Testing Integrity in Candidates: Are You Doing It Right?

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Testing Integrity in Candidates: Are You Doing It Right?

All companies and organizations want to hire competent employees that show impressive knowledge, skills, and charming personalities. But how about hiring for integrity in the workplace, for honesty, high morals, and tendencies towards “good behavior?” At first glance, testing integrity is the right way of assessing a candidate’s work ethics, values, and other psychological traits. After all, the employees with strong ethical principles are the building blocks of a successful enterprise.

In organizational culture, integrity is the fuel of building mutually beneficial relationships, trustworthiness, loyalty, and respect for the job, the employer, colleagues, stakeholders, etc.

The integrity issue is that it is still a rather vague term, an umbrella term, if you want, that encompasses a broad range of attitudes, personality traits, behaviors, etc. Integrity, morals, and work ethics also have inherent cultural and historical components attached to them.

What Is Integrity in Relationship to Employment? A Short Walk Down on Memory Lane

In 1914, Henry Ford initiated a revolutionary approach in what we would call today “human resources management.” He increased the base wage for his factory workers to prevent turnover. The catch was that his trusted executives would perform house calls to check on the said workers’ private lives, homes, and behaviors. In Ford’s opinion, the ones who deserved the raise were the ones who:

  • Kept their homes neat and clean;
  • Ensured the health of their children;
  • Were married at a young age;
  • Refrained from excessive alcohol consumption;
  • Were thrifty.

The story of Henry Ford’s employee integrity evaluation is a savory read and perhaps a cautionary tale. It opens the door for many lessons to learn as employees, executives, and recruiters alike.

One of these lessons is that marital status never was and never will be a job performance indicator.

Another lesson is that people will fake integrity, morals, and work ethics if they can. For this reason, an integrity test is a delicate topic in pre-employment assessments. But we will discuss this a bit later.

Today, Ford’s approach would be unimaginable, and an employer embracing such practices would have a field day in court. However, the idea of employing only upright citizens who would uphold the highest work ethics and moral values is still strong in all organizational cultures across the globe. Nobody wants to hire sociopaths, thieves, alcoholics, and so on.

When it comes to integrity at the workplace, let’s say that since 1988, American workers enjoy the Employee Polygraph Protection Act. It

prohibits most private employers from using lie detector tests, either for pre-employment screening or during the course of employment

This document’s very existence tells us loud and clear that work integrity, work ethics, and morals were and still are fundamental values that all employers and HR specialists seek in their recruiting process. It also suggests that employers would resort to anything when evaluating what they consider to be the best candidates for the jobs. But then again, by which definition of integrity are we operating?

Testing Integrity in the Recruitment Process – From Then to Now

As you can quickly figure out, in the past decades, integrity tests and morals & work ethics evaluations tapped into less savory (and now banned) topics: religion, sexual orientation, marital status, mental disorders, etc. One famous case is the 1991 Soroka v. Dayton Hudson Corp., dba Target Stores. Plaintiffs requested the court to

bar the use of particular questions on the Rodgers Condensed CP/MMPI that they claimed violated their privacy rights. Specifically, they asserted that questions that facially referred to religion and sexual orientation violated their rights under the California Constitution and certain anti-discrimination laws.

The lawsuit did produce at least one significant effect: it opened the path to elaborating more complex labor laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, among others.

Today, testing for integrity means something other than what it meant fifty or even twenty years ago. Integrity tests aim to predict a candidate’s likelihood to be dependable, trustworthy, honest, etc. The more we research organizational psychology, the better we get at testing integrity.

While recruiters still use the MMPI and the CPI for pre-employment assessment, now modern psychology developed more focused integrity tests. They are part of more complex personality evaluations, and they seek to give recruiters insight into particular sets of attitudes, traits, and behaviors. They try to learn in advance if an employee might cause problems for a company.

What Does an Integrity Test Measure?

To answer this question, we have to go back to the definition of integrity, in general, and at the workplace, in particular. If you ask a CEO or a seasoned recruiter what integrity in the workplace means, they will not probably recite a standard dictionary definition.

