Courtney Keim on Being an I-O Psychologist All Along (Part 1)

Before she became an I-O psychologist, Courtney Keim worked at a residential treatment center for traumatized boys. In this first part of a two-part episode, Dr. Keim reflects on how those six brutal weeks influenced her later career as an I-O psychologist and professor. Along the way, we discuss integrity tests, stress, coping, and those little glimmers of insight that convince some of us that we may have been a little I-O psychologist all along, even before we knew about the field.

Guest Bio

Dr. Courtney Keim, Associate Professor of Psychology at Bellarmine University, received her B.A. in Psychology from Christian Brothers University and her Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology, with a concentration in Industrial & Organizational Psychology, from the University of Memphis. Her research focus is on organizational wellness and psychologically healthy workplace practices. Dr. Keim teaches a range of Psychology courses and enjoys advising and mentoring students. Dr. Keim is also Vice President of the Kentucky Psychological Foundation, where she leads initiatives such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, psychologically healthy workplaces in KY, student mentorship programs, and highlighting student research. In addition, Dr. Keim has worked with and at many organizations, including departments within Louisville Metro Government, Norton Behavioral Medicine, Maryhurst, the U.S. Navy, and FedEx.



This transcript is AI-generated and may not be completely accurate. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to the Department 12 Podcast, where we talk about everything industrial and organizational psychology. I’m your host, Dr. Ben Butina  and recently I talked to Dr. Courtney Keim about some of her early job experiences. Let’s get right into.

Courtney Keim, Ph.D.: [00:00:24] My very first job after undergrad was working in a residential treatment facility. I had been since I was 16 years old working in the restaurant business while I was going to school all through high school and full time when I was in college, I was a little tired of working in the restaurant business and wanted to get into a job with my psychology degree. The job that seemed to be the best fit for me at the time was working with young boys who had been experiencing trauma had been separated from their families.

I had a connection with an alum who graduated from my program that was going to interview me for this job. So it was a pretty much a shoe in high turnover industry. They really need. People there, they were really suffering on the employment front. I just had to show up and do a good job in the interview.

In that job interview, I was so keen on showing that I had my psychology knowledge and really being honest with the interviewer. And so when the interviewer began asking me what. Recognize as integrity test questions. There was a question that was suppose that you are working with your colleagues, and you see that there’s a safe, that has been open and there’s money that’s inside of the safe, which of course, in a residential treatment facility, this would not even be the case, but the interviewer asked me.

What would you do? Would you steal the money? And this is a very softball question. It’s obvious what you’re supposed to say. And instead of saying, of course I wouldn’t take the money. I would turn in my coworkers. I would, I would let the supervisor know they were stealing. I started to think back to all of my social psychology classes and all of the things that I had learned about what guides behavior as a human being.

And so what I said was, well, I might have to really think about that. I could see myself being put in a situation where perhaps if I really needed the money and everyone else around me was taking it and I could see the look on this person’s face as I was going through my answers, explaining the rationale of why I would steal the money from the safe.

The interviewer couldn’t believe what I was saying. Like his jaw just hit the floor. This was exactly the opposite of what you might expect. Someone to actually say in an integrity test interview. I was really trying to be honest about what potentially could happen in that situation. I didn’t want to lie and say I’m such a great person and I would never steal.

And he was absolutely shocked by my answer.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:02:50] So that should be the end of Courtney’s story. I mean, no, one’s going to hire you after you admit you might steal from the company. Right?

Courtney Keim, Ph.D.: [00:03:00] The good news, I guess, perhaps, maybe not so good news in the long run, but the good news was that they were so short-staffed and they needed people so badly that he actually hired me anyway, despite my very poor performance in this job interview, it’s really difficult work.

I have the advantage of hindsight. And having 20 years passed since then, plus now also being a parent. I understand that essentially what the job was, which was doing all of the things that a parent would do with a child throughout the day. Those things are just difficult to do. And if you do them with children, who’ve experienced significant trauma and have had terrible things that have happened to them throughout their life.

And they haven’t had support for it. And they haven’t had stable adults. Of course, those children don’t know how to. Uh, they don’t know how to control those emotions. And so a typical day was showing up at three in the afternoon when they would get off from school. And you would do all the things that a parent would do.

You would fix them snacks in the kitchen. You would help them with their homework. You would entertain them until it was dinner time. You would give them dinner and then put them to bed. Unfortunately, the children would engage in all kinds of behavior because they couldn’t handle the emotional trauma that they had dealt with.

They might try to bite you. They might try to hit you. They might spit at you. They might fight with each other, or they may try to run away. There are all of these behaviors that you have to try to mitigate, that you have to try to deal with the crisis. You have to learn how to put those children in holds in case they’re trying to harm themselves or others.

And at the time I didn’t realize what all that meant

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:04:38] you’ve ever read. Harry Potter. You’ll remember that when Harry was a young boy, his magical powers would just sort of happen, but he didn’t know how to make sense of them or to control them or use them. This next part gets a little bit like that.

Courtney Keim, Ph.D.: [00:04:54] It was really a little IO psychologist all along because I realized when I got this job and I was supposed to go through a two week training process to prepare me for this really difficult.

This organization was so short-staffed that the two week training program got cut to one week because they needed people there. They didn’t need people at the training facility, they needed people out of the classroom and actually on the campus. I remember being in that training session saying, no, wait, wait, no, this training needs to happen for two weeks.

I’m not prepared. I’m not. I need more. That was just not an option. So I recognized that there was a problem with the training program. I realized that there was a problem potentially with the hiring, with the questions in the interview process. So I was really taking apart all of the steps that got me through the orientation and onboarding of this organization.

