Psychological Testing in the Workplace

August 11, 2017 Psychology

Introduction A person’s cognitive ability alone is rarely a good indicator of his or her job performance. Other factors, such as personality and mental stability, are significant as well. Corporations are beginning to notice major benefits in screening out undesirable applicants and employees. How are they able to measure and predict which employees are likely to be undesirable? They use psychological tests.

We will begin by looking at the history of workplace testing, then discuss some types of psychological tests, how these tests benefit employers, common testing instruments, institutions that use these tests, and some related limitations and legal concerns. History of workplace testing It’s hard to put a date on the inception of psychological testing. Who knows, informal means of psychological testing could have been happening between cavemen. But psychological testing in the workplace is a relatively new concept with a traceable history. The first psychological testing occurred in the midst of World War I.

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Many of the Allied soldiers experienced long-lasting, traumatic symptoms after experiencing enemy bombardment for the first time in their lives. Aware that many of the soldiers were suffering from a sort of “shell shock”, the military decided to commission a test that they could use to identify the soldiers among the American Expeditionary Services who were believed to be emotionally unstable and, therefore, unfit for active combat. The test that resulted from this concern was called the scale of Psychoneurotic Tendencies (PT), developed by Robert S. Woodworth (Gibby & Zickar, 2008, p. 69). Woodworth then adapted this military test for industrial research, renaming the test the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet (WPDS). According to Gibby and Zickar (2008), “The 1924 version of the WPDS assessed personal adjustment via 75 yes/no items; example items included ‘Do you ever get so angry that you see red? ’ and ‘Do you get tired of people easily? ’” (p. 172). Managers that were obsessed with rooting out undesirable and unstable workers found this testing method to be very useful. Industry was a prime target for psychiatrists in the post-WWI era because of he rapid industrialization of the United States. The United States also showed an increase in the level of stress and alienation among workers during this time. The fear of strikes and unionization caused many managers to turn to psychological testing in order to seek out employees that were more suited towards not striking or joining a union. Researchers and managers saw the positive impacts associated with these employee screening techniques and began developing other screening techniques, such as employee-rating scales and character assessments.

This initial growth of psychological testing in the workplace was summed up by Henry C. Link (1919) in his book, Employment Psychology, in which he asserted: 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 to which they are to go. (p. 374) By combining many of the tests already established, the first multidimensional personality measure was created.

This personality test began a new era in psychological testing and became known as the Bernreuter Personality Inventory (BPI), named after its creator Robert Bernreuter. According to Gibby and Zickar (2008), “In its published form, the BPI consisted of 125 items that measured four dimensions: Neurotic Tendency, Self-Sufficiency, Introversion-Extroversion, and Dominance-Submission. Sample items (a yes or no response option was used) include ‘Do you enjoy spending an evening alone? ’ and ‘Do you think that marriage is essential to your present and future happiness? ’” (p. 176).

Up until World War II the BPI was a very popular psychological test. The BPI was used to evaluate workers in a number of industries including: dance instructors, screenwriters, house-to-house salesmen, engineers, and many others. The BPI was very popular but it was very bad at predicting worker performance. Though, even with these negative results, personality testing continued to increase during this time period (Gibby & Zickar, 2008, p. 177). Psychological testing then took a dramatic turn in the early 1940s with the introduction of several thorough psychological measures that changed the concept of psychological testing completely. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota, concentrated on identifying psychopathology, such as schizophrenia, so that the process of clinical diagnosis could be standardized and made more efficient” (Gibby & Zickar, 2008, p. 178). The Rorschach inkblot test and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) tests were also created during this same time period. The MMPI, MBTI, and the Rorschach inkblot tests, through various revisions, remain some of the most widely used psychological tests.

