For Whom the Bell Curves: Major U.S. companies routinely rely on racist personality tests to assess job applicants.

AuthorLamb, David

Steve Karraker pulled into Chicago's Midway Airport, twenty minutes early. He took a long drink of water, wondering what he was missing at his stores. Karraker oversaw ten Renters Choice locations across Illinois, ensuring the store managers met sales targets in the cutthroat rent-to-own furniture industry.

In practice, that meant shepherding some four dozen people as they hurtled from crisis to calamity. He terminated employees who stole from the company, riding a roller coaster with revenue that spiked and dove like a peregrine falcon. Karraker was a friend to those under him going through divorces and other personal struggles. After five years at the company in a management role, confronting those challenges was second nature.

The part of the job that still made Karraker sweat was what brought him to the airport so early on this blistering August morning. He was picking up his boss, Bill Nitt, a regional vice president from Renters Choices corporate headquarters, for his quarterly tour of Karraker's stores.

The man who eventually emerged through automatic doors, wearing a fitted wool suit and one of his trademark paisley ties, was almost jogging.

"I need you to take us to the Roadhouse restaurant in Aurora," Karraker recalls Nitt saying, as he climbed into the car. "But first, I need you to tell all the managers in the region to get their butts there for a meeting. And then we need to get to O'Hare to pick two people up."

As they carved their halting path across the grid-locked city, possibilities shot through Karraker's mind. He was being fired; no, they were all being fired. His boss explained that they were picking up two others for a big announcement. Karraker had no idea who those people were and what they would announce.

Finally, about ninety minutes later, in a crowded private meeting room in a restaurant outside Chicago, Nitt shared the news. He told a group of the state's store and regional managers, including Karraker, that the company had merged with Rent-A-Center to create the nation's largest rent-to-own retailer. It would dominate the furniture market for those with low incomes.

Nitt produced packets, passing them around to the workers. They were personality tests for every store and regional manager, something Rent-A-Center required to evaluate new hires as well as existing employees' potential for higher roles. Karraker and his colleagues were told to find a place to fill them out. He recognized the test as one he had taken two years before, scoring badly.

Months later, Karraker learned that he had more than twelve deviations on the test, the maximum they allowed for workers to be considered for promotion. Some of his highest-performing store managers fared even worse, and Karraker wondered if the stress from being suddenly compelled to complete these high-stakes evaluations had affected the outcomes.

After the test, Karraker, who had risen steadily through the ranks at the Aurora store to become the regional manager, would not receive another promotion.

Karraker hated having to rely on an algorithm he didn't trust for hiring decisions. He became disturbed by conversations he had with the psychologist who oversaw the testing program about potential hires Karraker brought forward. The psychologist, he later recalled, made oddly specific predictions, in one case mentioning that a job applicant's test results suggested he might be a sexual deviant who could pose liability risks.

In 2002, Karraker and his two brothers filed a lawsuit against Rent-A-Center, the name that the post-merger company took on, in federal court. It would be three years before Karraker won a summary disposition, with the judge citing "attitudinal barriers resulting from unfounded stereotypes and prejudice," and then another two years of litigation before he would finally triumph.

In that time, Karraker would return to a former...

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