American psycho-babble

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Most of the questions, however, are designed to discover problematic behavior. Helm says the basis of the test is centered on the tendency for applicants to vary their responses based on what they think the tester wants to hear and what they think will be the easier answers to defend.

"I have a very pragmatic approach," Helm says. "What is this test telling me? What steps did this person take to look better?"

For example, a sexual harassment question should always be answered with a strong negative. But when Helm adds qualifiers, some people will betray their worldview by soft-pedaling the answer. For example, the question: "Patting a co-worker or subordinate on his/her shoulder or putting one's arm around his/her shoulder is OK as long as one is sincere and not making any kind of sexual advance."

With so many qualifiers, a subject may not see that the right answer is a strong negative. Two or three questions with ambiguous answers about sexual harassment leads to a pattern, and that could lead to trouble for the applicant. Theft tests are the same when applicants admit to taking small amounts of supplies or money from the office.

So who would ever answer a question about theft by admitting they stole at past jobs?

"Sometimes I look at the responses and say, 'God Almighty! Why would you say something like this?'" Helm says. "And the answer is, you think everyone feels this way."

And that leads to the most ironic complaint about honesty tests: The best way to beat one is to lie while answering. Being too honest while taking an honesty test is a good way to get bad results.

"You get these tests that ask for a black-and-white view of the world," says George Alliger, an employment consultant and former professor for the State University of New York-Albany who has published research studies regarding the tests. "All overt tests about theft or drugs ask about previous behavior, and any admission--even to being tempted--is considered a negative and counts in the dishonest direction."

It is impossible to call Alliger an unfair critic. He is quick to point out that there is "reasonably strong" evidence that these tests do indeed weed out those who may steal.

"That doesn't mean they're appropriate," he adds.

His problem lies not with potential crooks who are shut out of jobs but with honest people who have been shafted on the tests. He tells a story borrowed from a published psychologist of a nun who scored abysmally low on an integrity test because of her refusal to deny she was tempted by sin.

The moral? "It's their own honesty that gets them in trouble," he says.

Others have issues with the phrasing of questions, which leads the truly honest to answer incorrectly. Maltby says that those who are very ethical, like the nun, have broader definitions of dishonesty and are more likely to fail because of "world-perception questions."

"The obvious thinking is that if you're a crook you want to rationalize the behavior by saying everyone does it," he says. "But if you have high ethical standards, you will fail the test. You'll see a lot of dishonesty in the world."

Other critics charge that there is no way to verify the results of an honesty test. Barry Beyerstein says a true test of a person's propensity to steal would be to administer the test to thousands and later see how many had been caught stealing or would admit to theft. To do so would be expensive and intrusive beyond imagining, and it still wouldn't prove anything. Many thieves never fess up or get caught.

"These honesty tests are very controversial," says Beyerstein. "Personality tests should pan out in real life, should have real-life consequences."

Each question on Helm's tests is posed to control groups, whose answers should vary in a way that fits the bell curve.

If answers to a question are lopsided, with too many people answering one way, Helm will throw qualifiers into the question to even out the responses. If he has a question that too many people answer in a positive way and there is a related question that has too many negative responses, he'll combine the two and retest. He will tinker with the wording until the responses fit the bell shape.

"This isn't as much of a science as I would like it to be," Helm acknowledges. "It's more of an art form."

Charlie Whitney took a job that doesn't require a personality test--cleaning pools. The money is good, and he enjoys working days.
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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo

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