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Can They Do That? How You Get Screwed at Work

A new book shows the power corporations wield over their employees has gone too far. It's time to take action.

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Can They Do That? Retaking Our Fundamental Rights in the Workplace. An AlterNet review of the book by Liliana Segura follows the excerpt. 

Sibi Soroka was shocked. He had applied for a job as a security guard at the local Target to provide some steady income while he pursued his career as an actor. At the end of the process, he was required to take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a psychological test used by many employers. The tests included questions about his sex life, religious beliefs, intimate feelings about family members, and even his bathroom habits.

"I couldn't believe anyone would ask me such personal questions," Soroka said. "These are questions you wouldn't even answer for your own mother, let alone some personnel director at a company." The more he thought about it the more upset he became. When the company called him to offer him the job, he told them to find somebody else; he didn't want to work for a company that treated people this way.

Soroka is not alone. An estimated 15 million Americans are required to take the MMPI every year, including two million people who are required to take it as part of applying for a job. Applicants who are forced to take the test range from doctors and priests to retail sales clerks. The test has been translated into 115 different languages, including Hmong, Turkish, and even sign language. The MMPI is only one of many psychological tests used by employers, According to the American Management Association, over 40 percent of employers nationwide use psychological tests, including eighty-nine of the Fortune 100.

History of Personality Testing

How did so many employers come to use such an invasive test? Like so many other pecularities of corporate life, it is more of a historical accident than deliberate policy. Large-scale personality testing began during World War I, when the Army turned to Columbia University professor Robert Woodworth to help identify recruits who would be undable to withstand the stress and trauma of battle. Woodworth's test was crude; he used questions like "Does the sight of blood make you sick or dizzy?" It was limited to the single psychological dimension that Woodworth called neuroticism, which he thought would predct those who would develop shell shock (today called post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD) if put into combat. But the idea of a written test that would reveal the mysteries of human personality caught the attention of other psychologists.

One of them was Starke Hathaway. Hathaway worked in a state mental hospital in Minnesota and wanted a more systematic way of diagnosing the problems of the inmates than the subjective observations of his staff. After years of effort, he created th MMPI in 1942. Because he was trying to gain insight into deep-seated and serious mental conditions and dealing with inmates in a mental institution, he gave little to no thought to the intrusiveness of his questions.

World War II was the largest employment project in American history. Millions of people had to be selected, evaluated, assigned to specific positions, and trained. The sheer numbers involved forced the military to develop systems for these purposes. After the war, employers faced with the challenge of bringing millions of veterans back into the civilian economy adopted many of these practices. When they looked for a test to help evaluate people's personalities and the jobs they might be best suited for, the MMPI was the only game in town. It quickly became an industry standard. It also became an industry of its own. Test publishers and psychologists started making a living (sometimes a handsome one) around the MMPI and acquired a strong financial interest in protecting it.