They will more likely list a set of behaviors, attitudes, and character traits they consider worthy when it comes to employees. Such examples of integrity include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Expressing gratitude for other peoples’ work;
  • Recognition of others’ achievements;
  • Respectfulness towards the work and others;
  • Honesty in all work relationships;
  • Trustworthiness when following through commitments;
  • Keeping of high work standards no matter the task;
  • Responsibility;
  • Accountability;
  • Helpfulness;
  • Patience;
  • Abiding company policies and rules, etc.

Now that you saw this list, don’t you feel that integrity covers plenty of employability skills and personality traits (in the broad sense of the term)? This feeling of déjà vu is justified.

How is an Integrity Test Different from a Personality Test?

A personality test focuses mostly on work behavior, interpersonal skills, teamwork, coping mechanisms, personality types, etc. An integrity test wants to see if a person is honest, hardworking, and trustworthy.

What is The Relationship between Integrity and Work Ethics?

According to some researchers, integrity at the workplace is nothing more than one of many elements contributing to what we generally call “work ethics.”

Work ethic is an attitude. Is it something you learn over time? Are we born with it? Psychology still tries to give us answers on this matter. What is certain is that integrity is crucial for peoples’ employment and career success as a component of work ethics and personality.

It describes an employee’s dedication and determination to do a job at the highest possible standards. Under the work ethics umbrella, companies and recruiters look for candidates that can show visible prowess in dimensions such as:

  • Reliability;
  • Discipline;
  • Dedication and commitment to work;
  • Productivity;
  • Cooperation with others;
  • Responsibility and accountability;
  • Professionalism, etc.

As you can see, integrity at the workplace, employability skills, and work ethics sometimes overlap in meaning and elements. So, how do you test such soft, deeply humane qualities?

Testing Integrity in Job Candidates: Considerations on the Tools We Use

Nowadays, modern integrity tools are part of more elaborate personality tests, as we have previously mentioned. A scientifically valid integrity test taps into the following dimensions:

  • Defensive or critical attitudes/behaviors towards others;
  • Honesty and inclination towards fraudulent behaviors;
  • Responsibility vs. placing the blame on others;
  • Understanding and following the priorities set by the management.

A test for integrity at the workplace consists of questionnaires, reports, behavioral interview questions (focused on situational questions), and standardized personality inventories (or relevant parts). Are integrity tests valid? Do they predict job performance? Can recruiters use them as they are to place candidates in the right positions? Let’s break things down!

Types of Tests that Assess Integrity

You have to remember that no integrity test is foolproof. As the Ford story taught us, people are very creative at cheating their way out of tricky situations.

You cannot expect anyone to answer “yes” to a question asking, “Are you going to steal goods from the company’s office?” Meanwhile, post-it notes and toilet paper are the most stolen office items in the history of office supplies. On the other hand, you cannot ask a candidate about past convictions to predict dishonest, fraudulent behaviors at the new workplace.

As a company or recruiter, before you even consider testing integrity in a candidate – in a standardized questionnaire format or open discussion – make sure you avoid illegal interview questions, or you might get in serious legal trouble.

So how do you test integrity?

Overt Integrity Tests

They include a set of direct questions related to counterproductive behaviors, risk-taking, dangerous behaviors, deviant or illegal acts, and so on. At this point, if you want to engage in this type of integrity testing, make sure an attorney reviews the questionnaire. Here are some examples of open integrity questions:

1. How much do you dislike doing something that someone tells you to do, in life and at the workplace?

2. Do you consider the practice of taking home some small objects from work as stealing?

3. What would you do if you knew a co-worker lied about something job-related?

When you design overt questions, you aim to gain insight regarding an applicant’s attitudes towards specific manifestations of dishonesty, illegal actions, socially undesirable behaviors, and so on.

Always remember that candidates usually know what you want to hear, so they will eventually come up with the “correct” answer.

Covert Integrity Tests

Also known as veiled-purpose assessments, the covert variety of integrity testing uses a combination of personality tests that help recruiters conclude the likelihood of integrity in a person. In case the personality test’s results correlate with negative behavior in the workplace, recruiters consider that person is not desirable for the job.

If you feel overwhelmed with the fact that some personality inventories also test for integrity and some integrity tests contain personality assessments, don’t. The two dimensions overlap, and it is not a problem.

