Police, Firefighter Exams Challenge Public Employers

By Diane Cadrain Feb 1, 2010
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The City of Chicago recently attracted attention over reports that it was thinking of scrapping its police entrance exam over concerns about racial diversity on the force. Racial diversity among municipal first responders has been a lightning rod for jittery public leaders since the 2009 Supreme Court decision in Ricci v. DeStefano, which faulted the city of New Haven, Conn., for refusing to certify a firefighter promotional exam because no minorities scored high enough. The process of selecting competent police and firefighters in a race-neutral way has become one of the most challenging issues facing these public employers.

Though Chicago hasn’t acted yet, even the possibility of ditching the test raises the issue of whether it’s really wise for organizations to do away with pre-employment testing and screening.

“It’s unwise to scrap testing in the civil service because objective hiring and promotional tests arose and came about as a result of rampant corruption in public service,” said attorney Karen Torre, who represented the lead plaintiff in Ricci. “It’s dangerous and bound to reintroduce corruption.”

“It’s not wise, particularly for cops, because if a municipality scraps a test, they face two liabilities—one for reverse discrimination and, if a cop harms someone, another for negligent hiring,” said Art Gutman, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the Florida Institute of Technology who has written extensively about Ricci. “It’s important to have a diverse police force, but white or black, you want the people you select to be qualified.”

“If they want competent employees, it’s not a good move,” agreed Mike Aamodt, professor emeritus of psychology at Radford University in Radford, Va., and a consultant with DCI Consulting, a firm offering services in employee selection and test validation. “Research backs that up,” he continued. “But some organizations are doing that out of frustration. Chicago spent a lot of money on these tests, and they’re frustrated.”

But organizations that stick to their tests face a daunting challenge.

Ricci puts employers between a rock and a hard place: If a test appears to have an adverse impact, then employers have to find a less discriminatory alternative,” said Sarah Crawford, senior counsel with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “But screening is supposed to identify the best person for the job; tests are designed to take the bias out. If they disproportionately affect minorities, the employer has to show that the test is job-related and consistent with business necessity. Then the plaintiff has to show that there was a less discriminatory alternative. After Ricci, employers need to take a hard look at their selection processes up front and make sure they’re not overlooking a less-discriminatory alternative.”

What Alternative?

“The controversial test in Chicago was a paper-and-pencil test, measuring cognitive ability or job knowledge,” said Aamodt. “The controversy is the potential for adverse impact in the extent [that] it measures cognitive ability. Part of the problem in Ricci was the 60 percent weight put on the cognitive test (and 40 percent on the oral test). There’s an argument that the weights should be different.”

If employers place less weight on paper-and-pencil tests, they should augment them with structured interviews or situational-judgment tests,” Aamodt continued. “Testing companies are starting to combine cognitive tests with structured interviews and situational judgment tests. Structured interviews have high predictability and no adverse impact. With a structured interview, the questions are job-related, all applicants are asked the same questions, and there’s a structured scoring system. They have high predictability and no adverse impact. Situational-judgment tests present realistic but hypothetical situations and ask the test-taker for an appropriate response. They’re tailor-made to suit the jobs of a particular employer.”

Gutman would reform the process from the beginning, when municipal employers choose their tests.

“Some employers get proposals from testing firms and then take the lowest bid,” he said. “If you go for the lowest bid, you get the lowest quality. [Employers] have to do a job analysis and make sure the test covers all aspects of the job. They need expertise even to go through the RFP process.

“Public employers should be proactive, they should do pretest training for free, they should make the test materials available at no cost,” Gutman added. “As it is now, there are companies that advertise police/firefighter test prep—it’s become a little cottage industry. But only those with the means can take them. Cities should add other tests to the cognitive test, such as oral tests, job-related simulations, and/or psychological tests, and then train people on them at no expense.”

The testing industry sees these issues as underscoring the importance of valid, job-related tests and their value in the selection process.

“Clients are voicing concerns and companies are doing better with validation,” said Aamodt.

“The testing industry doesn’t validate every test for every use,” Gutman pointed out, noting that burden falls frequently on the employer.

Federal contractors, for example, are required to have affirmative action plans, and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), which oversees their hiring and employment activities, comes in and audits their hiring procedures even without an official complaint.

“Federal contractors are worried that they have to have validation studies to protect themselves,” said Aamodt. “Contractors hire testing companies [and] spend money, and then OFCCP will say it’s not good enough. Employers are trying to do their best, but they’re getting dinged.”

“Employers should validate their tests, if they have the resources to do that, to ensure they’re using a validated testing process,” said Crawford. “They should be identifying screening processes that truly identify the best candidates without creating unnecessary barriers to women and minorities.”

Diane Cadrain is a West Hartford, Conn.-based freelance writer.

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