I Am Never Lonely: A brief history of employee personality testing

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TitleI Am Never Lonely: A brief history of employee personality testing
Publication TypeWeb Article
Pub Year2003
AuthorsCox, A. M.
Keywordsfalse self, personality test
Notes "This first boom in personality testing reached its apogee with Henry C. Link's Employment Psychology, in 1919, in which he proclaimed:
'The ideal employment method is undoubtedly an immense machine which would receive applicants of all kinds at one end, automatically sort, interview, and record them, and finally turn them out at the other end nicely labeled with the job which they are to do.'
"So personality tests aren't really about you: they're about money. If you lie on a personality test to get a job, it means that you understand that a job, a salary, is worth submerging your own self for."
Full TextI Am Never Lonely: A brief history of employee personality testing by Ana Marie Cox | Issue #21 The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I spent twenty hours a week in a small, gray-paneled cubicle calling up strangers and asking them, "Do you approve or disapprove of the job George Bush is doing as president?" Hey, I was getting paid. It was shortly after the first Gulf War, and the responses to this question were depressingly positive. Still, I liked my job. I was working for Gallup Polls; it had name recognition, the pay was good, and the work itself (which also included conducting customer-satisfaction surveys and marketing research) was interesting. So, despite my distaste for the answers I was getting to the approval-rating poll, I worked hard, was productive, and even occasionally participated in quasi-humiliating "team-building exercises." I was a model employee. Gallup knew it would be so. They had given me a personality test, after all. Indeed, after I was recommended to them by a friend who already worked at Gallup, the personality test was the only hurdle I faced. I don’t really remember much of it–as with most personality tests, there weren't questions, just statements that I had to "strongly disagree," "disagree," "agree," or "strongly agree" with. I assume I passed--whatever that means. I am known to be highly effective at work: I enjoy making decisions when all the information is not available: It’s difficult to date the origin of personality testing. Who knows, perhaps the earliest personality test was administered when a Cro-Magnon cave-painter first uttered the words, "So, what does it look like to you?" But personality testing as a term of employment has a very specific history. Fredrick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911, popularized the notion that employee skills are quantifiable. Taylor’s time-and-motion studies sought to determine, for example, "How many times a minute should [a secretary] be able to open and close a file drawer?" (Answer: "Exactly 25 times.") This pseudoscientific mindset hit the boardroom with Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, which was published in 1913 by Harvard University professor Hugo Munsterberg. Munsterberg asked executives which personal characteristics are desirable in an employee and used the results to develop screening techniques. Other researchers joined the game, creating employee-rating methods and other character assessment systems. This first boom in personality testing reached its apogee with Henry C. Link’s Employment Psychology, in 1919, in which he proclaimed: The ideal employment method is undoubtedly an immense machine which would receive applicants of all kinds at one end, automatically sort, interview, and record them, and finally turn them out at the other end nicely labeled with the job which they are to do. But in order for personality testing to work, there needed to be proven connections between particular personality traits and job success, correlations that turned out to be elusive. As a result, personality testing faded after World War I. Personality testing’s second flowering was planted with a more fertile metaphor: Jungian "archetypes." In the early 1940s, Katherine C. Briggs and Isabel Myers developed the Meyers-Briggs Type-Indicator using their own interpretation of Jung’s archetypes. The test was used to help employers screen female applicants for factory jobs. How sorting women into such Jungian dichotomies as "sensate or intuitive" would improve their welding skills is anyone’s guess, but Myers’s and Briggs’s invention harmonized well with the emerging corporate culture of the 1940s and ’50s. Mass testing was handy for companies now facing vast applicant pools. Some of the tests they used were designed especially for job screening, but others, with more absurd results, were lifted wholesale from tests originally intended for diagnosing mental illness. One of the latter, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), presented would-be executives with such true-or-false head-scratchers as "I have no difficulty starting or holding my bowel movement." But perhaps the MMPI was appropriate for the paranoid culture of the time; by one testing firm’s scale, fully 75 percent of the population was deemed too "neurotic" to be employable. Applicants were often quizzed about social or cultural knowledge–it was considered a warning sign if one read The New Republic. Unlike its previous, Taylorite boom, personality testing post—WWII was primarily used to identify "executive material." Though testing had long been professionalized, many firms, including IBM, developed their own tests, which put forth a seemingly random list of topics and pastimes for applicants to rate on a scale of "like" to "dislike." As reviewed by Martin L. Gross in The Brain Watchers, the ideal IBM exec would like "hunting, snakes, and rough-house initiations" and dislike "long walks, art galleries, and tennis;" and, of course, couldn’t care less about "people with gold teeth, people who talk loudly, or progressive people, let alone socialists." I find it hard to "party" with people I don’t know well. Personality testing drifted back down the employment ladder in the 1960s, when employers gave versions of Myers-Briggs or other tests to everyone from accountants