Cheating on Employment Tests: Should We Be Concerned?

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a very interesting article: “Test for Dwindling Retail Jobs Spawns a Culture of Cheating.”

This well-written and researched piece is somewhat groundbreaking in that it is the first article in a mainstream media outlet to provide evidence of cheating on employment tests. Those of us in the testing industry have always been concerned with the security of our tests and have taken a variety of precautions to defend against it, but this is the first time I have ever read actual evidence that documents the existing of cheating.

As a testing expert and someone who has a high degree of familiarity with Unicru/Kronos (the company whose tests are the subject of the piece), I figured it would make sense for me to weigh in on this important article. Here are some thoughts about the article and the issues it raises:

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  • Overall, the article should definitely serve as a wake up call to the testing industry that times are changing; but, I do not think that the problems it identifies should spell doom and gloom for employment testing. Security is an important issue for any industry that conducts business online (banking, shopping, etc). However, dealing with security issues has not served as a barrier to progress, but rather an evolutionary force encouraging adaptation and prevention.
  • The case of Unicru/Kronos is somewhat unique in the testing industry because it tests such a huge volume of applicants each year. It is a safe bet to say that no other testing company does the volume that Unicru/Kronos does. Therefore I would be very surprised if the same systematic and premeditated cheating on personality-type tests was occurring with the tests of any other vendors. Differences between the way the Unicru/Kronos tests and those of other companies would make cross-test cheating a complete disaster for anyone who tried.
  • Because the Unicru/Kronos test is used to provide a way to provide efficiency to high-volume hiring, its results are often used to make “go — no go” decisions. While it is not always advised to use a test as the only piece of information to eliminate an applicant from consideration, high-volume hiring often necessitates it. How else can one have any chance of evaluating 1,000 applications for 10 or 20 openings? Considering the current state of unemployment and the sheer number of folks involved, high-volume hiring starts to show some similarities to standardized testing. That is, lots of applicants and high stakes. While cheating on high stakes tests is not too common in the U.S., it is a significant problem in other countries such as China and India. I have had a good deal of experience implementing standardized testing in these countries and I can say with authority that we do have a variety of techniques that can be employed as preventative measures. As with any type of security, multiple layers provide the best defense. We as testing professionals have the ability to use item banks, alternate versions of items, parallel forms, and computer adaptive testing to minimize the chance that a reconstructed answer key will actually match a test.
  • Consider the type of test in question when evaluating the potential for cheating and the impact it may have. The WSJ article claims the Unicru/Kronos test is a personality test. This is partially true, as it does have some strong ties to traditional personality tests. However, the most common personality tests do not actually have right or wrong answers for the individual questions. Rather, the scoring for the questions usually varies quite a bit relative to the specific job in which the test is being used (if the test has been properly configured). While the science behind Unicru/Kronos’ tests is beyond reproach and is actually very innovative, their tests are still a good bit different from those of the rest of the herd. Unicru/Kronos’ unique formula works for them and their tests are highly predictive when compared to many others out there. Why does this matter? I won’t go into the mechanics of it, but suffice it to say that it would be much harder to identify right or wrong answers on a more traditional personality test. Most traditional personality tests also have faking scales built in to identify those applicants who are answering in a socially desirable pattern. Figuring out the scoring algorithms that account for this makes cheating in any meaningful way even more difficult.
  • Traditional personality tests by themselves really aren’t the best predictors of job performance. There is a ton of research to support the fact that cognitive ability tests are much better across the board at predicting job performance. These types of tests are much more susceptible to cheating, and test vendors are very aware of this fact. In many cases, these types of tests are administered only in proctored situations. If I were to really worry about cheating, it is cheating on cognitive tests that would be my major concern.
  • Another interesting wrinkle in this whole thing is the fact that job applicants are actually resorting to cheating the companies that they wish to potentially work for. To me this is a clear indicator of the need for companies to take a good long look at not only the messaging around the test itself, but also at the manner in which the applicant is treated throughout the entire hiring process. Of course it is unrealistic to think that we will ever be able to keep all applicants from cheating, but I do believe that the more applicant-friendly the hiring process, the less likely applicants will be to cheat. Time and again I have seen the testing portion of the application process handled in a cold and unfriendly manner, with very little information about the reason for the test being provided to the candidate. This type of thing makes it much easier for a candidate to feel fine about breaking the rules. There should be messaging to candidates about the fact that testing is beneficial to them because finding a good fit between applicant and job is beneficial to all parties involved. No one likes to work in an environment where they do not fit in or where they do not have the competencies required to succeed.
  • The bottom line here is that tests such as those offered by Unicru/Kronos do offer tremendous value. We I/O psychologists have collected more than enough evidence to demonstrate that testing, when done right, offers a huge advantage over more informal and unstructured hiring practices such as resume reviews and unstructured interviews. In the case of high volume hiring, the ability to provide an automated tool for screening out applicants is tremendously useful. Are these methods perfect? Absolutely not, but then again very little in this world is. Error and noise are accepted parts of the testing process. The goal of test providers and hiring professionals is to mitigate these to the best of their ability. In high-volume testing, cheaters make up a very small percentage of the total population of job applicants, making cheating just another source of noise that we must work on minimizing.

