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Xtreme savings: slashing sick leave/attrition rates through recruit screening.

For many years, psychologists have helped manage inmates. Recently, they also have become increasingly involved in managing the correctional work force. This contribution comes in several different forms. Most prominently, psychological screening is used by some correctional agencies to help assess new candidates for correctional positions.

A second approach involves evaluating employees who manifest problematic behavior while on or off duty, for example, actionable misconduct, substance abuse, conflict with colleagues or domestic violence. Fitness-for-duty assessments can provide departments with officer fitness assessments and a set of recommendations for remedial action, such as a course of retraining, psychotherapy, disciplinary penalties, or in extreme cases, termination.

New recruit evaluations include psychological tests and other techniques to filter out job candidates not suited for a career in corrections and who are most likely to become involved in behavior that causes administrative problems for authorities. In so doing, there is a concomitant reduction in the need for future fitness-for-duty evaluations.

Administrators require more than rhetoric to be assured that the investment involved in psychological screenings pays off. Three studies were conducted in Australia (one in 1998 and two in 2001) using an American-based, research-derived battery of psychological tests and interviews. These studies are reviewed and discussed in the context of American correctional practice.

History Of Screening

The first recognized program of begun psychological screening for law enforcement personnel began in the mid-1950s by the Los Angeles Police Department (Blau, 1994). During the 1960s, several other large police agencies also began using psychological screening as part of their recruit selection process, but the idea was slow to catch on.

Gradually, research began to emerge that supported the validity and benefits of psychological testing in law enforcement (Azen, Snibbe and Montgomery, 1973; Roe and Roe, 1982). Findings revealed that officers with poor psychological screening results ultimately were poorer performers than those with non-problematic profiles. Thus, there were more disciplinary problems, more attendance issues and higher early attrition rates among subjects who did poorly in the psychological screening. Most of the truly inept officers, as identified even years later, could have been identified before they were hired had the services of experienced psychologists been employed during the screening process.

Still, the vast majority of public safety agencies were slow to adopt any form of psychological screening; they also saw the screening process as another expense without clear justification. At that time, little, if any, cost/benefit analysis was available.

Litigation And Bad Press

Gradually, more and more police departments fell victim to an increasingly litigious social climate. In 1982, a landmark case, Bonsignore v. the City of New York, 683 F.2d 635 (2d Cir. 1982), held a police department liable for failing to psychologically evaluate one of its officers. A troubled officer shot his wife and then killed himself. The wife survived and sued the department for allowing her husband to carry a gun. The court held that to avoid liability, a department must show that it has taken reasonable precautions in hiring and/or retaining officers who are not psychologically disturbed. Since the department could not show that it had evaluated this officer, the wife was awarded $500,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

Bad publicity also drove police departments to improve screening. The Rodney King episode and other highly publicized incidents of alleged or demonstrated police brutality have brought greater public scrutiny to all law enforcement agencies, with a demand for better selection and training.

As a result, police departments began budgeting for and insisting upon psychological screening as one way to better protect their departments' finances and image. By 1990, a nationwide study of major police agencies found that approximately 49 percent of major U.S. police and sheriff agencies used psychological screening for applicant selection. By 1997, this figure had risen to 94 percent, according to a 1999 U.S. Department of Justice study.

Screening Recruits

In the mid-1980s, driven by similar concerns regarding lawsuits and bad publicity, several correctional departments began screening their recruits in a similar manner. As in the police field, research began to emerge that confirmed the practical value of psychological screening for correctional officers. Still, correctional agencies have been slow to adopt psychological screening.

Forensic psychology graduate students of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, serving as interns with the Institute for Forensic Psychology (IFP), conducted telephone interviews with all 50 state departments of correction (DOC) and the District of Columbia in February. All the departments provided responses. Of the 51 agencies interviewed, 20 (39 percent) conduct some form of psychological screening of their corrections personnel. The remaining 31 departments do not perform any psychological screening of new hires.

It seems that, while most departments that use psychological screening view it as a means toward selecting the best personnel, others see it as a way to avoid lawsuits. Still, some may use it because they are concerned about bad publicity, or because it is required by law (Maryland passed such legislation in 1999). Most agencies that have incorporated such screening into their normal selection process, however, realize that it translates into significant cost savings, dramatic reductions in administrative problems and improved morale because of the better work force.

Recent Research

In the past few years, three independent studies were conducted regarding the effectiveness of specialized psychological screening for new recruits at three large state prison systems in Australia. The psychological screening involved a system developed by IFP in the United States, which was administered by an Australian IFP branch located in Melbourne. The battery consists of six proprietary and nonproprietary tests, a specialized interview and situational tests, all designed to measure characteristics deemed critical to effective performance in the role of correctional officer, including:

* motivation;

* intelligence;

* stress tolerance;

* potential for substance abuse;

* racial bias;

* attitudes toward work;

* acceptance of responsibility;

* practical judgment;

* ability to work on a team;

* capacity to accept criticism;

* ability to follow orders and a chain of command;

* gender bias;

* emotional stability;

* honesty;

* integrity;

* maturity; and

* the need to dominate others.