Choosing the right test for integrity, however, might be. Here are some examples of covert integrity questions you might ask a candidate or use in questionnaire form (true or false questions, multiple answers, Likert scale, etc.):

1. I always try to follow the rules.

2. I like to take chances.

3. I feel lonely even when I am in a group of people.

The problem with a question like “True or false: I like to take chances” is that it does leave a lot of room for interpretation. An individual might like to take chances as a sensation seeker, thus posing some risks to the organization.

On the other hand, you want to hire risk-takers such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or Elon Musk. They are the innovators a successful company needs.

Since the type of question and the kind of test matter, it is time to reach today’s next topic.

Are Integrity Tests Valid and Effective?

According to experts, overt integrity tests

are substantial for predicting job performance and counterproductive behaviors on the job, such as theft, disciplinary problems, and absenteeism. An exciting find was that covert integrity questions are better absenteeism predictors than overt questions.

For psychologists, the most thrilling discovery was the existence of

correlations between integrity tests and the Big Five personality dimensions. The highest three correlations were with conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability, in that rank order.

When we talk about pre-employment assessment tools’ validity and efficiency, we always have to remember that a standalone instrument cannot predict job performance. For this reason, we use cognitive testing, personality testing, and interviews.

We know that a single test for introversion/extroversion does not tell us much about a candidate’s performance, work ethics, or career path. Similarly, a single integrity test doesn’t identify an individual’s appetite for disruptive/illegal actions.

Performing an Integrity Test: Top Considerations

Before we part ways, let’s summarize a few considerations you should factor in your decision to test integrity in job candidates:

  • Common uses. Recruiters apply integrity tests when they want to screen out candidates or hire for sensitive areas: teachers, social workers, law enforcement, security, health workers, money handling, industries that deal with classified information, workers that enter peoples’ homes, retail, government, etc.
  • Validity. According to research, integrity tests add weight to the recruiting process when specialists apply them together with cognitive ability tests, personality tests, structured & unstructured interviews, situational questioning, and so on.
  • Individual differences. You can make sense of individual differences and hidden variables only if you use an integrity test together with other tests. For instance, young people tend to show an inclination towards risk-taking or counterproductive work behaviors. However, just because being young means being a bit rebellious does not mean you don’t have a talented candidate to hire. Other than that, studies found little if any group differences based on race, gender, or ethnicity.
  • Legality. Some tests – integrity or otherwise – can tap into subtle issues, such as disability. If you ask candidates to tell if they experience extreme mood swings, you may indirectly assess the presence of a bipolar disorder.
  • Face validity. As you saw in the MMPI example, candidates might consider some integrity test questions to be invasive or lacking relevance for the job. You have to choose your tests wisely and even handpick questions to ask and issues to avoid discussing altogether.
  • Faking and cheating. Nobody wants to hire sociopaths, but they are some of the best liars in the world, so how do you know if a candidate faked the answers? You learn by combining overt and covert testing and using standard personality inventories.

Why Is Integrity Important?

When you test integrity for a particular job, you cannot expect such tests to eliminate workplace dishonesty, theft, absenteeism, or disruptive behaviors. You can expect to evaluate a candidate’s tendency towards honesty, trustworthiness, dependability, reliability, and so on. Integrity testing and personality assessments go hand in hand.

As we discussed above, having integrity means displaying high levels of conscientiousness – a personality factor that is a good job performance predictor in itself.

Test results showing low levels of integrity are not necessarily creating the portrait of a criminal. However, in clinical psychology practice and recruiting, low integrity test scores may suggest an individual’s tendency to:

  • be disingenuous, indolent, aggressive, prone to disciplinary issues,
  • be open to engaging in risk behaviors (alcohol, substance abuse, etc.),
  • show a tendency towards illegal acts (theft, fraud, and so on),
  • have attitude issues, and more.

Integrity in the workplace is more than important. It is vital to organizational growth.

Bottom Line

Your job as a recruiter is not to become the next best criminal profiler at Quantico. When you decide to test integrity in job applicants, your goal is to use a combination of instruments and interview tactics to gain an in-depth perspective on a candidate’s potential for success.

Are you testing integrity in your recruiting process frequently? Do you think it helps you find the best candidates for the job? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this issue!

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