Saturday, July 23, 2011

"How a Personality Test Described as “A Joycean Soliloquy in Whitmanic Rhythms, The Interior Monologue of a Neurotic Modern Everyman” Became Corporate America's Barometer of Employability"

From Believer Magazine:

DISCUSSED: Rent-A-Center, Monthly Diarrhea, Satisfactory Sex Lives, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Tall Women, How to Read a Person Like a Book, The Peronal Data Sheet, Robert Woodworth, Starke Hathaway, J. Charnley McKinley, This Republic of the Insane, Vivisected Frogs, Galloping Empiricism, Tarry-Looking Bowel Movements, Holding [Your] Urine, Diamond Thieves, Multers, Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr., The Funhouse Mirror of American Capitalism, Job Employees Who Think Like Convicted Felons
Walt Disney World was a curious choice for the 1998 meeting of Rent-A-Center managers. The giddy whirl of theme-park rides and the melting heat of a Florida September made an odd setting for talk about the rent-to-own couches and coffee tables that are the company’s stock in trade.

Things got even stranger early one morning when the managers were herded into a chilly conference room. They had been scheduled to participate in a budgeting workshop, but company leaders instead announced an abrupt change in plans. Employees would immediately begin taking the Management Test, a five-hour battery of nine separate examinations.

“We thought, ‘Uh-oh, this must be that test we’ve been hearing about,’” recalls Art Staples, then a manager of several San Francisco–area stores. Rent-A-Center had been bought by another firm just a month before, and word had gotten out that the new company required all employees to take a long and demanding test. “There was nothing we could really do except refuse to take it, walk out of the room—and find our own transportation back to California,” Staples says.

The managers knew, too, that their scores on the test could determine the course of their careers at Rent-A-Center—or even whether they had jobs at all. “We had been told that if you did not pass the test, then you would not be allowed to work in management,” says Scott Hadley, another store supervisor from the Bay Area. “We were afraid that if we failed, we would be let go.”

An anxious hush fell over the room as the exams were passed out. Within minutes, however, the silence was breached by a stir of astonishment. “People were looking around at each other with this expression of ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Staples recalls. The questions in front of them had nothing to do with renting furniture, or managing employees, or keeping the books.

“My sex life is satisfactory.” “I have diarrhea once a month or more.” “I would like to be a florist.” “Everything tastes the same.” “My mother was a good woman.” “I am a special agent of God.” Arriving at the question “I liked Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll,” the managers might well have felt that they had slipped down the rabbit hole. The test was the MMPI—the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a personality test created decades earlier at a Midwestern mental hospital.

Hadley and Staples were offended and angered by the personal nature of the items. “These questions had no relation to what we did for a living, to whether we were good managers or not,” Hadley says. “Our employer just didn’t need to have all that information.” He was particularly struck by an item that read, “I like tall women.” “How was I supposed to answer that?” he asks. “My wife is five foot three.”...MORE