Issue Briefs

Following is an article from a recent MSPB publication examining the pros and cons of “integrity testing” in federal employment.

Much has been written about making Federal hiring faster and simpler. But Federal hiring also needs to become better if the merit system principle of “selection on the basis of relative ability” is to mean something more than picking the candidate with the shiniest resume and the brightest smile and hoping for the best. Integrity tests could be an option.

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What is integrity and why does it matter? The online Cambridge Dictionary defines integrity as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change.” Integrity is essential to the fair and lawful exercise of Government powers and to public trust in Government. OPM’s online assessment and selection guidance indicates that a lack of integrity in employees is associated with counterproductive behaviors such theft, violence, sabotage, and absenteeism. Other research shows that an absence of integrity in organizations is implicated in prohibited personnel practices, corruption, and even political instability.

Can integrity be used in hiring decisions? Yes. First, as noted above, integrity is job-related. Second, integrity is already part of Federal hiring through the suitability and clearance processes. (We note that an integrity test is not a substitute for these processes.) Finally, integrity can be reliably and usefully measured. Consistent with rigorous professional research, OPM’s assessment and selection guidance further notes that “[i]ntegrity tests have been found to measure some of the same factors as standard personality tests, particularly conscientiousness, and perhaps some aspects of emotional stability and agreeableness” and have acceptable face validity and little or no adverse impact.

How do integrity tests work? There are two broad types of integrity testing. A personality-oriented test is indirect, using items about characteristics that are related to integrity. An overt test is direct, using statements or questions about integrity-related behaviors and attitudes. A sample statement from such a test might be, “Under the right circumstance, it is okay to steal from your employer.” The result is a measure of a candidate’s skill at impression management and ability to reject clearly unacceptable behaviors. While this strategy may seem too obvious to succeed (won’t every applicant just provide the “right” answers?), it turns out that while most people can pass the test with ease, some cannot. That is why an integrity test can work—but it does limit how the results can be used.

How are the results of an integrity test used? Unlike most assessments, which are used to identify the most promising candidates, an integrity test is generally used to identify the least promising candidates. The goal is to screen out the small percentage of candidates who are clearly problematic or likely to fall out at later, more costly stages of the hiring process (such as the background investigation). Used this way, the integrity test is a form of insurance: it guards against spending too much time and money on a candidate who should not be hired.

What are some possible costs and benefits of integrity tests? Integrity tests are specialized assessments with a specialized use. Unlike occupational questionnaires, they cannot be the primary or default assessment for every job to be filled. They are best suited to jobs with a high volume of applicants, a high cost per hire, and a high cost of error. The table below outlines some potential costs and benefits of adding an integrity test to the hiring process.

Costs

• Resources. Money and time may be needed for administration, scoring, and integration.

• Time. The integrity test will add a step to the hiring process.

• Integration. Assessment and decisionmaking processes—and perhaps automated systems—will need to be modified.

Benefits

• Avoiding a bad hire. The integrity test may screen out a “bad actor” who might otherwise slip through the cracks.

• Branding. Integrity tests can send the message that integrity is truly important to the organization.

• Efficiency. Integrity tests can help screen out applicants before they reach the more costly assessments or lengthy background investigations.

Are integrity tests the answer to all the Federal Government’s hiring challenges? No. But under the right circumstances, they may be part of the solution.