We will discuss these three tests in greater detail later. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, personality test developers, to a large extent, agreed upon a Big Five taxonomy that included the traits of Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Agreeableness. This agreement of traits has led to the resurgence of psychological testing in the workplace and tests, such as core self-evaluations, integrity tests, and emotional adjustment tests, are still being used today to test for personality traits (Gibby & Zickar, 2008, p. 82). It is estimated that as much as 90 percent of companies are now using some form of employee assessment testing (Cox, 2005, p. 5). So why are more and more companies using these measures? In short: times have changed. Our society today is more fast-paced and technologically advanced than ever. Whereas in the past, employers could readily obtain knowledge on a candidate’s qualities—such as dependability and trustworthiness—through employment references, these types of references are now becoming nonexistent. Types of psychological tests

In the past, the most frequently used psychological tests in the workplace have been tests that measure cognitive ability—such as achievement and aptitude tests—and skill. A skills test seeks to quantifiably measure an employee’s (or potential employee’s) current reasoning, verbal communication, and mathematical skills. Cognitive tests attempt to quantifiably measure your mental capacity for learning new skills—such as an IQ test (Lloyd, 2009, para. 2). The other type of psychological measure that is becoming increasingly popular among firms is the personality test.

There are a wide variety of personality tests to choose from, depending on what exactly it is that you are trying to measure. Personality tests are either objective or projective in nature. Objective personality tests ask subjects questions about their typical behavior. These tests have a restricted number of answers available for each question, such as true/false answers and answers involving a rating scale. An example of an objective test is the MMPI test. An advantage of objective tests is their standardization; standardizing test questions and answers increases consistency across candidates and reduces subjectivity.

A disadvantage of objective tests is that subjects can often decipher what it is that the employer wants to measure and can answer accordingly; they can intentionally lie to make themselves appear a certain way to the employer (Hooker, 1996, p. 716). Projective tests ask subjects questions concerning a certain stimulus presented, such as a phrase or picture. These tests allow subjects to respond more freely. The Rorschach inkblot test is an example of a projective test. An advantage of projective tests is that it is difficult for subjects to know how their responses will be interpreted; thus, subjects tend to be more honest.

A major disadvantage of projective tests is that their lack of standardization allows for more subjective interpretation of responses by employers; thus objective test results tend to be more reliable and valid than projective test results (Hooker, 1996, p. 716). How do these tests benefit the employer? Psychological tests are used in areas such as staff development, team building, and management and leadership training (Bates, 2002, p. 29). Each test seeks to answer a certain question or questions that the employer feels are critical to the success of the company.

Psychological tests can assess which employees or potential employees are most likely to steal or embezzle money, arrive late to work, disregard orders, or disobey authority. Psychological tests might also be used during succession planning, a process through which senior-level openings are planned for and eventually filled. These tests could be used to identify which employees are well suited to be promoted into a top management position. Common testing instruments As mentioned earlier, the Rorschach inkblot test, MBTI, and MMPI, through various revisions, remain some of the most widely used psychological tests.

The Rorschach inkblot test is probably the most well known of the three tests. This test is used as a way to evaluate an employee’s emotional stability and is believed by some to identify a person’s innermost thoughts. There are ten inkblots, some multicolored, others black and white. The person administering the test holds up one card at a time and asks the participant what he or she sees. The participant is allowed to turn, rotate, and flip the card if they so please. About 50% of people take advantage of that option, (Berger, 2005). [The participant] is asked to list everything he sees in each blot, where he sees it, and what there is in the blot that makes it look like that” (Berger, 2005). During the duration of the test, the test administer takes note of everything the participant says or does with the card. A common misconception is that the results are interpreted based solely on what the participant sees in the blot, when actually this is only one of many variables that are interpreted. Other variables such as response time and how the participant interacts with the card also weigh heavily on how the results will be interpreted (Berger, 2005).

Another type of test would be the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) test. This test was created by Isabel Myers and her mother, Katherine Briggs. The pair determined that there were four fundamental ways in which people were different from each other. These differences referred to differences in people’s preferences. Myers explained the theory using the analogy of hand preferences—although everyone uses both hands, most everyone has a dominant hand that they have a preference for (Laufenberg, 2009). The first preference is in how a person takes in information.

