Predicting Workplace Violence

There is a new stealth weapon in the war on workplace violence: A 20-minute multiple-choice test designed to weed out job candidates who are prone to devastating outbursts of "desk rage."

There is a new stealth weapon in the war on workplace violence: A 20-minute multiple-choice test designed to weed out job candidates who are prone to devastating outbursts of "desk rage."

"Desk rage" is the work world''s equivalent of road rage, and this test -- developed by two industrial psychologists at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville -- is disguised as a series of reasoning questions that actually reveals whether someone is hostile and aggressive.

"There are tons of personality tests out there, and most are geared to self-description, asking people ''Do you have a bad temper?'' or ''Do you feel you get mistreated a lot?'' People will fake''em," said Michael McIntyre, who spent eight years developing the test with his colleague, Larry James. "We go after unconscious decision-making, which is a much better predictor of what people will do."

Hostile people see mistreatment and unfairness all around them, McIntyre and James said, so the strategies such people use to reach logical conclusions and solve problems will clearly differ from a normal person''s.

Each of the test''s 25 questions has one answer designed to appeal to the aggressive worker, whom McIntrye describes as a person who is cynical, paranoid, has a short fuse, puts great importance on his own power, respect and dignity, has contempt for authority, and who would rather get even than get along.

On pilot studies conducted over the last six years at 12 companies across the country and at the university, the test, called "the conditional reasoning test of aggression," worked "like a champ," McIntyre said.

When he and James tracked more than 2,000 test-takers, they found that the applicants who had consistently picked the aggressive answers had performance problems on the job, including late arrivals, chronic absenteeism, walking off the job or arguing with co-workers and superiors.

McIntrye believes the test would have singled out Michael McDermott, the 42-year-old software tester who opened fire at a Wakefield, Mass., Internet consulting firm on Dec. 26, killing seven co-workers before being subdued by police.

While McDermott had no prior criminal record, McIntyre says he mirrored the expected portrait of a rage-prone employee. He was an uncommunicative loner, his job performance had slipped, he had a spotty attendance record and he was grappling with serious financial and personal problems, McIntyre said.

"If you were his co-worker, you might not have seen it coming, but he''s the type of person our test was designed to identify," he added.

James noted that those prone to desk rage are not easily spotted.

"Occasionally, there are the telltale signs of aggressive tendencies in an employee -- complaints, arguments, threats -- but more often, the build-up goes unnoticed and the aggressive explosion catches people by surprise," said James.

McIntyre said that anything a company can do to spot potential problems makes good sense, particularly because companies face the possibility of negligence suits if they don''t take action.

Also, he added, stopping problems before they start allows companies to save money on employee turnover and build a more stable work force.

Experts agree that employers, not just their workers, ignore warning signs at their own risk.

One million Americans are assaulted on the job every year, according to estimates by the National Crime Victimization Survey.

The test is available for $5 from The Psychological Corp., a national test distributor, and from the College of Business at the University of Tennessee.

Here are some sample questions:

1. American cars have gotten better in the last 15 years. American car-makers started to build better cars when they began to lose business to the Japanese. Many American buyers thought that foreign cars were better made. Which of the following is the most logical conclusion based on the above?

a) America was the world''s largest producer of airplanes 15 years ago. b) Swedish car-makers lost business in America 15 years ago. c) The Japanese knew more than Americans about building good cars 15 years ago. d) American car-makers built cars to wear out 15 years ago, so they could make a lot of money selling parts.

[The aggressive answer is D. It is based on the aggressive person''s tendency to be cynical or suspicious of other people''s motives and actions.]

2. The old saying, "an eye for an eye," means that if someone hurts you, then you should hurt that person back. If you are hit, then you should hit back. If someone burns your house, then you should burn that person''s house. Which of the following is the biggest problem with the "eye for an eye" plan?

a) It tells people to "turn the other cheek." b) It offers no way to settle a conflict in a friendly manner. c) It can only be used at certain times of the year. d) People have to wait until they are attacked before they can strike.

[The aggressive answer is D. It is based on the aggressive person''s preference for retaliation over reconciliation and interest in not being victimized or perceived as weak.]

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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