to policemen. But the revolution hit a stumbling block in the form of a 1971 Supreme Court decision. In Griggs v. Duke Power, the court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made certain forms of employee testing unconstitutional, particularly when the tests "limit, segregate, or classify employees to deprive them of employment opportunities or adversely to affect their status because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." A small industry sprang up to demonstrate the biases of personality tests, which wasn't difficult, given that many of tests had been developed with "control" groups made up of psychology students, friends of psychology students, and family members of psychology students: not a very representative sample. Many of the more esoteric forms of personality testing disappeared from widespread use in this housecleaning, including the Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study (prominently featured in A Clockwork Orange); it asked test-takers to look at a cartoon of one person saying something provocative to another person. The subject then supplies the second person’s hypothetical response. But the bias cottage industry could hardly compete with the eager professional test developers who emerged to take advantage of the loophole left by the Griggs decision: namely, that the Civil Rights Act did allow "the use of any professionally developed ability test, provided that it is not designed, intended, or used to discriminate." If anything, court rulings and government statutes since Griggs have made the growth of psychological testing inevitable. A court decision that outlawed pre-employment polygraph tests, for example, pushed employers to replace them with "pen and paper polygraph tests," or personality tests meant to measure reliability and honesty. Within the testing industry, estimates of how many companies now use some form of "employee assessment testing" are as high as 90 percent; a more conservative estimate puts the specific use of personality testing at around 60 percent. While testing is more common today than it was post-WWII, companies seem to expect less from it. It’s less a tool to identify a rising star than it is a filter to prevent potential workplace Columbines--or, even more modestly, copy-machine pornographers and pen thieves. I feel tense when thinking about my work in the future: The problem with most tests today is not that they are biased. In fact, the most recent court decisions ruling against personality testing have done so based on issues of privacy, not preference. That bowel movement question had been around for fifty years; it took some Target-store applicants to actually get upset enough to sue over it. They settled for $1 million. But privacy seems a little beside the point. Tests have been vetted, reformed, and flattened so much that they read less like the entertaining William Burroughs—like monologue of the original MMPI than like the bland reassurances of corporate motivational posters: "It is important for me to feel productive at work" or "I keep my workplace tidy and neat." And when they aren't transcripts of a Successories brainstorming session, the tests are quite obviously meant to bait psychos and expose closet embezzlers: "I have sometimes felt enraged at work by something stupid a supervisor did." "Employees who take home minor supplies are not really stealing." Or they’re aiming to root out flagrant liars, those who agree that "I have never raised my voice in anger." Though there is wide agreement that Griggs overturned the use of intelligence testing, would you really hire anyone stupid enough to respond incorrectly to these statements? And this brings us to the real problem with these tests: they don't measure personality at all. They're not really designed to. They measure a particular kind of "social acceptability," some sort of bare-minimum level of people skills--lying on the tests is not only necessary but almost inevitable if you have any sense at all. I suppose this is fine with test administrators and future employers. They don't care who you really are, after all, they only care who you act like. Besides, people who score poorly on tests of acceptability are not likely to be happy working at the kind of place that requires them. Many of us rebel at the idea of personality testing because it seems creepy: very Orwell, very Huxley. But for the employer, the benefit of personality testing is not some fantasy of Soma-ed cubicle drones. He couldn't care less if you, in your heart, actually do think stealing minor supplies is okay or even if you sometimes find it hard to party with people you don’t know well--not as long as you carry on with your job as though you were a Soma-ed cubicle drone. And as long as you don’t actually steal office supplies--too many of them, at least. Employers use today’s personality tests because, in our dismal economy, one job opening can unleash a flood of 500 resumes. They use personality tests because they are a faster, cheaper way of determining who they will risk their next hire on. An employer can direct a prospective job-seeker to a third-party website for a fifteen-minute test (rather than an hour long interview) at a cost of less than thirty dollars. Compare that to the cost of a bad hire: according to a recent management article, firing someone can cost a company–in hours lost to retraining and hiring again–up to five times the salary of his or her position. And should the dismissal go badly, a lawsuit from a disgruntled employee can cost millions. So personality tests aren't really about you: they're about money. If you lie on a personality test to get a job, it means that you understand that a job, a salary, is worth submerging your own self for. I have never felt lonely: Here is where I admit to you that I lied to get that job at Gallup. That’s the one thing I really remember about the test: I was very consciously trying to figure out the answers they wanted and then giving them. I told them that I "strongly disagreed" with the proposition that "If I found a bag of money on the street, I would seriously think about keeping it." I said I "strongly agreed" with the idea that "Life is full of opportunities."