Article: Who is deceiving whom?

Talent Acquisition

Who is deceiving whom?

The dilemma of integrity testing in workplace assessments
Who is deceiving whom?

"So near is falsehood to truth that a wise man would do well not to trust himself on the narrow edge."

— Cicero

“I want employees with integrity and real values.” This, and similar statements, seem to be a common theme in the hiring and development demands of employers across the workplace diaspora. It is entirely understandable that companies would want to employ and nurture individuals whom they perceive as honest, trustworthy, and unlikely to engage in deviant workplace behaviours. But is this enough? And how do we find out if people really are what they seem?

Defining Integrity

To explore the dilemma around integrity testing, it is essential to understand that definitions of “integrity”, in themselves, vary across the diverse needs of industries and regions. In many cases, organizations choose to outline what integrity is not, citing theft, sabotage, workplace violence, disciplinary issues, workplace loafing, absenteeism, dishonesty etc. as undesirable in an employment situation. The degree of undesirability of these behaviours varies depending on the company context. For instance, in a Retail scenario, theft would be a primary concern for employers, whereas in a Manufacturing setup, sabotage, absenteeism and discipline problems would surface as the most relevant issues that keep managers awake at night. For Services organizations, real-time issues around financial fraud and identity misrepresentation have become large-scale nightmares. 

The philosophical construct of integrity centres on the consistency of an individual’s actions and beliefs around a single core set of values. This implies that an individual should be able to sustain these values in order to maintain a consistent response when his or her values are challenged. However, for an organization, we must also then take into account what these values are. We need to be aware of an organization’s own cultural mindset when we discuss integrity. For instance, some companies turn a blind eye to employees pilfering office supplies or inflating the need for petty cash, whereas others have a zero-tolerance policy towards any such behaviour. The company’s leadership also plays a large role in sustaining and propagating an integrity mindset – Satyam Computers may not have faced a scandal had Ramalinga Raju not succumbed to the temptation to falsify accounts.

A scientific approach to individual choices therefore brings us to an analysis of personality preferences, and how they can have organizational impact. Personality-based research has identified dimensions around conscientiousness, emotional stability, social conformity etc. as linked to integrity. Conscientiousness seems to be the most definitive predictor from the Big Five personality traits that help to predict personality with relation to employment. This point of view seems to guide integrity measurement towards an additional element of outlining desirable workplace behaviours, rather than simply specifying what organizations do not want. 

Benefits of Measuring Integrity

It is clear that no organization would desire employees who cause direct or indirect loss of profit, through theft, sabotage, or negligence. Integrity tests make certain assumptions, specifically around the fact that persons with “low integrity” are more likely to behave dishonestly, find more reasons to justify this behaviour, commit workplace crimes, or be more impulsive at work. 

People and risk are two sides of the same coin, and highly disengaged people can be a risk for the business. There are subtle losses of employee productivity that come through passive-aggressive behaviour and deleterious influences on the morale of other employees. Employees displaying such traits may not be dishonest or lacking in the traditional definition of integrity, but may, all the same, negatively influence the workplace environment.

It seems clear, therefore, that measuring traditional “integrity” needs to go hand-in-hand with assessing “workplace effectiveness”, in terms of such behaviours as team orientation, communication, customer centricity, drive, motivation etc. Identifying unsuitable candidates, therefore, can save the employer from problems that might otherwise arise during their term of employment. 

Measurement Methodology

When a company decides to introduce integrity testing into its pre-employment screening or post-employment assessment methodology, it should be very clear on the nature of what is being measured as evidence of integrity (or the lack of it), how it is being measured, and how relevantly the accessible assessment data is being used in the company context.  

Historically, polygraph tests and other psychophysiological indicators such as pupillary dilation, fluctuations in heart-rate or blood pressure, skin temperature, respiration rate etc. were used to measure “dishonest” behaviour. The basic premise was that the behaviour of lying or evading the truth would cause the individual to “fear” detection. This “fear” would manifest itself through variations in physiological symptoms, which would then indicate a level of “deceitfulness”.

In the modern context, however, this “fear” may not be a measurable factor at all. The lines seem blurry between what constitutes deviance and what doesn’t. Media-fueled scandals, such as the Sreesanth match-fixing episode, and peoples’ varied reactions to it, make one wonder whether the benchmark for integrity has been lowered, or whether the definition of what constitutes deviant behaviour has changed altogether.

There are several measures of integrity available, most of which are self-report checklists (online or paper-pencil formats). These tests try to directly measure a person’s past behaviour and attitudes towards deviance, by instituting a checklist or rating scale that asks open, undisguised questions. Such tests are typically inexpensive, available off-the-shelf, and are fairly easy to administer. But do they work?

Faking a checklist-style integrity test is fairly easy. Most candidates would respond in “socially desirable” ways, i.e. not admitting to past deviant behaviour or not confirming their own personal beliefs around it. These overt integrity tests should therefore be validated before they are used to select people into jobs. Generally, this is done through criterion-related validity i.e. by showing that scores on the test correlate with employees stealing or engaging in counter-productive behaviour. It seems clear, though, that simply having a checklist to measure integrity and simultaneous disciplinary action are not the best way forward.

Efficacy of Personality-Based Measures

Personality-based measures that indicate likelihood of productive workplace behaviours tend to be less prone to faking, especially if they are designed to prevent socially desirable responses. The test items typically assess dependability, social conformity, thrill seeking, conscientiousness, flexibility, positive outlook, orderliness, diligence etc. on a Likert-type rating scale.

To link such personality measures to integrity, consider that a person who is highly flexible in his or her approach may attempt to see all sides of an integrity dilemma, and act accordingly. A person passionate about results may condone the blurring of certain boundaries to reach their goals. While these are mere assumptions, and may not hold true for many, thinking along these lines may give companies a more holistic idea of integrity in the modern cultural context than relying purely on a checklist measure.

Risks in Integrity Measurement

Issues around discrimination, adverse impact in screening out a higher proportion of minority group members, and wrongful dismissal are likely to crop up with indiscriminate checklist-type testing. In general, standalone integrity tests have lower face validity i.e. they may contain items that do not appear to be job-related or may seem to reveal candidates’ private thoughts. Questions around religious or moral beliefs can be seen as unrelated to employment and may become legally defensible. Candidates may then react to integrity tests as being unnecessarily invasive, and if there is no protection for the illegal use of the data, they can violate legal and ethical privacy standards. From these risks, it seems important for companies engaged in integrity testing to find a middle ground between intrusive testing and maintenance of employee privacy.

The Way Forward

Checklist-type integrity tests would have a higher return on investment in work settings where counter-productive behaviours such as theft, absenteeism etc. are highly disruptive to organizational functioning. Personality-based measures are more useful in assessing whether candidates have the potential to be successful in jobs where performance requires a high level of honesty, dependability and effectiveness. 

Integrity as a concept has evolved from simple avoidance of ineffective behaviour to an active display of effective behaviour. Its measurement, therefore, must also evolve from basic assessment of past or possible deviant behaviour towards likelihood of productive behaviour. Personality preferences provide insights into individual behaviour choices, and it may therefore be beneficial to use a personality-based measure when other measures such as cognitive tests are also included, in a holistic selection process that incorporates aptitude, attitude and ability.

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Topics: Talent Acquisition, Culture

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