During the 2004 Presidential election, Lynn Gobbell put a ”Kerry for President” bumper sticker on her car. Her boss saw it and demanded that she remove it. She refused and was summarily fired.

One man was fired for asking George W. Bush a question about the Iraq War at a political rally, while another male employee was allowed to keep his job even after being discovered spying on female employees in a bathroom.

These are but a few of true workplace incidents of abuse, included in Lewis Maltby’s book, ”Can They Do That?: Retaking Our Fundamental Rights in the Workplace.”

As president and founder of the National Workrights Institute, Maltby convincingly exposes the erosion of privacy and legal rights of employees in the American workplace.

A major example is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a psychological test used by many employers that has included questions about your sex life, religious beliefs, feelings about friends and family and even bathroom habits.

An estimated 15 million Americans are required to take the MMPI every year, including 2 million people required to take it as part of applying for a job. According to the American Management Association, more than 40 percent of employers nationwide use psychological tests, including almost 90 Fortune 100 companies.


The history behind the MMPI test is dubious, at best. According to Maltby, it appeared in the corporate setting more as an accident than by any deliberate policy.

Large scale personality testing began during World War I to help identify recruits who might be unable to withstand the stress and trauma of battle. Questions such as: ”Does the sight of blood make you sick or dizzy?” were routinely posed.


Then, the idea of a written quiz that could reveal the intricacies of a personality caught the imagination of psychologists such as Starke Hathaway, who worked in a Minnesota state mental hospital and later created the MMPI in 1942.

After World War II, employers had to deal with bringing millions of veterans back into the civilian workforce and sought ways to help evaluate people’s personalities and the jobs they might be best suited for. MMPI tests soon became an industry standard.

”The fact that a test conjured up by a former psychologist at a mental institution remains part of the application process for modern American corporations captures rather perfectly how much of ourselves we surrender when we are beholden to them,” asserts Liliana Segura, editor of Rights & Liberties.


Maltby’s book is an alarming wake-up call about tyranny in the American workplace.

When you consider, for example, that 20 percent of employers in this country now require new hires to relinquish their right to sue the company if their rights are violated, we can only conclude that the power corporations have over their employees’ lives has gotten far out of hand.

Employers today conduct exhaustive and expensive investigations into their prospective workers. If you’ve ever been arrested, you can kiss that job goodbye, even if you were never convicted of a crime.

Dicey credit histories can get you into trouble, even if the prospective job doesn’t relate to money handling. A bad driving record can put your resume in the shredder, even if the job doesn’t involve driving.

According to Maltby, we currently have ”no legal protection when it comes to employer surveillance of e-mail, instant messages, Internet access and hard drives. Even if you could prove that your boss read your personal e-mail for his own amusement, you would not have a case.”

The prevailing concept of ”employment at will,” whereby employers have the right to hire and fire without warning or justification, was established in a series of essays in the late 1800s by Horace Wood, reputed to be a legal writer for the city of Albany, N.Y., despite having shaky research skills.


But courts apparently continue to use Wood’s analysis to justify decisions in favor of employers’ rights to fire at will.


Basic rights, the kind we don’t think about all that much until they are clearly violated, seem to have virtually disappeared in the workplace.

Privacy has gone out the window. Free speech is under siege. Indeed, in too many instances, workers have given up their basic rights before they even begin a new job.

Perhaps one hope in this bleak scenario of employer abuse of power and the lack of legal recourse is a case now on the Supreme Court docket that will address the question of whether government employees have a ”reasonable expectation of privacy” on communications sent and received via employer-issued hand-held devices.

This pending decision and the existing federal amendment to federal wire-tapping laws, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), address workplace communications, but not overall workplace fairness.


Clearly more work needs to be done if good workers are to ever be fully protected from bad employers.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book, ”The Written Song: The Antebellum African-American Press in the Northeast,” is due for publication this year. He can be contacted at:



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