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Applicant Tests: Integrity and Polygraph Tests

Selecting the right test for an applicant to your business probably won’t be a problem because choices abound. Dozens of commercial test publishers collectively produce thousands of tests. You can find out about these tests by looking in two reference books — Tests in Print and Mental Measurements Yearbook, both published by the Buros Center for Testing.

Other sources are regional government or nonprofit employment agencies, which may even conduct some of the testing for you. The business centers of local colleges also may provide test materials or at least point you in the right direction (or connect you with an expert who can lead you through the testing thicket). When engaging a staffing firm, the recruiter often handles testing in such areas as computer software skills.

Integrity tests

What do they do? Measure an individual’s personal honesty and sense of integrity. These tests generally include questions on situations of ethical choice. For instance, what should an employee do if she sees a co-worker stealing? Or they include questions that can reveal personal standards of behavior — whether the candidate can follow simple procedures and keep company information confidential.

Why would you use them? An employer needs to determine how an applicant may behave in a position of trust — handling cash or safeguarding property, for example. A test of this nature is designed to identify people who may be too unreliable to trust with the company cookie jar. Most employers understand that honest people make the best employees.

Keep in mind, however, that integrity tests must be job related. You can’t ask questions about an applicant’s level of debt or credit rating (a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act). Tests must remain free of bias based on race, sex, age, or any other protected trait.

As is the case with personality and psychological testing, these tests are very risky legally, with many privacy issues to consider. Talk to a lawyer before using this form of testing.

How reliable are they? Depends on the exact test. Research has shown that some of these tests can produce reliable, unbiased information, while others aren’t very accurate at all.

Polygraph (lie-detector) tests

What do they do? Measure stress-related physiological changes, such as blood pressure, sweating, and body temperature, to detect untrue statements.

Why would you use them? Employers need to ensure that people who are being hired for jobs with critical security implications are telling the truth about their backgrounds.

How reliable are they? Depends on who you ask. The skill of the person administering the test also matters. Most experts agree that a competent polygraph operator usually can detect falsehoods from an average individual, provided that person hasn’t taken any number of drugs that can modify the reactions the machine measures.

The problem is the sociopath with no concept of right or wrong who slides right by. The legal community mistrusts polygraphs enough that their results are inadmissible as evidence in any U.S. court.

Be aware that the passage of the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 prohibits private employers — except under certain conditions — from conducting polygraph tests either on employees or on job applicants. (The same holds true, incidentally, for other devices that purport to measure honesty, such as voice stress analyzers.) Under this law, you can’t even ask an applicant to take a polygraph test.

Some states ban the use of polygraph tests in employment decisions, including in hiring. You should consult a lawyer with experience in this area before using or relying on the results of any polygraph test.

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