People have either a sensing or intuition preference in perceiving information (Laufenberg, 2009). Those who prefer sensing like information that is clear and tangible, while those who prefer intuition like information that is abstract and imaginative. The second preference is in how a person makes decisions. People either have a thinking or feeling preference in making decisions (Laufenberg, 2009). Thinkers make decisions based on facts and logic, while feelers make decisions based on their feelings and the decision’s impact on others. The third preference is in our energy orientation.

People prefer either introversion or extraversion (Laufenberg, 2009). Introverts are motivated internally and require a certain amount of private time, while extroverts are motivated by, and like to interact with, the outside world. The fourth and final preference is in our action orientation towards the outside world. People either have a judging or perceiving preference (Laufenberg, 2009). A person preferring judging would take on the world with a plan. A person with a preference for perceiving would take on the world as it comes. The last type of test we’ll discuss is the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory).

This test seeks to uncover any mental health issues that may interfere or correspond with a certain job. The test is given in a pen and paper format where the applicant fills in answers on the written part, and when finished, will be rated and evaluated based on the appropriateness of their answers (Berger, 2005). This kind of test is administered in almost any job that deals with being in charge of other peoples’ lives. For example, a police department may use the MMPI to screen potential employees for any sort of mental instabilities. Other examples would be pilots and firefighters.

Institutions that use psychological testing There are many different companies that use psychological testing, some of which have already been mentioned such as the police departments, fire departments, and almost all major airlines. Though, believe it or not, one of the largest institutions to employ the use of psychological testing is the National Football League. In recent years the NFL has started giving psychological tests to NFL prospects. This helps them to determine several things. First, it provides a good indication of where the player is most likely to end up in terms of draft selection.

A good mental health report completes the total image and worth of a football player because teams want someone who can both physically and mentally compete in the long run. Also, teams don’t want someone who is going to fold under pressure. If this is a major concern, teams could employ the use of one of the many personality tests available in order to determine a player’s mental stability. Case in point, a psychological assessment of Peyton Manning attributed to him being chosen as a first round draft pick (Chappell, 2006).

On the other hand, had a psychological assessment been done on Ryan Leaf (the number one overall pick) it may have detected his poor mental health and lack of ability to handle pressure situations that eventually attributed to him having to leave the NFL (Chappell, 2006). Limitations Even the biggest supporters of psychological testing admit that there are certain limitations to its uses. Well-designed psychological tests can provide a wealth of informative data on an employee, but employers must ask themselves, “Are these tests providing us with useful information? In his article Personality Counts, Steve Bates provides some interesting questions: “Does the science behind personality tests prove that we’ll never be able to overcome our inherent tendencies, no matter how hard we work to change? When a test indicates that a worker is in the wrong job or in a career for which he is poorly suited, should he abandon that dream? ” (Bates, 2002, p. 32). The answer to these questions is no. Test administrators must understand that psychological test results are not the last word in an employee’s success.

When testing ends, an employee’s will kicks in. The employer should ask the employee, whose personality is likely to conflict with his job, if he is willing to put in the work to overcome this or if he would be better suited for something else. Employers who rely too heavily on personality test results could wind up screening out fully capable, innovative, and dynamic workers who could have made significant contributions to the organization. For this reason, employers should use a combination of cognitive and personality assessments when hiring new employees.

