American psycho-babble

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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.

Now, a doctorate degree and successful entrepreneurial venture later, Helm creates and sells personality tests for companies. He uses established tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in conjunction with his own home-grown tests for companies looking to hire or promote management, as well as crisis management for companies that have a valued but unstable executive.

"The reason these tests work is because people vary on any trait you care to name," he says. "For individual characteristics, genetic variation says that some people will have a little, some people will have a lot."

Any quality, from basketball skills to a propensity to sexually harass a co-worker, will be "normally distributed" within any population; some good, some bad, and most in the middle. When plotted on a graph, a normal distribution will look like a bell--what is commonly known as a bell curve.

Testing someone's skill--how fast a secretary can type, for instance--is easy. But can something as intangible as propensity to steal be measured in a test?

Yes, says Helm. In his experience 5 to 10 percent of people will not steal for any reason. Others will steal any chance they get. The rest--the fat part of the bell curve--will steal given certain circumstances.

"We call it rationalization," he says. "We all have our own view of the world, and everyone's is different. We have constructed a 'rational' set of arguments to support our worldview. As a test constructor, I can tap into that worldview and plug into those rationalizations with questions."

Each test is designed to pinpoint particular attributes; Helm has a 56-question test designed to glean insights into a propensity for stealing, drug use, and sexual harassment. They can be pretty easy to beat if you know how they work.

Questions in that test come in two forms--validity questions to gauge whether a subject is lying and substantive questions. They're pretty easy to tell apart, if you know what to look for. An example, taken from Helm's test, would be: "I have never raised my voice in anger." Anyone who says they never have is probably lying.

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

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