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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