There are so many factors that limit the use of psychological testing that there has been a rise in the question of whether or not psychological testing is effective at all. Another limitation refers to the frequency of which job applicants lie on these tests (Hooker, 1996, p. 707). It almost seems as if lying to get a job has become the norm in today’s workforce. It is only natural that if an applicant can perceive the ideal answers that the employer is seeking, he or she will answer accordingly. Another limitation of psychological testing in the workplace refers to the actual person administrating the test (Hooker, 1996, p. 11). If that person is not quite sure what they are looking for in a person’s response, he or she might clear them based on inadequate knowledge. Additionally, the administrator is often times solely responsible for interpreting test results. If the test is projective in nature, allowing for open ended responses, the administrator’s subjective ratings of the responses will lead to unreliable and invalid results. Another limitation is the likelihood and ability of a person to fake a behavior or personality trait during a psychological test (Hooker, 1996, p. 13). Legal concerns Employers must be cautious when using psychological tests that they are not interfering with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or rules set forth by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Mook, 1996, p. 65). Section 703(h) of the Civil Rights Act states that it is not unlawful for an employer to give and act upon the results of a psychological test as long as the test is not designed, intended, or used to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. (Mook, 1996, p. 5). Thus, Title VII does not forbid employers from using psychological tests in the workplace. But, using a psychological test to intentionally discriminate against a member of a minority class is strictly prohibited. Another example of illegal conduct under the Civil Rights Act would be for an employer to test minority applicants, but not majority applicants (Mook, 1996, p. 65). The ADA states that an employer cannot perform a medical exam, inquire whether an individual is disabled, or question the nature of their disability (Mook, 1996, p. 67).

According to the EEOC, employers are permitted to administer psychological examines to applicants and employees as long as the exam is not medical in nature. An exam is considered “medical” if it offers evidence that would lead to the diagnosis of a mental disorder (Mook, 1996, p. 67). This guideline is one reason why many companies avoid using the MMPI test. One of the most well known cases that had a significant impact on the field of psychological testing in the workplace was the 1993 lawsuit Saroka v. Dayton Hudson. The plaintiffs in the case were two job applicants that had applied for a security guard position at Target.

As part of the pre-employment screening process, they were asked to complete the MMPI. The plaintiffs sued Target because the test contained deeply personal, and quite inappropriate questions pertaining to topics such as religion and sexual desires. The plaintiffs claimed that the test questions were an invasion of privacy and were not job-related whatsoever. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and Target had to pay around 2,500 applicants that had taken the employment test a little more than $1 million; though they still admitted no wrongdoing (Mook, 1996, p. 0). To sum it up, as long as a psychological test does not discriminate against any protected class, is job-related, and doesn’t unreasonably invade another person’s privacy, employers are lawfully allowed to use these testing measures. Summary Due to the current state of our economy, a single job opening at a company can bring in a flood of resumes. Using psychological tests is an effective way for an employer to screen out applicants by determining the risk of investing in certain individuals.

These tests can also be used to evaluate current employees to determine if they are a good fit within the organization. Firing an employee can cost a company millions; thus, as long as employers realize the limitations of using these tests and can avoid any legal pitfalls, using them to screen out undesirable individuals is a beneficial strategy to adopt. References Bates, S. (2002, February). Personality counts. HR magazine, 47(2), 28-34. Berger, V. (2005). The MMPI psychological test. Retrieved November 11, 2010, from http://www. psychologistanywhereanytime. com Berger, V. 2005). The Rorschach test. Retrieved November 11, 2010, from http://www. psychologistanywhereanytime. com Chappell, M. (2006, February 27). Combine Prospects Also Subject to Psychological Testing. USA Today. Retrieved November 14, 2010, from http://www. usatoday. com/sports Cox, A. M. (2005, October 6). I am never alone: A brief history of employee personality testing. Stay Free, 21, 5-8. Gibby, R. , & Zickar, M. (2008). A history of the early days of personality testing in American industry: An obsession with adjustment. History of Psychology, 11(3), 164-184.

Hooker, W. D. (1996). Psychological testing in the workplace. Occupational Medicine, 11(4), 699-717. Laufenberg, D. E. (2009). Myers Briggs MBTI personality type. Retrieved November 14, 2010, from http://www. personalitypathways. com/MBTI_intro. html Link, H. C. (1919). Employment psychology. New York: Macmillan. Lloyd, R. (2009). Psychological testing. Retrieved November 11, 2010 from http://www. guidetopsychology. com Mook, J. R. (1996). Personality testing in today’s workplace: Avoiding the legal pitfalls. Employee Relations Law Journal, 22(3), 65-72.


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