How Good Are Integrity Tests?

By Lasson, Elliot D. | Personnel Journal, April 1992 | Go to article overview

How Good Are Integrity Tests?

Lasson, Elliot D., Personnel Journal

Have you ever changed price tags in a store because the prices were too high? Rick--who encounters this question in pre-employment test--finds this type of inquiry to be intrusive and irrelevant, when compared with such important skills as mathematical aptitude.

An increasing number of organizations use similar items from commercially marketed tests to screen out the had apples from their applicant pool. The rationale is that employees prone to impropriety or theft cost the company more than those who lack the skills to pay out proper change. If these workers are screened out it's worth the cost of the test. Honesty or integrity tests are geared toward either low-level jobs in retail settings or other positions in which individuals have access to cash or merchandise.

The term honesty test is a misnomer. First, to consider them as tests is inaccurate because it implies that there are correct and incorrect answers. The responses to these tests are compared with a normative set of responses, rather than some absolute standard. Second, they identify individuals who wouldn't be detrimental to their organizations, rather than those possessing the psychological trait called honesty.

Philip Ash, a pioneer in researching this field, prefers the term employee theft proneness to honesty, because the real target of these questionnaires is theft. Researchers have broadened this definition to include such constructs as counterproductivity and other aspects of employee deviance. The underlying premise is that such activities as theft of time can be just as detrimental to the organization as taking office supplies without authorization.

In reality, integrity tests are a specialized species of a family of commonly used tests that are administered for selection and purport to measure personality characteristics. Global personality tests presently on the market include the California Personality Inventory (CPI), the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI), and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI).

The typical paper-and-pencil honesty test has two types of items. The first type asks respondents about past behaviors regarding their theft or impropriety. The second kind of item probes individuals' attitudes toward deviance or theft, both in organizations and in society at large. Often the test form asks for other information, such as educational background and employment history. Some tests include a section regarding past involvement with alcohol and drugs, For all of these item types, the underlying premise is that the behaviors and attitudes of people are relatively consistent. How people have behaved in the past will be a good indicator of how they'll behave in the future.

A 1977 study of the American Management Association reported an approximate annual loss of $40 billion from employee theft in this country. This illustrates the concern some companies have expressed in this area.

The Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 prohibited the use of the polygraph except in very restricted situations. One of the major flaws with the polygraph is its unreliability. As a result of the law, increasing numbers of written indices of honesty have been entering the market. There are now approximately 50 commercially published integrity tests.

One of the ways in which the benefits of an honesty testing program may be demonstrated is by measuring inventory losses (or shrinkage) before and after introduction of the test. In fact, some test publishers use the shrinkage criterion to substantiate their claims that a test is effective. This type of analysis usually is restricted to positions and organizations in which shrinkage estimates are easy to compute, however, such as in retail settings. In other types of organizations--such as service organizations--shrinkage estimates are either difficult to calculate or unavailable. Consequently, the tests' usefulness generally has been restricted to retail settings. …

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