Personality Testing: Do Your Pre-Employment Tests Violate the ADA?

May 1, 2006

Last June, an Illinois federal court of appeals issued a decision that may have a drastic impact on the use of “personality tests” in the employment setting. Steven, Michael and Christopher Karraker, three brothers who worked for Rent-A-Center (“RAC”), sought promotions to higher level positions within the company. As a part of the promotion process, they were asked to take RAC’s management training test, an amalgam of nine different tests designed to measure “math and language skills as well as interests and personality traits.” Included in this test were 502 questions from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (“MMPI”).

Since we have mentioned the Karrakers by name, you can probably guess what happened next. The brothers did not have sufficient scores on the test, were not promoted by RAC, and fi led suit on behalf of themselves and other rejected applicants. They claimed that the MMPI was a pre-employment medical exam prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act. RAC acknowledged that the test was “pre-employment,” because, even though the brothers were already employed, they were subjected to the test as part of the consideration process for promotion to new positions within the company. RAC’s argument was that the MMPI was not a medical exam and, therefore, not prohibited by the ADA.

In support of its test, RAC put on evidence that the test was not interpreted by a psychologist. It also established that the MMPI has various methods of scoring, and that RAC used vocational methods to score the test, rather than scoring methods designed to identify mental illness.

The court of appeals noted that psychological tests that are “designed to identify a mental disorder or impairment qualify as medical examinations, but psychological tests that measure personality traits such as honesty, preferences and habits do not.” The court found that, while RAC may have used vocational protocol to score the test, the test was still “designed, at least in part, to reveal mental illness and has the effect of hurting the employment prospects of one with a mental disability.” Consequently, the court ruled against RAC, holding that the MMPI was a pre-employment medical examination prohibited by the ADA.

Although, the Karraker decision has some limitations, it raises serious issues for employers relying on pre-employment testing. If you use pre-employment testing, you should re-examine those tests to determine whether they put your company at risk of an ADA violation, and whether such tests are even still useful. Does the test raise questions about an individual’s mental state? What is the test’s purpose, and does it meet that purpose? Is the test interpreted by a health care professional? Does the test measure the employee’s performance of a task, or simply the employee’s psychological response to performing the task?

Evaluating your company’s employment tests now can ensure that they are not found to be medical exams that violate the ADA.

Karraker v. Rent-A-Center, Inc., 411 F.3d 831 (7th Cir. 2005)

This article was originally published in the May 2006 issue of Dallas/Fort Worth Construction News, and is reprinted with permission.

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