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`Honesty tests' replace lie tests in job screening

``It was demeaning,'' the young woman said, her face drawn. ``They asked me if I hunted, or carried guns. I mean, what does that have to do with whether or not I would be good working for that store?'' The woman had just finished taking a ``personality test'' for a large retail store in the Greater New York area. The test, a standardized national examination, is ostensibly designed to match the worker with the right job - as well as help the store cut down on employee theft.

But what the test has guaranteed in this case is that the young woman will not work for that store, because, she says, if they would use ``a test of that kind,'' then ``there's a question about their own ability to treat employees fairly.''

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The young woman, however, is not alone in taking entry-level screening examinations. Millions of Americans must pass screening examinations as a condition of employment. And now that Congress has imposed new restraints on the use of polygraph (lie-detector) tests in the private sector, the use of ``pencil-and-paper'' screening tests is expected to increase sharply in the months ahead.

Polygraph tests, used by many private employers and the federal government, have come under increasing criticism in recent years because of their alleged inaccuracy and because of civil liberties issues. More than 2 million such examinations are estimated to have been given employees, or prospective employees, annually in recent years. But as of Dec. 27, the use of polygraphs will be appreciably restricted for the nongovernment sector.

As a result, more companies are using written tests to build or maintain a strong work force, says James Walls, vice-president of Stanton Corporation, of Charlotte, N.C., Stanton, a subsidiary of Business Risks International, writes employee tests. Mr. Walls says that 49 of the 50 states in the United States now allow paper-and-pencil tests to determine such things as the honesty and capabilities of an employee. Massachusetts is the only state that ``prohibits any testing that renders a diagnostic appraisal of a person's honesty,'' he says.

``We have no position on the use of paper-and-pencil tests at this time,'' says Roger Middleton, counsel for corporate policy with the US Chamber of Commerce. The chamber had generally supported the use of polygraphs for employee testing in certain circumstances, such as cases of possible embezzlement or graft.

Mr. Middleton notes that, in addition to paper tests, another option for employers is the use of extensive background examinations. ``But they are time-consuming and costly. For many small businesses, background checks are prohibitive.''

But some sort of employee tests - whether for pre-screening workers or for established employees - are needed, say testing advocates and many employers, who offer a barrage of unflattering statistics about the honesty of the US work force. According to the findings of a House subcommittee several years ago, for example, 1 out of every 3 Americans is said to lie about job credentials. A poll taken last year for U.S. News & World Report and Cable News Network found that 50 percent of the public believes people are less honest than they were 10 years ago. And billions of dollars are lost annually through employee theft.

Although written screening tests are desirable both for employers and employees, Walls believes, he also does not like what he calls frivolous questions, such as the one on hunting. Such questions, he maintains, merely create anxiety. On the other hand, he believes that carefully crafted questions can identify such personal qualities as honesty, as well as clerical, administrative, or other skills.

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A well-designed test, he adds, can also weed out dissemblers, people who deliberately falsify answers. An example, he says, is this ``control'' question: ``Have you ever been involved in any argument with another person that you'd wished you'd handled differently?''

A ``no'' answer, Walls says, would suggest, along with answers to other such ``distortion questions'' that the person taking the test was dissembling.

In general, Walls believes that testing should only be one part of a company's overall effort to build a solid work force. The key, he says, is ``communication, communication, communication,'' with the door to the front office ``always open.''

In any case, the issue of testing - whether for pre-screening or for existing employees - is expected to intensify in the next year, as civil rights groups take a harder look at employee tests.

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