Q: I recently applied for a promotion. While I was away on a business trip, the interview panel sent me a letter advising me of my interview time and place. They also enclosed a psychological pop quiz that included 20 or 30 multiple-choice questions such as "I feel the need to be in control," with the test taker asked to agree or disagree on a scale of one to five.
I attended the interview but didn't worry too much about the test because they said it was voluntary. I also preferred not to take it because I see little value in this kind of broad-based psychological testing. If they had said it was mandatory, however, I would have filled it out and sent it in.
I have subsequently learned that I was not among the finalists to be considered for the application, and I was told that the interview panel downgraded my application because I did not fill out the test. Is this type of testing legal in job applications?
A: Lawyer Barbara Kate Repa, author of "Your Rights in the Workplace," said many companies use psychological testing today to avoid costly hiring mistakes. Companies that sell the testing services tout them as useful tools to discover whether job candidates are too aggressive, or aggressive enough, honest or likely to goof off.
Psychological testing began during World War I, when the U.S. military began using it to match soldiers to the most appropriate jobs, according to Repa's book. Its heyday was in the 1970s, when some employers used such testing to ask about things they couldn't legally ask, such as race, age or sexual orientation, which resulted in a legal backlash.
In most states, psychological testing is legal. According to an American Management Association survey released last April, about 46 percent of employers use some sort of psychological measurement to decide whom to hire or promote. But the AMA said psychological testing seemed to be falling in popularity recently because of the labor shortage and because its validity is being challenged.
"People can fake the results if they guess what the employer is looking for," said Rosemary Orthman, former editor of a testing newsletter. In an article in the newsletter in September, two researchers reported that people who cheat on these tests and who are particularly good fakers can make themselves appear more honest than truly honest people.
Repa said many companies may not realize how uncomfortable they make job applicants, who feel they have no choice but to take the tests. "It's a queasy-making thing for employees who are asked to take these tests," she said, adding that in a tighter labor market, "more and more people are complaining" about them.
Q: I am the (reluctant) executive director of a small nonprofit group. I can't believe I have to write to you about this problem, but I do. We work in a very small office with a bathroom with thin walls. The sound of running water as one is washing one's hands comes through the wall. Unfortunately, it doesn't come through as often as I would like: One of our employees rarely washes her hands after using the toilet.
Not only do I find that habit disgusting, but her habit spreads germs. She gets sick more often than the rest of us, and, on more than one occasion, viruses have been known to hit us all. Sick days hurt each ill employee as well as the organization overall.
I don't know how to deal with the situation, and our personnel policies don't address this issue as we are not a food-service institution. I don't like the idea of a boss telling an employee how to take care of herself, but what she does--or doesn't do--impacts the association. What should I do?
A: We took this problem to two experts on workplace health, Ann Naughton, an occupational health nurse at Chicago's Cook County Hospital who serves on the board of the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, and physician Ann Marie Gordon, director of occupational health at Washington Hospital Center.
"The issue of spreading germs is an issue regardless of where you work," whether it's a hospital, a restaurant or an office, Gordon said. She suggested the letter writer hold a staff meeting to discuss the influenza epidemic that has hit many workplaces recently and to stress the importance of hand-washing to stem contagion, particularly when people work closely together in small spaces.
Gordon acknowledged the topic could be embarrassing to discuss, but "as a supervisor, she needs to overcome that," she said.
Naughton said she believed the issue could be better addressed by taking the worker aside and discussing it with her privately. She said that although it would be difficult to prove a direct connection between unwashed hands and office sickness, it's certainly going to make her co-workers uncomfortable.
"It does affect other workers, and obviously it's going to make them ill at ease," Naughton said. She suggested the letter writer contact the local health department and find out where to find an official-looking sign to post inside the bathroom about hand-washing and sanitation.
She also suggested the writer urge all workers to get flu shots each year and advise them to use alcohol wipes to clean off their telephone headsets regularly because that's another major source of contagion.