Study questions accuracy of worker 'honesty tests'

September 27, 1990|By Susan Hansen | Susan Hansen,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- "Honesty tests" used by U.S. businesses to ferret out dishonest employees may not be a reliable predictor of on-the-job behavior and may be serving to unfairly deny employment to hundreds of otherwise-qualified job applicants, a congressional study has found.

An estimated 6,000 U.S. firms now use the written screening tests to try to determine which job applicants would be most likely to engage in theft or other "counterproductive" workplace behavior, such as repeated tardiness or absenteeism.

But a report by the Office of Technology Assessment found scant evidence that such tests can be trusted.

Employers would be better off "flipping a coin in their screening," said Representative Matthew Martinez, D-Calif., chairman of the House subcommittee on employment opportunities, which released the study at a hearing yesterday.

The report's authors, who reviewed cases from a study group in which employees were hired regardless of test scores, found that more than 90 percent of those who failed honesty tests were wrongly classified as dishonest. They also noted that most current data on employment testing were collected by test vendors themselves, and said that without clear and conclusive independent data to demonstrate their accuracy, the possibility of test error raises important public policy questions.

"Integrity tests misclassify a fairly large number of people [as] at risk for dishonesty who have never been shown to engage in dishonest behavior," John Andelin, one of the study's authors, told the subcommittee.

"This means that some people not likely to steal will be denied employment, and that employers may therefore lose individuals that might be productive."

Although no hard data are available, it is generally believed that the use of written tests to screen for dishonesty and other negative work behaviors has skyrocketed since Congress two years ago barred virtually all uses of the polygraph for pre-employment and employment testing. A recent Wall Street Journal article estimated that 5 million to 6 million written tests are given each year -- with a large number in non-managerial and less-skilled fields such as convenience store employees and re

tail clerks.

In their testimony, the study's authors noted that job applicants in some cases were not explicitly told that the tests they were being given would be used to assess their honesty and integrity. They also said that the pre-employment testing raised troubling questions about applicants' rights to privacy as well as their ability to obtain test results and ensure that negative results would not be used against them by future employers.

"There's a handful of questions here that Congress will have to grapple with," said study co-author Michael Feuer.

A statement from the Association of Personnel Test Publishers denounced the report as "scientifically flawed and riddled with unsubstantiated assertions."

Subcommittee member Pat Williams, D-Mont., who had requested the OTA report, said he planned more in-depth study of the issue before deciding whether Congress should restrict pre-employment screening.

Sample questions

"Honesty tests" come in two basic forms: overt and veiled.

In overt honesty (or integrity) tests, questions like the following would be asked:

* Do you believe most employers take advantage of the people who work for them?

* How often do you tell the truth?

* Do you think it is stealing to take small items home from work?

* Do you feel guilty when you do something you should not do?

* How easy is it to get away with stealing?

* Do you believe that taking paper or pens without permission from a place where you work is stealing?

In "veiled purpose" tests -- which measure a mix of personality traits -- questions would include ones like the following:

* I am usually confident about myself: true or false?

* I like to take chances: true or false?

* A lot of times I went against my parents' wishes: true or false?

* I like to create excitement: true or false?

* How often do you blush?

* How often do you make your bed?

Often, however, the two types of test questions -- veiled purpose and overt integrity -- are mixed together in a single test.

*Washington Bureau of the Sun

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