Psychological Testing in the Workplace

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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. 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. 169).

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 the 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...
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