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Six Problems with DISC as a Recruitment Tool

For industries where a relatively high turnover of staff is the norm, recruitment can be challenging; choosing the right candidates in a quick and efficient manner is paramount. To this end pre-screening potential employees with personality tests, and particularly DISC, has grown in popularity over recent years.

Tim Newman, Telemarketing Specialist

The Telemarketing Company

DISC, first brought to the public in 1972, is a personality and behaviour assessment tool based on work by William Moulton Marston in the 20’s and 30’s. Marston was a bit of a character by all accounts, he was a lawyer and a psychologist, but also produced the first functional lie detector polygraph, wrote multiple self-help books and created the Wonder Woman comic. Not a bad CV.

If you’ve not come across DISC before, it’s a questionnaire that asks you to choose from a set of adjectives, those that best and those that worst describe your personality. Using the results of these choices DISC gives you scores in four broad category types - Dominance (D), Influence (I), Steadiness (S), and Conscientiousness (C). Using your scores within those four categories it then further splits subjects into 15 or more subgroups.

These final categories give a description of the way an individual might react in a group, what sort of working environment they would thrive in and other useful insights for a potential employer.

The reason why DISC has risen in popularity and become the test of choice for businesses is plain to see: the test involves just one simple questionnaire, making it easy, quick and cheap to carry out en masse. Added to that, the level of agreement between the DISC test’s findings and the individual’s expectations are high. For instance, for the sake of research I went under the DISC knife to see what it revealed about my inner demons. Here’s a snapshot of the pigeon hole I was allocated:

“... prefer a supportive role and would rather not be the leader”.

“… overly sensitive to criticism”.

It’s so true.

This is all well and good, but it is also worth considering the pitfalls embedded within DISC and other personality tests of this ilk. If a company is considering investing time and money into something as sweeping as a change to recruitment procedures it’s important to be armed with all the relevant knowledge.

It’s not that DISC and its cohort are utterly useless, far from it, but there is good reason to be cautious if using them to make important hiring decisions:

1) Reliability and Validity

One thing’s for sure, DISC measures the things it sets out to measure. But what it doesn’t do is measure everything. That sounds like a crushingly obvious statement but it’s an important one to consider if DISC is being used for recruitment.

For instance, not every outgoing and confident individual is a top salesperson, and someone who measures low in some of the “desirable” factors might be a top notch problem solver and excellent at time keeping.

People high on the I’s and S’s should be "good with people" but that’s certainly not always the case.

2) Wilful Deception

To a certain extent DISC has become a victim of its own success with recruitment companies using the method far and wide. DISC is so pervasive that it has become fairly easy for interviewees to give the kinds of answers that they know the prospective company would like to read. In fact, some agencies even offer training and coaching in how to answer DISC type questionnaires to give the most favourable impressions. Cooking the books if you will.

3) Over-Use

On the other hand, people who are looking for work in various companies become almost robotic when filling out the relevant forms. General form fatigue is a feeling we all know and loath. Once the repetitive rot sets in candidates can stop giving a true reflection of themselves in their answers. They’re just going through the motions.

4) Forced Choice Questioning

The science of questionnaires and their validity is a huge area of discussion, especially for psychologists who often rely on information gleamed from them. As such there are a few more technical reasons why the DISC-type of personality test isn’t as reliable as some might have you believe. One of these problems is so-called ‘forced choice questioning’.

In the DISC questionnaire you have to choose which of four adjectives suit your personality best. So you will be presented with four words, if you choose the word that is weighted towards dominance, for instance, that means that you can’t choose an adjective weighted for one of the other three adjectives weighted for influence, submission or compliance. So, it is impossible to score high on all traits, or low on all traits.

This means that although you might find which of the four traits is generally dominant, you will miss the subtleties in the other dwarfed categories.

5) Interdependence Of Scales

DISC questionnaires are ipsative rather than normative. In basic terms that means that the four pillars of DISC are interdependent and linked to each other, making a fully reliable picture impossible to deduce.

In an extreme example, a candidate who scores high in dominance may not be dominant in real life, she might just particularly avoid being influential, submissive or compliant.

6) Inability To Compare Between Candidates

DISC, however reliably, compares personality traits within an individual, but the numbers it pumps out can not be used to compare between individuals. Two people who got, for instance, 75% in their D score won’t necessarily have as much D-ness in real life. As such it makes it a lot less useful to recruiters.

Normative tests are better suited to recruitment because they can compare personality groups between individuals rather than just within the one interviewee.

These points might appear a little knit-picky at first glance, but they are backed by the weight of the British Psychological Society, the Chartered Institute of Personnel, Training & Development and a whole host of HR professionals across the board.

DISC type questionnaires certainly can be insightful, they can also be correct and useful. For instance DISC results can be very handy for deciding on which employees to put in which teams and the kind of challenges an individual might rise to, but for something as important and sensitive as recruitment you might want to look elsewhere.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Paul Chance, author of The Teacher's Craft: The 10 Essential Skills of Effective Teaching:

“I propose that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t."

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