How do you really get to know another person? More specifically, how do you know what type of employee that person will be? To help answer this question, many firms have incorporated personality tests into their applicant screening or employee training and development processes over the last several decades. According to a 2015 analysis by the Society for Human Resource Management, such assessments — of which there are thousands — combine to create an industry with annual sales of US$500 million.

But as Taya Cohen explains it, one of the critical problems with many personality tests is that they overlook moral character. Cohen, an associate professor of organizational behavior and theory and the Carnegie Bosch Junior Faculty Chair at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, argues that this should be a concern — because moral character is the aspect of personality that can best predict ethical behavior. Moral character encompasses several traits that influence people’s conduct and interpersonal interactions: Someone who is guilt-prone, for example, is more likely to demonstrate empathy, to be a team player, and to learn from his or her mistakes.

In the small window during which employers and job candidates become acquainted, a significant amount of information is exchanged. Some of it is visible and obvious, some of it is hidden from view; some of it is critical, some of it is noise. Cohen, who earned a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, looks for ways to help companies sort through the data to reveal how people are likely to perform on the job. And that’s something the personality test your company is using today could be missing or, worse yet, getting wrong.

S+B: The concept of moral character is central to your research. Can you define moral character, and how it can shape people’s job performance?
Moral character is a broad dimension of personality that captures a person’s tendency to think, feel, and behave in ethical ways. It subsumes a number of more specific traits. For example, “guilt proneness” is an important moral character trait. People who have high levels of guilt proneness have a strong conscience — they feel guilty when they make mistakes or let others down. Moreover, they can anticipate this [feeling] and take proactive steps to avoid behaving badly in the first place. In my work, I have demonstrated that employees with high levels of guilt proneness have better job performance.

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