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Pre-employment questions put to the test

Try this true or false quiz: I have horrible dreams all the time. I believe in the second coming of Christ. I would like to be a florist. I have lots of extra money.

If you answered "false" to that last one, listen up.

Companies that ask job candidates questions such as the first three have ended up paying millions of dollars to settle lawsuits claiming violation of privacy.

California law, in fact, makes it illegal to ask pre-employment questions about sexual orientation, medical (including mental) conditions, or political and religious beliefs.

As the nation grows increasingly nervous about security, more companies are considering screening job applicants with a psychological or personality test.

These tests, proponents say, are immensely helpful in pinpointing the best potential employees. Critics, however, say the tests can be discriminatory and invasive and may eliminate creative types and rule-breakers with unique job skills.

One critic on the Web site called these tests "the tool of cheap hacks and hairballs."

Furthermore, the anonymous author wrote, "skilled professionals see past this shallow attempt to gain hidden knowledge into an individual's personality."

Another e-mailer, an employment lawyer, wrote that good psych tests do work, but bad tests are worse than no tests at all.

Psychological Resources, which has provided psychological tests for security personnel for almost 30 years, says interest in its product has increased dramatically since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A sister company, Computer Psychologist, has experienced a similar surge in interest since the attacks.

"This event has raised awareness in people's minds of the importance and relevance of doing this kind of screening," said David McCord, executive vice president of Computer Psychologist.

The Atlanta company does pre-employment assessments to try to match a candidate with an "ideal profile" for a job. Clients include Prudential Securities, the Federal Reserve Bank and Time-Life.

"We anticipate the largest impact in the realm of private security contractors, who generally do not include detailed psychological screening as a part of the hiring process," McCord said.

Also, he said, a broader group of airport workers likely will be treated as "security personnel," including baggage handlers, food vendors and others with access to planes, trains and public transportation.

A security plan calls for the federal government to establish tighter standards for airports, including intensive background checks and worker testing.

Police officer and sheriff's deputy candidates already are required by the state to take psychological tests that claim to measure such things as maturity, ability to handle stress and anger, and interactions with others.

"Often we are delivering a lot of bad news," said Eileen Hurst, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Sheriff's Department. "You want to make sure someone has the emotional maturity to handle the responsibility."

Deputies, who work in the jail and provide courtroom security, also handle evictions and serve legal papers.

How do the tests work?

Some companies, such as Computer Psychologist, compile personality tests for job applicants based on profiles of top performers.

Others claim to measure honesty, hostile behavior and communication abilities, as well as the applicant's potential for success. A sample assessment from the Marksman Testing System, for example, found that hypothetical test-taker "Albert" dislikes close supervision is friendly, assertive, restless and a good leader; and is motivated by power, challenge, money and popularity.

This not only measures Albert's personality; it helps the company define the type of boss best suited for him.

Critics say, however, that the tests can be inaccurate and unfair.

Berkeley, Calif., attorney Brad Seligman brought the first major challenge to pre-employment psychological testing in a case against Target Stores, which the company settled in 1993.

The case charged that Target's test for job applicants violated their privacy. A version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, it asked applicants about everything from their sex lives to bodily functions to religious beliefs.

Among the questions: "I would like to be a florist" and "Sometimes I feel like smashing things."

Without admitting guilt, Target agreed to establish a $1.3-million fund for the 2,500 California applicants who took the test, which is no longer used.

Sometimes psychological tests find an applicant to be inflexible, unstable, emotional or even manic-depressive. But, legally, those findings may not be enough to deny someone a job.

Not that you might ever find out why you were rejected for a job. But, Seligman said, a test is suspect if people of one race or gender, for example, keep coming up with similar scores.

"If you are rejected because of the psychological exam, the basis for the rejection has to be job-related," said Seligman, executive director of the Impact Fund, a nonprofit foundation that supports public interest litigation.

He calls the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory the "gold standard of intrusiveness."

"The challenge with testing is that it leaves out a context," said Judith Gerberg, president of the Career Counselors Consortium in New York.

"Someone may look like the profile but that doesn't mean the person is going to fit into the culture."

McCord, however, said his company's tests are fair "because we are measuring "normal' human personality variation" to find the best match for a given job. "Our questions are not considered invasive or intrusive."