The Development of a Structured Ethical Integrity for Pre-Employment Screening

By Hollwitz, John C.; Pawlowski, Donna R. | The Journal of Business Communication, April 1997 | Go to article overview

The Development of a Structured Ethical Integrity for Pre-Employment Screening


Hollwitz, John C., Pawlowski, Donna R., The Journal of Business Communication


Workplace ethics has become an important concern for business educators, researchers, and practitioners. Today, the business community seems to accept an obligation to common norms for right action, at least in principle. Some professional societies are explicitly devoted to business ethics; applied ethics is a popular topic at meetings and seminars; and several professional journals are now devoted to the subject (Murphy, 1993). Apart from issues of social justice, ethical behavior makes good business sense. Unethical behavior is expensive. Discriminatory practices, negligent hiring, and product quality failure can incur large legal judgments. In the United States, employee malfeasance costs companies $15 billion to $50 billion per year. The value of white collar deviance alone is one thousand percent of the annual loss incurred by all street crimes and burglaries. Thirty percent of American bankruptcies are substantially attributable to workers who willfully disregard company norms and social law (Bernardin & Cooke, 1993; Jones & Terris, 1991a, 1991b; Kochkin, 1987: Meinsma, 1985; Murphy, 1993; Shepard & Duston, 1988).

Today, many companies use pre-employment integrity tests to detect job applicants who are likely to violate standards of appropriate behavior. These tests are controversial. Although critics claim that research and ethical practice cannot support the use of these measures for employee selection, supporters have reached the opposite conclusion (Dalton & Metzger, 1993; Dalton, Wimbush, & Daily, 1994; Goldberg, Grenier, Guion, Sechrest, & Wing 1991; Guastello & Rieke, 1991; Martin, 1991; Martin & Terris, 1994; Murphy, 1987; U.S. Congress, Office of Technological Assessment, 1990). Support for integrity testing is based on three conclusions. First, a growing consensus holds that pre-employment integrity tests predict important job-related criteria regardless of job type or setting. It is reasoned the tests tap broad personality constructs, such as "work conscientiousness," which influences a wide range of job attitudes and behaviors. Second, the tests lack adverse impact against females or members of racial and ethnic minorities. Third, applicants generally regard the tests as appropriate for job screening (Murphy, 1993; Ones, Viswesvaran, & Schmidt, 1993; Sackett, Burris, & Callahan, 1989; Sackett & Harris, 1984).

Despite growing support, existing tests suffer from at least three deficiencies with respect to workplace ethics. First, they focus on honesty, rule compliance, and impulse control. These attitudes and behaviors may not represent the full domain of ethical behavior. The second problem about existing tests is more practical. Honesty tests are expensive proprietary products, costing from $16 to $50 per form, and publishers frequently hesitate to release their tests for independent investigation (Lillienfeld, Alliger, & Mitchell, 1995; LoBello & Sims, 1993; Martelli, 1988). In addition to these problems, existing tests are neither designed nor validated for employee selection (Cohen, Pant, & Sharp, 1993; Reidenbach & Robin, 1990). The constraints of cost, proprietary control, and design suggest that it would be fruitful to develop and investigate alternatives to commercial honesty tests.

One alternative is to create an employment interview measure that focuses on ethical integrity. There at least two benefits of this method. First, gathering ethical data about applicants in this manner would be economical. Although interviews are not cost-free (Schmitt, 1976; Ulrich & Trumbo, 1965), most organizations routinely conduct interviews with applicants. Second, the approach could increase the legal defensibility of pre-employment ethics screening, since some states prohibit employers from administering any sort of written integrity measure (O'Bannon, Goldinger, & Appleby, 1989). To date, no statute excludes honesty or integrity interviews. …

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