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4 Reasons to Avoid Using DISC as a Recruitment Tool

Are you currently using – or thinking about using – DISC as a recruitment tool?

For businesses where high staff turnover is the norm, I’m sure you know that recruitment – where selecting the best candidates quickly and efficiently is a must – can be a major headache.

Which is why turning to something so convenient as DISC may seem appealing, at least at first glance. 

After all, according to Cut-e, 61% of businesses in mature markets use some form of psychometric testing.

Data from other sources even goes so far as to suggest they’ve used by over 75% of The Times ‘Best Companies to Work For’ and 80% of Fortune 500 companies.

But wait a second – not so fast.

Don’t get me wrong; I love using DISC – just not for recruitment. In much the same vein, I think hammers are a great tool; I just wouldn’t use one for making an omelette.

DISC is actually a very useful tool to have; people pick it up and think it’s brilliant. But understanding its limitations is just as important as understanding its strengths.

Having been developing recruitment systems with integrated psychometric tools since 2008, I’m about to tell you why using DISC for recruitment is a bad idea, and what you should be doing instead…

A worrying trend

In recent years, I’ve noticed companies have started pre-screening potential employees with a particular type of psychometric test, known as DISC, which identifies candidates’ preferred behavioural characteristics.

DISC, which made its first appearance on the US market in the ’70s and in the UK shortly after that, is a behavioural assessment tool based on the work of William Moulton Marston. 

Marston was a lawyer and a psychologist, but he also developed the first lie detector. As a sideline, he was also the creator of the Wonder Woman comic-book character! (Impressive, eh?)

For those not familiar with DISC, it’s a questionnaire that asks you to choose from a set of adjectives or statements, those that most and those that least describe your behaviour.

Using the results of the questionnaire, the DISC assessment scores people in four broad categories – Dominance (D), Influence (I), Steadiness (S), and Compliance (C).

The inter-relationship between these four categories provide a description of the way an individual might behave and react in a team, what type of workplace they would prefer, and other useful insights for potential employers.

The reason why DISC has become so popular and why so many businesses use it as the test of choice is obvious: the test uses just one simple questionnaire, and it’s quick and easy to administer.

In addition, the ‘Face Validity’ is very high – i.e. people who take the test mostly agree with its conclusions.

So far, so good.  But let’s also consider the potential pitfalls associated with using DISC, and other similar tests like it, for recruitment. 

For businesses who’ll be investing time and money to change their recruitment process, it’s important they have all the facts about the pros and cons of using DISC-based tools in a recruitment scenario.

Now, again, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that DISC is a bad tool.

But just like all tools, it’s better suited to some applications than others. I believe that there are serious drawbacks to using DISC to make important recruitment decisions, and here are just four of the main ones:

1. Reliability and validity

One thing is certain; DISC does assess the things it says it measures (behaviour). And it’s very good at that. What it doesn’t do is measure everything else.

That’s a pretty obvious statement, but one that has to be considered before using DISC as a recruitment tool. 

For example, not everyone who is competitive and extroverted will be a good salesman – I know, I’m one of them! – and people who are patient and steady, supposedly a negative trait for salespeople, do have boundless patience and staying power – surely a good asset in sales.

Now, let’s compare two real-world people:

In one corner, we have Donald Trump. He’s a highly dominant individual, who tends to get angry and shout a lot. He’s also quick to react, and in his haste has posted some very questionable things on Twitter.

In the opposite corner, we have Barrack Obama. In contrast, he’s very steady and calm – much less shouty. Whenever he posts on Twitter, you can tell he’s put a lot of thought and reflection into it.

Of course, it goes without saying that personalities are much more complex than that. Behaviour is just the outward projection of what’s outside; it doesn’t tell you what’s inside.

And it doesn’t tell you how someone will perform at a job or fit into your company culture.

2. Forced choice questionnaire

The validity of questionnaires is a subject in its own right and out with the scope of this article. 

However, there are several technical reasons why a DISC behavioural assessment isn’t as reliable as you might think; the main one being the forced choice nature inherent in the questionnaire.

In DISC questionnaires, candidates must select one of four statements which most closely align with their behaviour.

They are presented with four statements, each signifying one of the four traits.

If, for example, they choose a statement that is slanted towards Compliance, that automatically means that they cannot choose any of the other statements leaning towards one of the other three traits, Dominance, Influence, or Steadiness.

Therefore, it’s impossible to achieve a high, or low, score on all traits, and it also means that subtleties in candidates’ behaviour will be missed or overlooked.

In other words, it doesn’t give you anywhere near the full story.

