Under Surveillance

Article excerpt

Is he honest? Smart? Emotionally stable? In the past, recruiters answered such questions by calling up a job candidate's previous employers.

Times have changed. With libel issues a prime concern, employers now are limiting themselves to giving name, rank and serial number in response to reference checks.

So how does a recruiter assess a job candidate? These days HR executives are turning to alternative-and often controversial-screening methods: pencil and paper honesty tests, IQ tests, psychological assessments and in-depth background searches by private investigators.

"You really don't know who is coming through the door," says Thomas Norton, president of Fidelifacts, a firm that investigates j ob applicants. And, he adds, companies need to protect themselves. "In the last couple of years, the courts have been finding for the plaintiffs more and more in negligent hiring cases."

But such screening methods have their critics. Law suits can threaten employers who use certain tests inappropriately. In addition, critics question whether the screening methods provide good information to employers and if they are fair to applicants.

"There are problems with reliability with virtually all these methods," says Lewis Maltby, who chairs the ACLU's Task Force on Civil Liberties in the Workplace. It's amazing that companies that are smart enough to stay in business can use some of these methods to choose their employees. We're even seeing increasing numbers using handwriting analysis." Honesty tests: Written, multiple choice or yes/no tests that purport to indicate an applicant's integrity gained many followers after polygraphs were banned for most companies in 1988. Although several states have lie detector statutes that may apply to written tests, only Massachusetts bans them outright. There, says industrial psychologist Michael Hurst, "many companies use the tests anyway. They may not realize it's illegal'"

Written honesty tests are especially popular with retail managers. They are used by 28 percent of wholesale and retail trade companies that responded to an annual survey conducted by the American Management Association (AMA).

Evidence for or against the tests is sketchy, says Linda Goldinger, an HR consultant based in Georgia. She recently coauthored a book on the tests and now is a member of a panel evaluating them for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment; a previous study by the organization led to the law banning polygraphs. Studies show that the honesty tests eliminate about half of the pool of test-takers.

Maltby faults the tests for imprecision. "If you give the tests to 100 convicted embezzlers and 100 nuns"' he says, "the embezzlers really do have worse scores, but in the real world of the company you aren't differentiating between felons and nuns, but between average people.

In fact, a nun, Sister Terressa of Minneapolis, was rejected from a part-time job because she failed a written honesty test, according to an ACLU briefing. According to the ACLU, very honest people may be most likely to produce false-positive results by admitting to dishonesty that even the test scorers would consider trivial. For instance, someone who had once taken home a Post-it pad might answer "yes" to a question asking if she had ever stolen from an employer.

Apparently, other factors also can distort test results. One recruiter was about to hire an apparently sterling job candidate until a poor score on an honesty test made the company pull back the reins. But before sending him on his way, the recruiter checked with the test publisher. The response: His management background could skew the results, because managers tend to be more cynical about human nature and the test asks many questions like "how many employees steal from their companies?"

Judy Dold tells the reverse story. A candidate passed the test with flying colors and later proved dishonest. …