American psycho-babble

From beerhalls to boardrooms, personality tests claim to be a window into the soul. Are they a valid tool, or just psychological window dressing?

A copy of the MMPI obtained by the Dallas Observer contains questions about bathroom habits ("I am very seldom troubled by constipation"); sexual preference ("I have wished I were a girl"); religion ("I believe in the second coming of Christ"); and the just plain weird ("I think I would like the work a forest ranger does"). There are many questions about relationships with members of the subject's family.

The test provides scores on 10 basic clinical scales--hypochondriasis, depression, hysteria, masculinity-femininity, paranoia, hypomania (excitability), psychopathic deviancy, schizophrenia, social introversion, and irrational fears and compulsive actions. The test was slightly altered in 1989.

Using this tool in the workplace may not be such a good idea. This July, nearly 1,000 employees of Dallas-based Rent-A-Center sued the company in U.S. Northern District of California claiming a personality test invaded their privacy.

Kurt Helm creates tests that he says can measure anybody's propensity to do just about anything. He also uses mainstream personality tests to counsel corporations with troublesome but vital executives.
Michael Hogue
Kurt Helm creates tests that he says can measure anybody's propensity to do just about anything. He also uses mainstream personality tests to counsel corporations with troublesome but vital executives.
Kurt Helm creates tests that he says can measure anybody's propensity to do just about anything. He also uses mainstream personality tests to counsel corporations with troublesome but vital executives.
Mark Graham
Kurt Helm creates tests that he says can measure anybody's propensity to do just about anything. He also uses mainstream personality tests to counsel corporations with troublesome but vital executives.

The company settled the class-action suit for $2 million, paying $2,000 to each California employee who took the test and failed and $1,250 to those who passed. The company also agreed to stop using the test on a national scale and to destroy all test records.

Maltby says that lawsuits challenging the tests are few because most of the time an employee who was denied a job doesn't know the test was a deciding factor, and applicants don't feel they've been wronged by not being offered a job. They don't want to explore their failure, and the tests go unchallenged.

The MMPI seems to be an exception because of the probing nature of the questions. In 1989 a group of security applicants applying for jobs with the Target department store chain won more than $1 million after taking a variant of the MMPI. Judges have denied the use of the test to measure the personality of plaintiffs in civil lawsuits, claiming they are intrusive and unreliable.

The MMPI was retooled to eliminate questions that probed into religion and sexual orientation and violated disability discrimination laws, but critics maintain the test is filled with invalid and intrusive questions. This year's court settlement against Rent-A-Center, and the company's dropping of the test's use, seems to support the critics' point.

Rent-A-Center never asked for a test that specifically queried its employees about their bowel movements. They hired a Kansas-based company to produce a test package that, according to Rent-A-Center's vice president and general counsel, Brad Denison, would "predict the job skills and personality that would make them successful."

Denison says the company's CEO witnessed successes with testing at other companies and followed suit. "We hired a company that does this type of thing, and they used a test they thought best accomplished the task. We were relying on them," he says.

"This issue caused us some problems," Denison says. "But there is still room for disagreement whether that test was OK with the law. At least some people thought that it wasn't."

The court settlement stipulated that Rent-A-Center stop using the test, so the company found a new testing firm to put together a test package that wouldn't get them sued. Denison says the test is too new to compare with the old one. The company that first brought the MMPI to Rent-A-Center didn't pay a dime. However, it was not chosen to produce the new test for the company.

"It is my belief that they were not necessarily excluded from consideration," Denison says. He did not reveal the company that produced the test, and the myriad news stories written about the conflict did not mention it by name. It's as if it had nothing to do with the incident at all.

The vagueness of the Jungian personality tests and the invasive search for personality disorders don't mean much to business executives and human resource managers. They have pragmatic concerns beyond whether a clerk believes in the afterlife or gets along with his mother.

They just want to know where their prospective hire's mind is. Will they grope the secretaries and invite a lawsuit? Will they bring an AK-47 to work or show up high? Will they steal?

There's a need for answers. So, of course, there are tests for that too.


Kurt Helm is not a fool. He certainly doesn't come off like a superstitious man or a quack. In Dallas, he's probably the best guy to explain personality tests that examine honesty and how they should be used. He knows because he creates them from his office, located behind his house on a well-heeled street bordering Lakewood Country Club.

Helm got into psychology through the Marine Corps. He flew 189 combat missions in Vietnam behind a machine gun pointing out an open door of a helicopter. He served from 1967 to 1968, a span that covered the Tet Offensive and its aftermath, a busy and bloody time for U.S. troops.

Before the war, he worked as a door-to-door salesman, and he thought he knew about human nature. During the war, he says, "I woke up and realized I didn't know as much about people as I thought I did." After Vietnam he returned to Dallas, got a job with a consulting firm, and got the first glimpse of what would become his career--personality testing for corporate America.

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