This battery currently is used by more than 500 public safety agencies worldwide. It has shown predictive validity in law enforcement settings in several major studies conducted in the United States and Australia (Guller, 1999; Heyer, 1998; Byrne, 1994; Guller, 1994). Separate norms exist for both U.S and Australian populations.

A major assumption of the IFP screening battery is that its use leads to improved motivation, productivity and morale among correctional officers. One issue psychological screening addresses is excessive use of sick time. When officers use significant amounts of sick leave, the department loses manpower and must pay premiums for other officers to work overtime. Absenteeism also poses problems in terms of providing adequate coverage and can translate into increased lock-downs and disgruntled, less manageable inmates. Staff morale also may suffer due to mandatory overtime assignments.

Another issue impacted by appropriate screening is attrition. With the high cost of recruiting, training and equipping new officers, as well as the lower efficiency of inexperienced officers, attrition typically is a costly, if not clearly, predictable factor in public safety budgets.

Study I

The first of the studies was conducted in New South Wales, an Australian state larger than Texas, with a population of approximately 6.5 million (Choy, 1998). The New South Wales Department of Corrective Services houses approximately 8,000 inmates. In response to recommendations made by the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission and changes in inmate management practices, the IFP system was adopted to screen correctional officer applicants.

The research was conducted entirely by New South Wales personnel, and in fact, did not come to the attention of IFP's Melbourne office until it was completed. The research was based on a sample of 240 correctional officers hired by the department who were split into two groups. The first group consisted of the last 120 officers hired by the department prior to the introduction of IFP screening. The second group consisted of the first 120 officers hired after the introduction of the screening system. The study found that on average, officers hired without being psychologically screened used nearly twice as many sick days as those who were screened. Similarly, compared with screened officers, the attrition rate for the unscreened officers was more than double in the first 12 months and nearly double after 24 months (see Table 1).

Study II

The second study was conducted in South Australia, a state the size of Texas and California combined, with a population of 1.5 million and an inmate population of 1,500 (Casey, Dollard and Winefield, 2001). This study, conducted by academics at the University of South Australia without IFP's input, included 264 correctional officers hired by the South Australian Department of Correctional Services and scrutinized the officers' first 100 weeks of service. The experimental group consisted of 147 officers who were psychologically screened before hiring and 116 who were not.

The study found that after 100 weeks of service, a significantly higher percentage of officers in the non-screened group left the department for cause (involuntary termination, criminal charges, etc.) or of their own accord than officers in the psychologically screened group. The employment status of these groups after 100 weeks is presented in Table 2. The study also found that officers who were psychologically screened used approximately half the number of sick days per week in their initial period of employment compared with officers employed by former hiring methods. Table 3 shows the average weekly use of sick time by those officers in each group who were still employed after the 100-week period.

Study III

The final study in this group was conducted by IFP in conjunction with Queensland Department of Corrective Services personnel. Queensland is a state the size of Alaska, with a population of 3.5 million and a prison population of 4,500 (Byrne, 2001). This study included a total of 869 recruits: 440 hired before psychological screening was implemented and 429 hired afterward. All data were derived after the second group had been employed for at least two years. The study's focus was each group's first two years of employment.

Once again, there was a significantly higher attrition rate for officers who were not psychologically screened. At the end of the two-year period, more than 23 percent of the non-screened group were no longer employed (see Table 4). Less than 9 percent of the screened group were no longer employed--nearly a 3-1 ratio. It also was found that a significantly higher number of sick days were used by non-screened personnel (see Table 5). Consistent with prior studies, this number was nearly twice that of the group that was screened.


The financial implications of psychological screening were analyzed in the New South Wales study. The department found that in 1997, it spent $2.6 million ($4 million Australian) on sick leave for its approximately 1,700 correctional officers. At the same time, the department found that using psychological screening decreased use of sick time by 39 percent by those officers who had been screened.

While there is a relatively modest (perhaps $300 per prescreened candidate) cost involved in psychological screening, it is fairly trivial when compared with its overall benefits. It is estimated that in the United States, a correctional department the size of New South Wales' would psychologically screen 175 to 185 candidates per year (factoring in a 15 percent to 20 percent psychological rejection rate) to hire approximately 150 officers. This is about 9 percent of its sworn work force. This process, would cost a department less than $60,000.

Meanwhile, in their first year of service, officers who received psychological screening used 39 percent less sick time. This reduction would have translated into a savings to the department of approximately $91,000 for this group's first year of service alone. As a result, during this first year of service, the department would have had a more than 150 percent return on investment. This savings presumably would reoccur each year without additional investment by the department in the screened group. As a result, during an average 20-year career, the department would be expected to save more than $1.8 million on this group from an initial $60,000 investment. This is about a 3,000 percent return on investment. Further, the dollar cost to hire, train and pay one recruit who leaves or is forced out in his or her first year will characteristically cost more than the entire psychological screening of the hypothesized group.

