Longform

American psycho-babble

Charlie Whitney wasn't thinking about personality tests last month when he walked into Dave & Buster's looking for work as a bartender. His previous experiences with interviewing and job hunting were exceptionally humane: references from acquaintances, informal meetings with bar owners, and a firm pressing of palms as a contract.

"They were a handshake and 'I'll see you Monday' kind of deals," Whitney says.

Whitney has worked since he was 14. His entrance into bar work came when he heard of an opening for a bartender's assistant at Muddy Waters, a club on Lower Greenville. So off he went, an 18-year-old on a DART bus dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt, to meet the owner, who was waiting for him in a dirty fishing hat and ragged jeans.

"He was sitting on a stool at the bar, customer side, eating a bucket of fried chicken," Whitney recalls. "He told me what they needed and what days, and told me to come to work tomorrow." He did, and he worked there for several years.

Last month, now an experienced bartender, Whitney stepped into Dave & Buster's on Walnut Hill Lane and into a world of psychological and corporate bureaucracy. The job application was four pages, asking for hobbies, references, and experience. Then he was told that, after the application, he'd be given a "personality test."

"I was bitching the whole time I was filling out the application," he says. "I have to do four pages of this and then do some crap-ass personality test? Why wasn't anyone coming out to talk to me?"

When someone did talk to him, it became clear the test was a formality and a nuisance. A female employee told him, half-jokingly, that the test was to see whether he was "Dave & Buster's material" and advised that he keep the corporate mindset in mind while taking it.

"She was really cool. She just said, 'Tell them what they want to hear,'" Whitney says.

Though some Dave & Buster's employees complain about the tests privately, they don't gripe loudly, simply because the exams are easy to beat. The questions are logical and simple-minded: If you saw a cash drawer open, would you take money? If you saw a co-worker taking drugs, would you report it to a superior? The right answers are not hard to spot.

Most of the complaints from the staff come from the fact that the Dave & Buster's pre-employment test isn't the only one they have to take. Periodic tests are given to the staff, rating their friendliness, attitude, and honesty. "You'd be surprised at how often," says one employee, rolling his eyes. "Now I refuse to take them. I've worked here a long time."

Whitney never took the test; he walked out after finishing the application.

"There must be a guy sitting up the ladder somewhere with nothing better to do than make up tests and keep files," he says. "I just felt like a number going through."

Encounters with personality testing like Whitney's are becoming more common. While they were once used by corporations to screen executives, service industries are now adopting them as a way to gain control of front-line employees. It is estimated that more than half of America's major corporations conduct psychological tests of job applicants, and test-makers and critics agree the practice is being emulated by small business.

Dave & Buster's, hardly a small chain, is following the steps of even larger corporations such as Southwest Airlines that swear by these tests. The fact that the bar-restaurant-arcade makes its own personality test is a tribute to the belief of corporations that they can measure unquantifiable traits in employees, such as charisma and honesty. It's also a testament to the unscientific and clumsy ways businesses use psychological testing these days.

Psychiatrists and psychologists have been engaged in test-making and test-analyzing for years, slowly creating a trusted field of pseudo-science that is permeating our culture. The popularity of the tests is on the rise, but so is the backlash against them.

"The problem is that the tests aren't reliable," says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Work Rights Institute, a civil rights group based in New Jersey that studies workplace issues. "The only way they are a success is by failing a tremendous amount of honest people...You can't sue an employer for giving a personality test. They don't have to be fair or even sane. They just have to not discriminate."

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of personality tests widely used today. Some are designed to spot a particular trait, like a person's susceptibility to steal or indulge in other risky workplace behaviors. Others make broad statements about a person's "personality type" and avoid specific examinations of pathology. The most famous of the latter is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the core of which is still used more than 60 years after its development. Some tests that were designed to scout out mental disorders also have been used as employment screens.

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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo