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The search for an honest work force.

OVER 2,000 YEARS ago, Diogenes the Cynic lamented, "I am looking for an honest man." The same problem plagues businesses today. Financial losses caused by employee theft and substance abuse can cripple a company. Ironically, while the need to identify dishonest job applicants has grown, legislation that restricts preemployment evaluation and screening procedures is also increasing. For example, the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 restricts the use of the polygraph technique in preemployment screening. Many states have passed right to privacy legislation that prohibits inquiring into a job applicant's social use of alcohol. Finally, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 confines an employer's preemployment inquiries concerning the use of illegal drugs to current or recent use.

Despite these legislative constraints, courts are holding employers liable for negligent hiring practices if the employer does not adequately screen job applicants. The employer is expected to exercise a reasonable standard of care in the selection of new employees.

Companies must find ways to effectively and legally reduce the incidence of employee misconduct. The solutions available to employers include: increasing security efforts within a company or department to identify guilty employees after they have engaged in an act of dishonesty; implementing additional internal controls to make it more difficult for employees to engage in acts of dishonesty; and improving identification of job applicants who are likely to engage in acts of dishonesty before they are hired.

While an effective security program involves all of these strategies, the least costly in terms of dollars and time is an effective screening program that makes it possible for a company to avoid hiring employees who will steal, use drugs, violate company policies, or present other liability risks.

All screening procedures are designed to predict future behavior in one of two ways, either through inferential psychological assessments or by evaluating the applicant's past behavior. A polygraph examination, for example, analyzes past behavior. Preemployment screening procedures, which evaluate past behavior, elicit information either directly from the applicant or indirectly through reference or record checks. This information relates specifically to the applicant's previous actions. It might involve an incident when the applicant was fired from his or her last employer because the individual stole a $2,000 deposit or an incident when the applicant's urine tested positive for cocaine. Tests that measure psychological characteristics purport to evaluate intrinsic traits within the applicant. A psychological assessment, for example, may indicate that a particular applicant has a poor attitude toward honesty.

A central question to ask in selecting an effective preemployment procedure is which type of evaluation best predicts an individual's future behavior. In 1988, John E. Reid and Associates, Inc., conducted a study to examine this question using data from the company's files. Reid and Associates gives polygraph examinations and behavior analysis interviews. At the time of the study, the company also administered paper-and-pencil honesty tests.

Method. Reid and Associates randomly identified from its files of past test takers 200 individuals who had subsequently become suspects in a workplace incident. These individuals were given a preemployment polygraph examination, and 162 (81 percent) also took a paper-and-pencil honesty test as part of their screening. Because these 200 individuals were suspects in an employee investigation, they were also given a specific issue polygraph examination in connection with the specific incident under investigation by security.

This sample permitted direct comparisons between two different methods of predicting future behavior: the applicant's admissions made during the preemployment polygraph examination regarding such incidents as the theft of money and merchandise from previous employers; and the applicant's attitude toward honesty as measured by a paper-and-pencil test.

If a screening procedure was perfect in predicting dishonesty, every applicant screened as honest before being hired would be found innocent in a specific incident investigation. Conversely, every applicant screened as dishonest would be found guilty in a specific incident.

Findings. Of the 200 individuals, 135 were found to be telling the truth and 65 were found to be deceptive during their specific issue polygraph examinations. Fifty of the latter results were verified as correct through a corroborated confession. During the original preemployment screening of the 200 individuals, 162 made no significant admissions on the behavior-based test. They were, therefore, recommended for employment. The remaining 38 applicants made significant admissions during the examination and, consequently, were not recommended for employment.

Of the 162 job applicants who made no significant admissions during their preemployment polygraph examination, 126 (78 percent) were found to be innocent of the specific issue for which they later became a suspect; whereas 36 (22 percent) were found to be guilty. Of the 38 applicants who made significant admissions about committing past acts of dishonesty or misconduct during their preemployment polygraph examinations, 29 (76 percent) were found guilty, while 9 (24 percent) were found to be innocent. Considering the applicant's past behavior as a predictor of future behavior was correct in 155 of the 200 individuals studied, the results indicated an average predictive validity rate of 78 percent.

Of the 162 applicants who were administered a paper-and-pencil honesty test as part of their preemployment screening, 103 received a passing score on the test, while the remaining 59 applicants failed the written test. Of those who passed, 71 (69 percent) were found innocent, and 32 (31 percent) were found guilty when they became a suspect in an investigation.

Of the 59 individuals who received a failing score on their paper-and-pencil honesty test, 26 (44 percent) were found guilty, but 33 (56 percent) were found innocent. In this study, the evaluation of a job applicant's attitude regarding honesty did not predict the individual's future honesty above chance levels. The predictive validity of an applicant's attitude toward honesty was only 60 percent.