The latter, however, only considers money saved on sick leave and does not consider the many other benefits achieved. Just removing a single problem officer can cost an agency hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation, administrative time, etc. No screening process can avoid all such individuals, and people can change over time. However, any reduction in the frequency of problem personnel alone constitutes a huge savings in money and personal stress for administrators.

As a final note, an April 2001 New York Times article reported the 10 DOCs in the United States with the highest turnover rates, nine of which do not use any form of psychological screening for their new recruits. Is this a coincidence? Probably not.
Table 1

New South Wales Department of Corrective Services Attrition Rates and
Use of Sick Leave:

Before and After Introduction of Psychological Screening Process

 Total (N) Average Sick Days
 (First 24 Months)

Psychologically Screened 120 8.72
Not Psychologically Screened 120 14.36

 Average Attrition Rate
 (First 12 Months)

Psychologically Screened 6.45%
Not Psychologically Screened 13.11%

 Average Attrition Rate
 (First 12 Months)

Psychologically Screened 10.96%
Not Psychologically Screened 17.96%
Table 2

South Australian Department of Correctional Services

Attrition Rates

 Psychologically Not Psychologically
 Employment Status Screened (IFP) Screened

Currently Employed 89.9% 72.4%
Resigned - Reason Unknown 4.1% 2.6%
Terminated - Unsuitable 0% 1.7%
Resigned - Own Accord 4.1% 21.6%
Transferred to Attorney 0.7% 0%
General's Office
Transferred to Police Department 1.4% 1.7%
Table 3

South Australian Department of Correctional Services

 Average Sick Days
 Total (N) (Per Week)

Psychologically Screened 100 .23
Not Psychologically Screened 81 .45
Table 4

Queensland Department of Corrective Services

Attrition Rates

Employment Status Psychologically Not Psychologically
After 24 Months Screened Screened

Total (N) 429 440
Overall Attrition Rate 8.8% 23.2%
Resigned 4.7% 10.7%
Contract Not Renewed 4% 11.4%
After Probation
Dismissed 0% 1.1%
Table 5

Queensland Department of Corrective Services

Use of Sick Leave

 Total (N) Average Sick Days (Per Year)

Psychologically Screened 429 4.94
Not Psychologically Screened 440 9.12


Azen, S., H. Snibbe and H. Montgomery. 1973. A longitudinal predictive study of success and performance of law enforcement officers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 57(2):190-192.

Belluck, P. 2001. Desperate for prison guards, some states even rob cradles. The New York Times. April 21, p.1.

Blau, T. 1994. Psychological services for law enforcement. New York: John Wiley.

Byrne, K. 1994. Use of specialized psychological assessment methods in the selection of applicants to the Victoria Police Department. Clilton Hill, Victoria: Australian Institute for Forensic Psychology.

Byrne, K. 2001. Research into the effectiveness of the AIFP critical character assessment system for screening new custodial correctional officers. Clifton Hill, Victoria: Australian Institute for Forensic Psychology.

Casey, S., M. Dollard and T. Winefield. 2001. Selection of correctional service officers. Work and Stress Research Group, Adelaide, South Australia: University of South Australia.

Choy, J. 1998. Reducing sick leave in correctional officers: The role of psychological appraisal. Brisbane, New South Wales: New South Wales Department of Corrective Services.

Guller, I. 1994. A follow-up study of appointed public safety officers and relationship of performance to measured psychological variables. Presented at the annual meeting of the New Jersey Chiefs of Police, June 22, 1994. Atlantic City, N.J.

Guller, M. 1999. Predicting Performance of Law Enforcement Personnel Using the Candidate and Officer Personnel and Other Psychological Instruments. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the New Jersey Chiefs of Police, June 23,1999. Atlantic City, NJ.

Heyer, T. 1998. A Follow-Up Study of the Prediction of Police Officer Performance on Psychological Evaluation Variables. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Minnesota School of Professional Psychology, Minneapolis. Roe, R and S. Roe. 1982. Police selection: A technical summary of validity studies. Orem, Utah: R Roe and S. Roe.

Strawbridge, P. and D. Strawbridge. 1990. A networking guide to recruitment, selection and probationary training of police officers in major police departments in the United States of America. New York: John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

U.S. Department of Justice. 1999. Law enforcement management and administrative statistics, 1997: Data for individual state and local agencies with 100 or more officers. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Washington, D.C.: .S. Government Printing Office.

Irving Guller, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and founder and director of the Institute for Forensic Psychology in Oakland, N.J. Kenneth Byrne, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and regional director of the Australian Institute for Forensic Psychology. Matthew Guller, J.D., is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology and corporate counsel to the institute.
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Author:Guller, Irving B.; Byrne, Kenneth; Guller, Matthew
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2002
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