Is there a psychological test that will allow you to flag employee dishonesty?

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Is there a psychological test that will allow you to flag employee dishonesty?

January 21, 2023

We recently were asked this question by a dentist and thought that discussion of psychological testing for dishonesty is something that we should address.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a psychological test that could measure someone’s honesty?

In fact, these tests do exist. They are tests known as “integrity tests,” and there are a number of them that purport to measure the honesty of a subject. These tests normally consist of a set of questions designed to gauge the integrity of the person taking the test. The questions can include lifestyle questions about drug and alcohol use or questions like “What would you do if a store clerk handed you too much money in change?” or “Do you ever lie to your spouse?” 

There are, however, several issues with these psychological tests for integrity. First, there is a paucity of independent research on the predictive validity of these tests. Most of the published studies have been conducted by the companies offering these tests.

Second, much of the research involves people taking tests in other than a job application situation. For example, several validation studies were done using prison populations as subjects, where test results were compared with criminal behavior. Like most psychological tests, a key tenet of testing is that the person taking the test wants to be properly assessed and therefore answers the questions truthfully. For someone with “baggage” seeking employment, this is a fatally flawed assumption.

The situational difference is key — prisoners taking such a test have no particular incentive to lie, whereas someone taking an integrity test for work has a clear motivation to answer the questions in a way that presents them in the best possible light. As you can see from the example questions above, the intent of the questions is quite transparent and the “right” answers are fairly obvious.

One of the commercially available integrity tests makes the following statement on its website:

When taking the Hire Success® pre-employment integrity test, all job applicants must acknowledge that they understand that their answers are being considered as part of their application for employment with your company and that you will be relying on truthful answers to make a hiring decision. Lying on an integrity test or job application may be grounds for termination or not being considered for employment.

This statement seems to be a more or less direct admission that the test’s accuracy is dependent on test-takers answering truthfully.

A Princeton University study on psychological tests for integrity concluded that “the research on integrity tests has not yet produced data that clearly supports or
dismisses the assertion that these tests can predict dishonest behavior.”

Since a considerable proportion of workplace stealing is never detected, the comparison data has an obvious contamination.

A study called  “The Use of Integrity Tests for Pre-employment Screening,” performed by the Office of Technology Evaluation of the United States Congress found that integrity test accuracy was between 37% and 64%.

For these reasons, many of the errors from these tests are “false positive” errors, where the tests result in the rejection of people who actually do not have integrity issues. Especially in the current climate of a shortage of qualified people to work in dental practices, rejecting suitable people makes an already challenging hiring environment even tougher.

The lack of reliability of these tests and possible cultural and racial bias has prompted the state of Massachusetts to ban psychological testing for integrity as part of employment screening.

Summary

Any test where validity is predicated on truthful answers where certain applicants have incentive to lie is impermissibly flawed. Add to this the potential false-positive rejection of qualified applicants, and unfortunately, this kind of psychological testing is unlikely to prove itself useful.

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