This finding indicates that an applicant's attitude about honesty does not statistically predict the individual's future behavior. The study does not support the assumption that a job applicant with a poor attitude toward honesty is more likely to engage in future acts of misconduct than a job applicant with a good attitude. Evaluation of an applicant's past behavior did, however, significantly predict future acts of misconduct or dishonesty.

Unfortunately, behavioral-based preemployment screening procedures have traditionally been more expensive and time consuming than psychological written tests. Hiring a trained expert to administer polygraph examinations or behavioral interviews can increase screening costs significantly. A thorough background investigation, which includes personal interviews with acquaintances and past employers, as well as relevant record checks, can cost much more than simply giving a paper-and-pencil honesty test.

Less expensive behavioral-based screening procedures include testing for drug use and a criminal records check to identify past convictions, but these procedures only evaluate the applicant in two restricted and specific areas. Drug tests are limited in that they only detect quite recent drug use; criminal records only identify those crimes for which the applicant has been caught, arrested, and convicted.

Interactive software. Affordable interactive computer software has been developed that is designed to elicit past behavioral patterns as a means of screening job applicants. Several such computer-based interviews have been validated.

The concept of developing an interactive computer interview for screening job applicants has its roots in health care applications. Studies in the 1970s found patients to be more candid and open when answering sensitive medical questions if responding to inquiries presented on a computer monitor rather than when asked the same questions in person.

In one study performed by Christopher Martin, who is with the College of Business Administration at Louisiana State University, and Dennis Nagao, who is affiliated with the College of Management, Georgia Institute of Technology, the researchers found that a computerized interview of job applicants was more likely to develop accurate information than traditional screening methods. They determined that job applicants were less likely to provide socially desirable responses to a computer than to a human interviewer. In another study, Rich Phannenstill, president of Computer Employment Applications, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Frank Horvath, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, field researched an interactive computer screening program. They reported that the computer results were similar, and in some cases superior, in nature and scope to those developed during a personal interview. Four categories of questions may be asked during a computer interview: direct questions, follow-up questions, probing questions, and challenge questions. The software contains a large repertoire of questions, but no applicant is asked all of them. Most applicants complete a computer-based interview in thirty minutes. In 1987, Reid and Associates conducted another study examining 170 applicants applying for positions of general trust (money handling, retail sales, transportation, management). They were first administered a computer-based interview and then given a polygraph examination.

The same integrity standards or tolerance levels were used to evaluate all tests. For example, using a $50 tolerance of past thefts of merchandise from employers, an applicant who admits stealing more than this figure would be reported as not meeting that particular standard. A 94 percent agreement existed between the computer interview results and admissions elicited during the polygraph examination.

In 1992, Reid and Associates conducted a third study in which data was collected over eighteen months. During this period, 181 police officer candidates were given computer-based interviews before undergoing a polygraph examination. The study examined two issues: the frequency of false positive computer interview results--an applicant incorrectly entering admissions against self-interest; and the nature and extent of computer admissions generated from participating police candidates.

Applying integrity standards to the computer interview admissions of the 181 candidates found that 73 candidates (40 percent) made admissions that exceeded integrity standards. In comparing candidates' admissions during their polygraph examination to those same standards, 85 candidates (47 percent) exceeded integrity standards. This difference was not statistically significant. In no instance during the polygraph examination did a candidate retract an earlier admission made during the computer interview. That is, the examiner was able to verbally confirm each candidate's computer admission. Consequently, no false positive errors occurred.

As both these study results indicate, a percentage of job applicants do not disclose all past acts of dishonesty during a computer-based interview. An employer should always conduct a face-to-face interview with the job applicant in an effort to determine if the applicant's responses during the computer interview were truthful or, when admissions were made, if they were minimized. In this regard, computer interview results serve as an excellent interviewing guide in that the computer has already introduced sensitive topics of past integrity and, in many cases, the applicant will have made at least preliminary admissions that can be followed up and expanded on during the face-to-face interview.

An effective preemployment screening procedure will identify applicants who are unlikely to engage in acts of dishonesty if hired. Procedures that develop factual information about the applicant's past behavior are one way to provide valid predictions of the individual's future behavior. Regardless of the procedure selected, a personal interview with the job applicant focused on integrity issues should be conducted before a hiring decision is made. References

Martin, Christopher and Dennis Nagao. "Some Effects of Computerized Interviewing on Job Applicant Responses." Journal of Applied Psychology 74, (1989): 72-80. Phannenstill, Rich and Frank Horvath. "A Comparison of Computerized Interviewing of Job Applicants with a Personal Security Interview." Security Journal 2, no. 3(1991): 172-179.

Brian C. Jayne is director of research and development for John E. Reid and Associates, Inc., in Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Society for Industrial Security
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Title Annotation:Preemployment Testing; employee hiring
Author:Jayne, Brian C.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Words:1894
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