3. Interdependence of scales

DISC questionnaires are ipsative in nature, which means that the four DISC traits – Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance – are linked with each other. 

Essentially, they’re interdependent.

In practice, this means that a candidate who scores high in Dominance may not actually exhibit particularly high dominance behaviours.

It’s just that when they answered the questionnaire, they avoided statements that signified they were particularly influential, steady or compliant.

4. Inability to compare between candidates

Because of the ipsative nature of the questionnaire, DISC compares the four behavioural traits within an individual, but these results cannot be used to compare two or more individuals with each other.

For example, if two candidates both scored 80% for the S factor, this is not a reliable indication that they will have the same amount of “S-ness” in practice.

Because much of a recruiter’s activity revolves around comparing candidates, this is a serious limitation which makes it a far less useful tool for recruiters.

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

Why validated normative tests are the way forward

Let me start this explanation by saying that at eTalent, we use DISC; just not for the same reasons.

In fact, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to say we use DISCO; (D)ominance, (I)nfluence, (S)teadiness, (C)ompliance, (O)ther. That ‘Other’ is a whole big world all of its own, which I’m going to explain.

You see, DISC is fine for on-boarding and for judging things like team fit, cultural fit, and knowing how to manage somebody. It can even tell you how they’d get on in a certain work environment (open or closed office), and what their behavioural preferences are.

What it’s not so good at, is predicting their performance in a job. For that, you need a more in-depth, normative, personality-based assessment,

If you’re not familiar with the Latin, Ipsative means ‘of the self’, and this is the major issue with DISC. You cannot compare people, because measuring a set of factors all within one individual cannot be compared with the same factors within another.

The way it works? There are 24 sets of questions. Each question has four statements. You’re allowed to pick the one you’re most like, and the one you’re least like.

So for each one of the 24 questions, the questionnaire’s intention is for each one of the four statements to correlate with one of the corresponding factors.

However to confuse things even more, about a quarter of the statements don’t correlate well with the factor they’re intended to assess.

This means that, when the scoring is done, those particular ones are ignored – they’re known as non-scoring statements.

Which basically means some of their answers are telling us absolutely nothing useful that counts towards whatever score you get at the end of the day – and this leads to a potential 25% inaccuracy in the result.

Which is quite a big margin of error, when you think about it.

And after all of that, we’re still in the dark about the other two statements you haven’t picked. And because each person only picks two, it’s impossible to compare results with those of another individual.

Meanwhile, in a normative test (based on personality), everyone who goes through the test has to answer every single one of the questions and let you know how they feel about each.

This means you can happily and confidently compare each applicant side-by-side and get a much deeper look into each of their personalties.

It’s the (O)ther I was quite cavalierly talking about above – although, really, it’s quite a big other.

Advice from a psychometrics specialist

If you’re looking for an all-encompassing psychometrics tool for recruitment, DISC isn’t right for you.

Instead, look for a normative test which is based on personality rather than behaviour. Choosing the right person for the job is so much more complex than just behaviour.

Do a little research, and see what you find. I’d also recommend getting some advice from a psychometrics specialist who can provide you with all the right tools for making the best recruitment choices based on personality.

Usually they’ll be happy enough to listen to the circumstances and point you in the right direction.

TIP: Looking for a way to simplify psychometric testing that encompasses everything I’ve said above? Check out my blog on making psychometrics easy.

Conclusion

Thanks for reading, and I hope I’ve managed to give you a better idea of why using DISC as a recruitment tool is less than ideal.

Unfortunately, few recruiters appear to be aware of the limitations of DISC in a recruitment setting.

A lot of people have been sold on it simply because someone’s purpose is to sell stuff; nevermind the advantages and disadvantages. They just want the sale, and so DISC ends up being flogged for everything.

That’s why I decided I had to write this, and tackle these misconceptions head-on.

The limitations I’ve highlighted above are backed by the weight of the British Psychological Society, the Chartered Institute of Personnel, Training & Development, and many HR professionals across the board.

DISC type questionnaires have a significant role to play in the recruitment process, but “pre-screening” is not one of them.

For example, DISC can be very helpful in deciding which employees should work in which teams and whether their behavioural style is suited to the company’s culture.

For anything else in recruitment, you should use a validated normative assessment.

TIP: The Telemarketing Company have featured a quick breakdown of six of the main problems with DISC in this blog post.

If you’d like to learn more about fully-comprehensive psychometric testing that focuses more on personality than behaviour, feel free to get in touch with me.

I’m always happy to lend an ear.

Nik Plevan
Managing Director, eTalent
[email protected]

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