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Look in the OCEAN for the Right Employees

By Casey Jones, Sage Solutions
June 2003

"Look in the OCEAN for the right employees"? At first glance, this sounds like a ridiculous statement, right? But "OCEAN" is an acronym for the "five-factor" model of personality, and personality measures, including those based on the five-factor model, have proved to be an important predictor of performance in many jobs (Barrick & Mount, 1995; Tett, Jackson, & Rothstein, 1991).

So, what are the five personality factors and how did they evolve? And, what, in this context, is meant by "personality"?

For the purpose here, personality refers to the recurring patterns of an individual’s behaviors to the extent that they are reliably predictable. The five-factor model evolved from research (including factor analyses), in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to define and measure personality constructs (McCrae & John, 1992; Hogan, 1991; Digman, 1990). Though the terms differ in published research, the five factors are: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism—or OCEAN for ease of recall. For measurement purposes, these five factors are often used and described as adjectives, from one extreme to the other (Goldberg, 1992; Guion, 1998).

bulletOpenness. As in openness to new experience; curious, imaginative, cultured, flexible and original on the one end; closed-minded, provincial, dull, literal-minded, inflexible on the other.
bulletConscientiousness. Accountable, responsible, organized, neat, planful, and achievement-oriented; versus irresponsible, sloppy, careless, and impulsive.
bulletExtroversion. Sociable, outgoing, energetic, and assertive; versus shy, retiring, sluggish, and introverted.
bulletAgreeableness. Warm, caring, tactful, considerate, and cooperative; versus cold, uncaring, rude, hostile, and independent.
bulletNeuroticism. [This is a word better used for remembering than for describing this factor; alternatives are "Adjustment" or "Stability."] Self-doubting, negative, anxious, guilty, moody on the one end; self-confident, positive, stable, and emotionally well-adjusted on the other.

Many personality tests have been developed that incorporate the Big Five personality factors and facets thereof (e.g., the Hogan Personality Inventory and the NEO-PI by McCrae). Some researchers argue that there should be more than five factors in order to more precisely describe and predict behavior. Others discount the weight given to personality measures performance prediction because personality is not static but influenced by experience, and the early validity research of personality predictions is questionable (Guion, 1998; Block, 1995; McAdams, 1992). Nevertheless, the preponderance of published personnel selection research is evidence that personality is an important, valid predictor of performance in many jobs. Personality tests also tend to have less adverse impact than measures of cognitive ability (Bobko, Roth, & Potosky, 1999). But, the five factors vary in their strength of correlation with performance, depending on the type of job and culture of the organization.

For example, in front line customer service jobs the three factors that tend to correlate most with performance are Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Stability (Neuroticism) (Weekley & Jones, 1999). In sales jobs, nearly everyone agrees that Extroversion is important. But research indicates that success in sales also requires a strong degree of Conscientiousness.

Candidate assessment tools, such as tests and interviews that contain valid, reliable items to measure personality traits can help in the task of selecting the right people for a particular job. But be cautious. Conduct a job analysis to determine the important competencies and associated personality traits required for the job. Then, use a well-researched personality test or qualified professional to devise the questions for measuring those traits.

Also, use two other important types of candidate assessments: problem-solving ability (e.g., situational judgment and/or measures of verbal, math and general reasoning skills) and biographical history (work experience and history; educational background and success; and life experiences).


Barrick, M. R., & Mount, M. K. (1991). The big five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, 1-26.

Block, J. (1995). A contrarian view of the five-factor approach to personality description. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 187-215.

Bobko, P., Roth, P.L., & Potosky, D. (1999). Derivation and implications of a meta-analytic matrix incorporating cognitive ability, alternative predictors and job performance. Personnel Psychology, 52, 561-589.

Digman, J. M. (1990). Personality structure: Emergence of the five-factor model. Annual Review of Psychology, 41, 417-440. Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.

Goldberg, L. R. (1992). The development of markers of the Big-Five factor structure. Psychological Assessment, 4, 26-42.

Guion, Robert M. (1998). Assessment, Measurement, and Prediction for Personnel Decisions (pp.135-145). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Hogan, Robert T. (1991). Personality and Personality Measurement. In M.D. Dunnette and Leaetta M. Hough (Ed.), Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (873-919). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc.

McAdams, D. P. (1995). What do we know when we know a person? Journal of Personality, 63, 365-396.

McCrae, R. R., & John, O. P. (1992). An introduction to the five-factor model and its applications. Journal of Personality, 60(2), 175-215..

Tett, R. P., Jackson, D. N., & Rothstein, M. (1991). Personality measures as predictors of job performance: A meta-analytic review. Personnel Psychology, 44, 703-742.

Weekley, J. A., & Jones, C. (1999). Further studies of Situational Tests. Personnel Psychology, 52, 696.





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