American psycho-babble

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He says they have proved themselves useful more than 90 percent of the time, and stories of the accomplishments have won other recent converts to personality testing.

"Some people won't hire without testing," he says. "People hear about that success of people who use it on a consistent basis, and there's more exposure on a corporate level. It's being used more and more in the hospitality industry side; it's kind of spreading like wildfire."

Personality testing isn't a hot controversy these days. It doesn't make a lot of waves, legally or emotionally, even when used as an employment screen. Even civil liberties critics are slow to dismiss the established Myers-Briggs test, instead focusing on more controversial tests.

"Companies have personalities, and so do people," says the National Work Rights Institute's Maltby. "You don't want to put a sandal-wearing Silicon Valley person in IBM. It's not inherently wrong as long as the questions are relevant and are not intrusive."

But the success and innocuous approach of the Myers-Briggs test have opened the doors to other tests that are more dubious in nature. If Myers-Briggs is regarded as the best personality test, one of the worst (at least for the workplace) has to be the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test (MMPI). The test, first published in 1943, poses true/false questions to more than 500 questions ranging from sex life to religion. There are eight other parts to the test, but the section that asks a prospective employee to answer T/F to "I believe there is a God" and "I have no difficulty in starting or holding my bowel movements" raised hackles.

"It asks questions I wouldn't ask my wife," Maltby says. "I'm serious."

The original MMPI was developed by a psychologist and neuropsychiatrist to diagnose specific mental disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia, by asking hundreds of short statements and noting which ones the patients agreed with. The basic purpose of the test was to differentiate among various types of mental patients, as well as to distinguish who was crazy and who was not.

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.

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."

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

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