Testing for Honesty
Case 9.2 Testing for Honesty
“ Charity begins at home.” If you don’t think so, ask the Salvation Army. Some years ago, one of the
Army’s local branches discovered that it had a problem with theft among its kettle workers, the people
who collect money for the Army during the Christmas season. Some of the Army’s kettlers were helping
themselves to the Army’s donations before the organization had a chance to dole out the money. To put
a stop to the problem, Army officials sought the assistance of Dr. John Jones, director of research for
London House Management Consultants. London House is one of several companies that market honesty
tests for prospective employees. 117 Although reliable figures are impossible to come by, the U. S.
Chamber of Commerce believes that as many as 75 percent of employees may steal and that 30 percent
of bankruptcies stem from employee theft. Even if these figures are exaggerated, no one doubts the
problem is serious. Honesty- test makers say the only way to deal with the problem is before workers
are hired— by subjecting them to a pre- employment psychological test that will identify those
prospective employees who are likely to steal. James Walls, one of the founders of Stanton Corporation,
which has offered written honesty tests for twenty- five years, says that dishonest job applicants are
clever at hoodwinking potential employers in a job interview. “ They have a way of conducting
themselves that is probably superior to the low-risk person. They have learned what it takes to be
accepted and how to overcome the normal interview strategy,” he says. “ The high- risk person will get
hired unless there is a way to screen him.” For this reason, Walls maintains, written, objec-tive tests are
needed to weed out the crooks. Millions of written honesty tests are given annually, thanks to
congressional restrictions on polygraph testing. In addition to being legal, honesty tests are also
economical because they cost only a fraction of what polygraph tests cost. Furthermore, honesty tests
are easily administered at the workplace and can be quickly evaluated by the test maker. The tests also
are nondiscriminatory because the race, gender, or ethnicity of applicants has no significant impact on
scores. A typical test begins with some cautionary remarks. Test tak-ers are told to be truthful because
dishonesty can be detected, and they are warned that incomplete answers will be considered incorrect,
as will any unanswered questions. Then applicants ordinarily sign a waiver permitting the results to be
shown to their prospective employer and authorizing the testing agency to check out their answers.
Sometimes, however, prospective employees are not told that they are being tested for honesty, only
that they are being asked questions about their background. James Walls justifies this less- than- frank
explanation by saying that within a few questions it is obvious that the test deals with attitudes
toward honesty. “ The test is very transparent, it’s not subtle.” Some questions do indeed seem
transparent— for example, “ If you found $ 100 that was lost by a bank truck on the street yesterday,
would you turn the money over to the bank, even though you knew for sure there was no reward?” But
other questions are more controversial: “ Have you ever had an argu-ment with someone and later
wished you had said something else?” If you were to answer no, you would be on your way to failing.
Other questions that may face the test taker are “ How strong is your conscience?” “ How often do you
feel guilty?” “ Do you always tell the truth?” “ Do you occasionally have thoughts you wouldn’t want
made public?” “ Does everyone steal a little?” “ Do you enjoy stories of successful crimes?” “ Have you
ever been so intrigued by the cleverness of a thief that you hoped the person would escape detection?”
Or consider questions like “ Is an employee who takes it easy at work cheating his employer?” or “ Do
you think a person should be fired by a company if it is found that he helped employees cheat the
company out of overtime once in a while?” These ask you for your reaction to hypothetical dishonest
situations. “ If you are a particularly kind-hearted person who isn’t sufficiently punitive, you fail,” says
Lewis Maltby, director of the workplace rights office at the American Civil Liberties Union. “ Mother
Teresa would never pass some of these tests.” A big part of some tests is a behavioral history of the
appli-cant. Applicants are asked to reveal the nature, frequency, and quantity of specific drug use, if
any. They also must indicate if they have ever engaged in drunk driving, illegal gambling, traf-fic
violations, forgery, vandalism, and a host of other unseemly behaviors. They must also state their
opinions about the social acceptability of drinking alcohol and using other drugs. Some testing
companies go further in this direction. Instead of honesty exams, they offer tests designed to draw a
general psychological profile of the applicant, claiming that this sort of analysis can predict more
accurately than either the polygraph or the typical honesty test how the person will perform on the
job. Keith M. Halperin, a psychologist with Personnel Decision, Inc. ( PDI), a company that offers such
tests, complains that most paper- and- pencil honesty tests are simply written equivalents of the
polygraph. They ask applicants whether they have stolen from their employers, how much they have
taken, and other questions directly related to honesty. “ But why,” asks Halperin, “ would an applicant
who is dishonest enough to steal from an employer be honest enough to admit it on a written test?” It is
more difficult for applicants to fake their responses to PDI’s tests, Halperin contends. Not everyone is
persuaded. Phyllis Bassett, vice president of James Bassett Company of Cincinnati, believes tests
developed by psychologists that do not ask directly about the applicant’s past honesty are poor
predictors of future trust-worthiness. This may be because, as some psychologists report, “ it is very
difficult for dishonest people to fake hon-esty.” One reason is that thieves tend to believe that “
every-body does it” and that therefore it would be implausible for them to deny stealing. In general,
those who market honesty exams boast of their validity and reliability, as established by field studies.