There were some really difficult days working there. I can vividly remember. One shift during the week. And then I worked from 7:00 AM until midnight on Saturdays and Sundays, I can remember pulling up to the facility one weekend morning and it was about 6 55. And when I pulled my car up to the cottage, I could hear the screams inside the building, and I knew that something was happening and I just sat in my car.

I just couldn’t bring myself to walk into the building until it was exactly seven o’clock. I was just trying to, to avoid walking into that chaos.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:06:27] Okay. So we know about the job and the kids, but what about Courtney’s coworkers? What were they like?

Courtney Keim, Ph.D.: [00:06:34] I can look back and really think about how the other employees of that organization were acting. The ones who had been there for a long time had experienced. All of those negative effects that happened with all that significant turnover. And so when I came in as a bright eyed, bushy tailed, 21 year old undergrad, going to save the world with my psychology degree, they probably smelled that from miles away because they knew that I wasn’t going to last.

So why drag it out? So they sometimes would purposefully leave me alone with the worst kid in the cottage at the time I was like, they threw me under the bus and maybe that is what they did, but they were just trying to speed up the inevitable. Which was that I wasn’t going to last in an organization like that.

It was just too stressful. We think about things like person, organization. We think about how personality can influence success on the job. And those are just words that I didn’t quite have at the time, but I realized this is not the best place for me. Imagine that you’re in this high stress environment where at any moment a child could attack.

And you’re constantly looking for that kind of behavior to happen. And you’re afraid that your coworkers are going to leave the room and leave you alone. And then that’s when you know, this is, this is going to occur this, this potential attack. And I’ve realized very quickly that I couldn’t escape, that there was nowhere that I could go.

Except there was a staff restroom that was in the cottage where the boys lived. I realized, Hey, I could go into the bathroom. And shut the door and lock it. And I could just almost feel that immediate sense of. Okay. If I go to the bathroom, that’s the one time where I’m safe. I used that as a coping strategy.

I said, well, if I drink a lot of water while I’m here, then I have to go to the bathroom a lot. That can actually be the time when I can experience some, some release. I think we, as human beings, we’re so adaptive. We learn how to. Deal with those stressful events and maybe not always in the best way. In that six weeks, I worked there.

I’d lost a bunch of weight that I really didn’t need to lose. My whole system was being activated. And in that sympathetic nervous system way, I was just experiencing a lot of adrenaline. Probably a lot of cortisol. That moment of being in the bathroom was like the one time where that parasympathetic nervous system could, could take over and I could get some, uh, release the gentleman who interviewed me was the supervisor for the cottage that I worked in as, as luck may have it.

And. I was supposed to be what we called an overnight teacher counselor, which meant, because again, they were so short staffed. They didn’t have enough people to actually work the third shift, which is the overnight shift. So I was supposed to stay the night one day a week. And I never could. I always got to the day when I was supposed to stay the night and I would call that supervisor.

I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I think it was pretty clear to him that by week six, that it was just not going to work. And I said, I just, I can’t come here anymore.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:09:36] At this point, you know that Courtney’s made the right decision here. We all know what her coworkers knew back then. This wasn’t going to last. And no matter how much time she spent locked in that bathroom, she couldn’t cope. But when there’s kids involved, walking away, isn’t so easy.

Courtney Keim, Ph.D.: [00:10:04] Looking back. I’m kind of surprised that I lasted the six weeks that I lasted. I really, really didn’t want to quit on those kids. I still love children. I love kids. And I thought that because I loved psychology and I loved kids that being a child psychologist was the best fit for me. It was really hard to leave those boys because so many people had turned their backs on them. But I just had to realize at the end of six weeks that this is just not the right fit for me years, go by.

I ended up in the IO program at the university of Memphis. And in one of my IOE classes, we actually did a semester long consulting project. So I walk into the classroom and the professor says we’re going to work with a local nonprofit, that’s experiencing significant turnover and we’re going to help them with their turnover.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:10:41] You’ve already figured out where this is going, right?

Courtney Keim, Ph.D.: [00:10:45] And when the professor said the name of the organization, which is the same place that I worked, when, you know, in this cottage with these young boys, I could not believe it. I could immediately feel all of the stressful response that was coming back.

I could not believe that I had to go back to this place. We went out to the organization so we could do focus groups and talk to employees and tour the grounds. And we walk into the main building. And since it’s been some years now, of course my supervisor at the cottage. Has progressed in his career and I kid you not, we go to meet with the person who’s in charge our liaison for this project.

And it’s that same guy. And I had to sit across this big conference table from him. And I just kept wondering to myself, does he recognize me? Does he remember me as the girl who would steal from the safe? I can’t believe that I’m here. And I made it through that stressful experience of being in that conference room.

I did tell the folks who I went with. I said, I’m driving my own car. And if anything goes bad, I’m out of there, but it ended up being a great experience. And for me to kind of full circle, be able to give back in a way to that organization that I had left behind was actually a nice way to close up that story.

I feel like that, that we were able to give them some good tools and tips on how they might be able to reduce turnover.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:12:06] For many of us, we started thinking a little like IO psychologists, even before. What IO psychology was. We’d have these glimmers, we’d find ourselves asking questions that other people weren’t asking.

We saw the world of work a little differently than everyone else seemed to see it. But Courtney didn’t just walk out of that residential treatment facility and straight into grad school for IO. There were a few more jobs along. And our next episode, the girl who would steal from the safe goes back to her roots and tens bar stay tuned.