Personality Testing and the ADA

I wanted to wait until the furor (well, within I/O psychology circles) over the Wall St. Journal article on personality testing died down a bit before commenting on it. Articles in the popular press on HR and industrial psychology topics are always have a bit of “they sky is falling!” quality, and this one is no different. The article outlines questions from the EEOC and some plaintiffs as to whether common personality tests discriminate against those with mental illnesses such as depression, bi-polar disorder, etc.

Here’s the most important part of the article:

In general, though, “if a person’s results are affected by the fact that they have an impairment and the results are used to exclude the person from a job, the employer needs to defend their use of the test even if the test was lawful and administered correctly,” says Christopher Kuczynski, EEOC acting associate legal counsel.

Guess what? That is EXACTLY the current law having to do with discrimination by race, gender, and age when using pre-employment tests. If you use a test that leads to protected groups scoring differently you need to show that the test is job related and there isn’t a better way to select on that trait or ability. So, why the big deal?

The test publishers hate this kind of scrutiny because it brings individual items out into the public. It is hard to make the case that your test is “fair” when some of the items look strange out of context. Target learned this the hard way. Also, no one likes to explain science to the public. Doing so just makes the current hole you are standing in deeper.

I think the EEOC is fishing here. They’re a little bored in this arena since class action pre-employment testing cases have pretty much gone away since Wards Cove. They tried to bully Sears when no one was stepping forward to sue, but only got a $100,000 settlement (far less than the cost of going to class action trial). I also think they will lose (or get small settlements to make them go away) in these disability cases.

The difficulty the EEOC will face is that the medications for the illnesses involved are effective. As a result, it’s likely that the test scores for those who take them will be similar to the rest of the population. Drug treatment for depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, etc are so prevalent that I have to believe that the passing rates for this group on personality tests is about the same as the general the population.

Where employers will get in trouble is when they do not have documentation showing that the particular personality construct they are measuring is a critical part of the job and that the test predicts it. Many companies take validity generalization for granted without doing the required job analysis work. And, as always, employers really need to look at the test items they are using before implementing any instrument and determine if the risk of using the is worth the potential value.

If the EEOC is serious about pursuing these kinds of cases, employers will need to rethink their job analysis and posting processes. For instance, most job postings list the physical demands of a job. I can see a section on the mental demands of the job (Must be able to work under mentally stressful conditions for long periods of time; Must be able to maintain focus throughout the day; etc).

The employment rights of those with mental illnesses should be protected. We have come a long way in recognizing, treating, and de-stigmatizing these conditions. However, suing over legitimate pre-employment tests is a solution looking for a problem.

For more information on pre-employment test validation, please contact Warren Bobrow at 310 670-4175.

Implementing a Wide-Scale Culture of Service

We read plenty about cultures of service. Whenever we purchase a product or visit an establishment, we have an expectation of service, which is usually correlated with how much we are paying for it. However, good customer service is more than call center representatives saying the right things. This culture must permeate the entire organization in order to drive business results. If you are in the consumer products business, your level of customer service flows through the entire chain of your business—easy to use products, friendly sales people, user friendly websites, quality technical support, etc. Any weak link will negatively affect customers, referrals, and return business. But, what if your organization is a whole city?

Those in charge of promoting tourism in Steamboat Springs decided that their customer service ratings were not high enough. The city competes with other towns for tourism dollars, so there is more at stake than just saying they are the friendliest place around.

As described in the article, this effort showed some classic examples of change management: There was a true champion of the project, skepticism had to be overcome, training initially took place with a small group who then became evangelists, and results were measured (and they were not as clear-cut as I am sure they had hoped).

One of the things that I liked was that they did not “pick” on one industry (restaurants, for example). Training took place in several areas that would touch customers.   They also addressed hiring practices, which can be tough to do in a small labor pool. They focused on interviewing, but there are many good pre-employment testing practices that could also be used to hire people who are likely to delivery quality customer service. Lastly, they are sticking with their program—this indicates that they are serious about making customer service a priority.

This case should provide hope for those of you trying to implement any type of organizational-wide initiative. It shows that if the project resonates with others, and can be shown to clearly impact them, diverse groups can come together and change, even they are not part of the same company. The city is also showing that a culture of service can be implemented on a wide-scale if everyone is involved.

For more information about improving customer service in your organization, please contact Warren Bobrow.

Unintended, But Predictable Consequences

I’ve written before (here and here) on the LA Fire Department’s struggles in implementing a valid and fair way to hire firefighters. They started with a poorly conceived random system that favored those with inside knowledge to cull the applicant pool. Then the politicians got involved. Then they implemented lottery which is weighted by gender and race. What do you think happened next?

That’s right, a brewing lawsuit. Many people react negatively to quotas and they are illegal. The city’s implicit hypothesis, that the ability to be a good firefighter is randomly distributed across gender and race in the applicant pool, is untested. Note that none of the quotations from the city in the article say anything about hiring the best applicants. They just want the process to be numerically unbiased (35% white males in the applicant pool, then 35% of the test takers will be white males).

The next question is whether these quotas will be extended to the step after the test. Will applicants be selected on the test in a top-down fashion until that group’s slots are filled? This will, of course, lead to a lawsuit from someone who was not allowed to move on scoring higher on the test than someone who was. Or, will the city be satisfied that the pool of test takers is representative of the applicants and let the test do its job? At this point, the city holds its breath and hopes that the test doesn’t have adverse impact. Otherwise, they will have to explain why it was OK to take action to ensure that candidates represented the applicant pool at one stage of the process but not another.

Of course there will always be challenges to police and fire tests—they are high profile positions that attract a lot of applicants and have seen patterns of discrimination in the past. The high ground was to focus on the quality of hire from the beginning. The city chose not to do that, so they will be on the defensive the rest of the way.

For more information on pre-employment testing and talent management, please contact Warren Bobrow at 310 670-4175.

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