"Cancel culture" - the prospect of permanent exclusion from your chosen profession due to some flaw - has been a fixture in blue-collar labor since the 1930s, as Nathan Newman writes in The American Prospect.

In the 1930s, employers who wanted to keep labor "agitators" out of their shops adapted the WWI recruitment screening tools to identify "disgruntled" applicants who might organize their co-workers and form a union.


Over the years, this developed into an phrenological-industrial complex, with a huge industry of personality test companies that help employers - especially large employers of low-waged workers - exclude those they judged likely to demand better working conditions.


What began with large firms like Walmart and Marriott grew to consume much of the economy, with 80% of the Fortune 500 relying on tests from the $3+b/year phrenology industry, which is now all digital, incorporating machine learning for an all-algorithmic cancel culture.

The results of these tests get warehoused by giant "HR" companies like Kenexa (bought by IBM for $1.3b, holding 20m test results) and UKG (owned by private equity, with hundreds of millions of worker records).


The latest wrinkle includes junk-science "microexpression" analysis, applicants assessed by an algorithm that purports to be able to read their minds by examining minute cues from their faces - a discredited idea with no basis in science.

Indeed, the whole business of personality tests, and the more general field of psychographics, with its touchstones like the "Big Five Personality Types" are more marketing hype than science; Nature calls it a "scant science."


Which probably explains why job satisfaction - the thing that all this phrenology is supposed to improve - has remained static since 2000, despite vast spending on career-destroying, life-destroying digital palmistry.

So why do employers do it? Well, as is often the case with algorithmic decision-support tools, the most tangible benefit is empiricism-washing. Algorithms provide cover in the form of empirical facewash for illegal employment discrimination.


Employers' personality tests can facilitate illegal discrimination against people with depression, for example, asking whether "your moods are steady from day to day," and video-based screening can exclude people on the autism spectrum.

Personality assessment also provides cover for the ongoing use of disciplinary technology, such as the bossware that spies on your keystrokes and other online activity, which exploded during lockdown as "work from home" was transformed into "live at work."


Employers can claim the ongoing surveillance is there to help measure and improve job satisfaction, while the phrenology-industrial complex sales reps quietly promise that they'll catch and expel "disgruntled" workers - those apt to organize a union.


Workers won legal battles to ban workplace use of polygraphs, medical exams, genetic screening, credit reports, criminal background checks, and disclosure of social media passwords - but personality screening filled the void, allowing discrimination through the back-door.

Newman thinks the National Labor Relations Board has the authority to step in here and prohibit this kind of personality screening, both prior to hiring and on the job.


"If we are going to have a national debate about free speech in the workplace, stopping the use of personality tests to cancel 'disgruntled' workers should be front and center."

Wellcome Trust (modified)

Cryteria (modified)



@pluralistic I sorta figured something like this, was why i had a hard time finding work when i put my college experience on my resumes (now i dont even mention it)

but the extensive hour long personality tests and the like they force us to do i did not think of- thank you for pointing this out!!

@pluralistic This is why I want to make a cheatsheet for job assessment tests on indeed. Someone can come along and make a browser extension that auto fills the answers.

@pluralistic "Personality psychology" is a messed up idea.

A thread about employer 'personality profiling', 'microexpressions' etc, as a way the workforce is culled of potentially disgruntled workers in the hiring process, and the phrenology-industrial complex, from @pluralistic

@Pelican3301 @pluralistic this is awesome! First dog on the moon has even more of my respect.

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