They insist that the tests do make a difference, that they enable employers to ferret out potential
trouble-makers— as in the Salvation Army case. Dr. Jones administered London House’s PSI to eighty
ket-tler applicants, which happened to be the number that the particular theft- ridden center needed.
The PSIs were not scored, and the eighty applicants were hired with no screen-ing. Throughout the fund-
raising month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the center kept a record of each kettler’s daily
receipts. After the Christmas season, the tests were scored and divided into “ recommended” and “ not
recommended” for employment. After accounting for the peculiarities of each collection neighborhood,
Jones discovered that those kettlers the PSI had not recommended turned in on the average $ 17 per
day less than those the PSI had recommended. Based on this analysis, he estimated the center’s loss to
employee theft during the fund drive at $ 20,000. The list of psychological- test enthusiasts is growing
by leaps and bounds, but the tests have plenty of detractors. Many psychologists have voiced concern
over the lack of standards governing the tests; the American Psychological Association favors the
establishment of federal standards for written honesty exams. But the chief critics of honesty and other
psychological exams are the people who have to take them. They complain about having to reveal some
of the most intimate details of their lives and opinions. For example, until an employee filed suit, Rent- A-
Center, a Texas corporation, asked both job applicants and employ-ees being considered for promotion
true- false questions like these: “ I have never indulged in any unusual sex prac-tices,” “ I am very
strongly attracted by members of my own sex,” “ I go to church almost every week,” and “ I have diffi-
culty in starting or holding my bowel movements.” A man-ager who was fired for complaining about the
test says, “ It was ridiculous. The test asked if I loved tall women. How was I supposed to answer that?
My wife is 5 feet 3 inches.” A spokesman for Rent- A- Center argues that its question-naire is not unusual
and that many other firms use it. Firms who use tests like Rent- A- Center’s believe that no one’s privacy
is being invaded because employees and job applicants can always refuse to take the test. Critics disa-
gree. “ Given the unequal bargaining power,” says former ACLU official Kathleen Bailey, “ the ability to
refuse to take a test is one of theory rather than choice— if one really wants the job.”
1. Describe how you’d feel if you had to take a psychologi-cal test or an honesty test either as an
employee or as a precondition for employment. Under what conditions, if any, would you take such a
2. How useful or informative do you think such tests are? Is their use a reasonable business policy?
Assuming that tests like those described are valid and reliable, are they fair? Explain.
3. Do you think tests like these invade privacy and, if so, that this invasion is justified? Explain why or
4. What ideals, obligations, and effects must be consid-ered in using psychological tests as pre-
employment screens? In your view, which is the most important consideration?
5. If you were an employer, would you require either employ-ees or job applicants to pass an honesty
exam? Explain the moral principles that support your position.
6. What do you think a business’s reaction would be if the government required its executive officers to
submit to an honesty test as a precondition for the company’s getting a government contract? If, in
your opinion, the business would object, does it have any moral grounds for subject-ing workers to
7. Utilitarians would not find anything inherently objec-tionable about psychological tests as long as
the interests of all parties were taken into account and given equal consideration before such tests
were made a pre- employment screen. Do you think this is generally the case?
8. Should there be a law prohibiting or regulating psychological tests as a pre- employment screen?
Should a decision to use these tests be made jointly by management and labor, or is testing for
employment an exclusive employer right?
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