MIT.

 

“We’d like to be the Netflix of careers,” she says. "Where you play the 12 games, maybe at some point we add some additional data about you, and then we really give you a very tailored, very precise and very good set of recommendations for what you could be good at.”

Pymetrics works with candidates to compile profiles based on their play, and lets them know which companies are looking for people like them. It then tells the companies, "Hey, check this person out – they have the kinds of qualities you’re looking for."

And Polli says these games can help companies diversify their workforce.

“There are a lot of companies in that realm," she says, "but they don’t know exactly how to solve that problem."

The algorithms behind the games can help, she says, because they make the platform blind to race and gender.

But perhaps they’re not blind to an aging brain. Some of the games I play make me sweat as the clock ticks down. In one game, I barely have time to register the direction of an on-screen arrow before it disappears.

If I’m being judged on this game, I fear for my employment prospects.

Polli says I shouldn’t worry.

“The main point of this is there is no right or wrong,” she insists.

She tells me that I look skeptical, which I do, and assures me she’s totally serious.

My test results do say I am 70 percent skeptical, which I think is quite appropriate for a journalist.

Playing this hiring game may just take a bit of practice for some of us.