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Can Employee Integrity Tests Identify Reliable Workers?

7 minute read
Lesley Harrison  avatar
Employee integrity tests are slowly losing popularity, but is that for good reason? Learn more about the potential (and ethics) of testing workers.

Employers want to trust their workers. But building trust takes time; it’s not something you can achieve during the interview process. Employee integrity tests aim to solve that problem, but with many people questioning their accuracy and morality, do they provide a real solution?

Let’s dive in deeper to learn more about integrity testing and the controversy surrounding it.

What Is Employee Integrity Testing?

Employee integrity testing is a form of pre-employment screening that companies use to determine how honest a person is.

It isn't the same as a criminal history or credit check. Rather than looking at past behavior, it looks at a person's attitude and outlook and how they might behave in the future.

Most integrity tests ask candidates to answer yes or no to a series of questions, such as:

  • Do you ever lie to your spouse?
  • Have you ever called in sick when you weren’t?
  • Do other people consider you to be trustworthy?
  • Do you consider taking small items from work stealing?
  • Would you turn in a co-worker you caught stealing from work?
  • Have you ever argued with your manager over a task?

According to research conducted by Princeton University, between 5,000 and 6,000 business establishments in the United States use honesty and integrity tests when selecting job applicants.

Businesses typically use these tests when hiring for entry-level or non-managerial positions, such as retail work. The goal is to screen out people likely to engage in dishonest or counterproductive behavior, like theft, tardiness, sick leave misuse and absenteeism.

Related Article: The Impact of Automation on Employee Experience

How Did Integrity Testing Come About?

The idea of hiring employees who uphold certain values is nothing new. Henry Ford is well-known for having paid his employees $5 a day (far above the average for the time), partly as a bonus for those who upheld what he defined as American values.

Below is Ford's first "factory" in Detroit, where he worked on his first gas car before he founded the Ford Motor Company and hired employees. 

Henry Ford's first factory in Detroit
Wikimedia Commons

Ford introduced the higher pay rate to reduce turnover among his staff. As Forbes writer Tim Worstall explained, "In 1913, Ford hired 52,000 men to keep a workforce of only 14,000. New workers required a costly break-in period, making matters worse for the company. Also, some men simply walked away from the line to quit and look for a job elsewhere."

Ford knew that he was more likely to retain workers by paying more than other companies. So, he offered a base rate of around $2.50 per day, with a bonus attached for employees who behaved in desirable ways, such as avoiding drinking, gambling and learning English.

Women could receive the bonus if they were single and supporting the family. Married men were eligible for the bonus only if their wives were not working outside the home.

Today’s values have changed quite a bit, and most employers aren’t focused on evaluating ongoing behavior choices like Ford. Still, they want to see if a candidate’s ethics align with the company’s. And so, modern integrity testing was born.

Is Employee Integrity Testing Legal?

Historically, some questions have been raised about the legality of integrity tests. In particular, tests that ask potentially discriminatory questions about a person's religion or sexuality have been challenged in court.

Massachusetts is the only state to ban any written test designed to determine an applicant’s integrity. Most employers can get away with such screening practices in other states as long as they don’t include discriminatory questions (those that focus on race, religion, gender, etc.)

Integrity tests became popular after the US banned polygraph testing in 1988. While integrity tests remain popular today, especially for selecting entry-level employees, the increased awareness of potentially discriminatory practices (and algorithms) has some employers asking questions.

Are Employee Integrity Tests Effective?

When used alongside other hiring methods, researchers from the University of Minnesota found employee integrity tests to be helpful in identifying and reducing negative behaviors.

But there’s one problem. Most people know what the “correct” answers are, making it easy for dishonest people to choose the answer they think the employer wants. Consider one example question from above: Do you ever lie to your spouse? The correct answer is very obviously “no.”

Well-designed integrity tests work around this by repeating questions with different wording to catch people who aren't answering honestly. Some also use veiled purpose questions, or questions without an obvious correct answer, to identify behaviors.

For example, Princeton’s research cited the question, "Do you make your bed?" This question highlights a desirable behavior without making an apparent moral judgment.

It's important to remember that integrity testing is just one part of the hiring equation. While it often outperforms more basic personality testing or interviews, testers can fake answers, and because the answers are usually yes/no or agree/disagree, they lack nuance.

Learning Opportunities

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Identifying Cheaters on Integrity Tests

Harrison Gough designed one of the earliest modern integrity tests. He created a list of covert questions that became part of the California Psychological Inventory, published in 1956. The questions focused on emotional maturity and conscientiousness rather than more obvious topics like lies and theft.

Gough's test also had questions designed to detect dishonesty. Specific questions were weighted, meaning if someone gave repeated "too good to be true" answers, they were flagged. Modern tests include these weighted questions and also cover topics like sociability and introversion/extroversion.

Test makers can tailor these questions to suit specific professions or concerns. AT&T, for example, uses this practice when hiring customer service representatives, allowing them to find candidates who are good salespeople and weed out applicants deemed likely to steal, cheat or defraud the company.

Honest Answers Aren't Always Desirable Ones

Employers should be mindful that testing using yes/no questions doesn't always paint an accurate picture of how someone thinks or behaves. A dishonest person may confidently state that thieves should be jailed or that it's never okay to leave work before the end of your shift.

An honest person, however, may believe in second chances or rehabilitation of offenders and wouldn't jail someone for a one-off petty theft. Alternatively, they may answer, "It's sometimes okay to leave work early," envisioning a rare scenario, such as a loved one involved in an accident. These "shades of gray" are much easier to work out during face-to-face interviews.

It's also worth considering that faking isn't always a bad thing. In one older but still highly relevant study from researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the Center for Human Function & Work, it’s theorized that "faking on pre-employment personality inventories is not a problem."

The study elaborated that it’s “a positive indicator of performance for many jobs, in part because the ability to fake suggests social skills that are functional to job performance."

Given this knowledge, employers must be mindful of potentially eliminating compatible new hires due to a failed integrity test. While some companies that use pass/fail integrity tests report having a better pool of employees as a result, over-zealous testing could rule out otherwise exemplary hires (SHRM).

Sometimes Risk-Takers Make Sense

While the desire to hire honest, reliable workers willing to follow orders is understandable, there are scenarios where risk-taking makes sense. Start-up companies, for example, may benefit from employees who are ambitious, innovative and willing to take chances.

Pairing employee integrity tests with cognitive testing, and looking for applicants who fit the company culture and have the necessary skills, could be a valuable candidate selection method.

One American Psychological Association study showed that pairing general mental ability (GMA) tests with integrity testing is one of the strongest psychological selection methods available for hiring both entry-level and experienced job candidates.

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The Verdict on Employee Integrity Tests

Integrity testing, if done correctly and paired with other hiring strategies, can offer a lot of benefits. However, with the potential for discrimination, the easy ability to select the “correct” answers and the question of whether total honesty is best, it can be a tricky slope to navigate.

Ultimately, many companies who use this type of employee screening work with expert consultants on the matter to ensure their testing practices are fully-vetted and offer maximum results.

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