Psychological Testing and Profiling to Prevent Violence in the Workplace/Classroom: Fact or Fiction?

May 7, 2007

By Dr. Ira Wolfe and Michael Moore

In the aftermath of Cho Seung-Hui’s mass killing of 32 people at Virginia Tech, the question that dominates discussions from the water cooler to the halls of Congress after every incident of workplace or classroom violence is: How could this have been happened and what can we do to prevent it from happening again?

The prevention analysis is already following the familiar two-step paradigm of trying to assess an individual’s propensity for violence and then excluding the potential perpetrator from school or work based on the risk. However, both steps of assessment and exclusion pose a risk for employers.

The assessment aspect has likely captured the most attention, especially with employers.  Psychological testing for job fit got its start nearly ninety years ago. The Surgeon General’s staff administered intelligence and personality tests during World War 1 to the almost two million recruits of the American Expeditionary Force. The soldiers were given the Wordsworth Personal Data Sheet, a 125-question inventory, that was supposed to detect personalities that would crumble under fire. Although this test led to mixed results, it spawned a revolution in psychological research and the creation of predictive personality models and assessments. 

The majority of these early assessments, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index (MMPI), were clinical in nature, constructed and validated to diagnose psychiatric disorders.  The MMPI is considered one of the most researched psychological tests and, as a result, remains consistently ranked as one of the most reliable psychological instruments used by psychologists today.

With that endorsement you would expect every employer, college president and school superintendent to be ordering up MMPI evaluations as fast as shoppers flock to malls during post-holiday sales.  If only it were that easy.  Despite the requirement that employers provide a safe environment for their workers, government regulations place an even higher priority on protecting the rights of the individual.

The ADA is the principal legal restriction on employment actions by an employer or school against individuals with "psychiatric disabilities". Employers must analyze whether an individual with a psychiatric problem is otherwise able to perform the essential functions of a job or participate in school, considering any reasonable accommodations and whether the individual poses a direct threat of harm to himself or others.

In the context of screening individuals for violent potential, the ADA applies to the application process, interviews and pre-employment examinations, specifically medical examinations. The ADA limits pre-employment medical screening, particularly psychological testing  In Karraker v. Rent-A-Center and in Saraka v. Dayton Hudson, courts determined that the MMPI was a "medical examination" under the ADA because it was designed to reveal mental impairment. As a medical test, the employers who used in as a pre-employment test violated the ADA. On the other hand, in Miller v. City of Springfield, a court determined that the MMPI was an appropriate job-related screening tool that was used by a police department in a manner that was consistent with business necessity.

There is a major legal distinction drawn between a "violent profile" and actual conduct that amounts to "threats of violence". Conduct in the workplace that violates an employer’s policies may be disciplined even if the individual may be "disabled".

Another important distinction is that the MMPI is considered a clinical assessment while many assessments constructed specific for job placement are normed against the “normal” population. In particular a measure of restlessness and excitability or assertiveness based on the five-factor model, commonly used for workplace selection, does not diagnose violent tendencies. It merely describes an individual who may have a short fuse, is impatient and frustrates easily. These characteristics, while increasing the risk of harassment claims, do little more than create stress and non-violent interpersonal conflicts.

Legal limitations on the MMPI and other psychological testing prevent employers from using them to screen out potentially violent individuals, but there is still a place for pre-employment tests and effective actions by employers to manage workplace violence. These management tools will be discussed in follow-up postings.