The issue of cheating is something that warrants a good deal of attention but one that should not stop our progress in the quest for better and more accurate hiring procedure. The issues discussed in this article serve to strengthen my stance that we need to be working on a new generation of hiring tools that are simulation-based. The more the testing part of the hiring process relies on scenario-based activities that mimic the work environment and the tasks that must be completed within it, the more realistic and engaging the application process will be for applicants and the harder it will be for someone to cheat. Of course we are a long way away from this goal at the present time, but we will get there eventually. Until that time, those using testing should be sure to make test security a critical part of the design and implementation of the testing process, while also bending over backwards to make sure the candidate is treated just as any valued customer of the organization would be.

Dr. Charles Handler is a thought leader, analyst, and practitioner in the talent assessment and human capital space. Throughout his career Dr. Handler has specialized in developing effective, legally defensible employee selection systems. 

Since 2001 Dr. Handler has served as the president and founder of Rocket-Hire, a vendor neutral consultancy dedicated to creating and driving innovation in talent assessment.  Dr. Handler has helped companies such as Intuit, Wells Fargo, KPMG, Scotia Bank, Hilton Worldwide, and Humana to design, implement, and measure impactful employee selection processes.

Through his prolific writing for media outlets such as, his work as a pre-hire assessment analyst for Bersin by Deloitte, and worldwide public speaking, Dr. Handler is a highly visible futurist and evangelist for the talent assessment space. Throughout his career, Dr. Handler has been on the forefront of innovation in the talent assessment space, applying his sound foundation in psychometrics to helping drive innovation in assessments through the use of gaming, social media, big data, and other advanced technologies.

Dr. Handler holds a M.S. and Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Louisiana State University.







6 Comments on “Cheating on Employment Tests: Should We Be Concerned?

  1. I too read the WSJ article and was somewhat surprised to see that cheating on the test was a significant problem. It’s not that I found it unlikely that people would cheat on a personality test, but rather I found it surprising that people would care enough about the test not only to cheat on it but to create websites that attempt to heap scorn and derision on the test.

    What might have appeared (to me anyway) to produce a minor irritation if one were to have failed the test, instead so incensed some of these folks that they appeared to make it of of their life’s missions to destroy it.

    You also, in your conclusion, suggest that one way to improve testing would be to make them scenario-based and mimic the work environment and tasks. For those of us who are not Industrial/Organizational Psychologists, what would that look like?

  2. In my opinion if you are able to figure out a personality test you should get extra consideration, because a test a company spent a lot of money to have developed was cracked by someone who was paying attention to each question which shows attention to detail

  3. In my opinion if you are able to figure out a personality test you should get extra consideration. A company spent a lot of money to have a test developed was cracked by someone who was paying attention to all the question which show attention to detail

  4. The Unicru test doesn’t work it fails to stop dishonest people and punishes the people who have been thoughtful and truthful. The test expects an extreme yes or no to all questions with no middle ground. For instance the test asked: “You are somewhat of a thrill-seeker”. The person being tested should answer, “Strongly agree”. On the other hand I’m not a sky diver, a bank robber, or a stunt man. So truthfully I would disagree. Does this make me a bad employee? Should they not hire me? I have failed the test four times.

    I should be able to sue the people who wrote such a test because it fails to measure my real value has an employee. I have more than twelve years work history, more than three years community service, a long time member of the Tucson Go Club, and College student. I have more than seven letters of recommendation from my managers at my old jobs. I do not use drugs nor do I steal. When I took the Enneagram personality test it turned out that I am a type 2 personality (the Helper).

    Because the test says that I should not be hired for a book store or Best Buy is it right? What useful information did the test provide? Please tell me why the failed test should keep me from getting a job.


  5. This test is UNETHICAL & RIDICULOUS. You don’t need to “cheat”….I mean, what idiot is going to say they are often angry or late to work? The test is completely see-through. It is also outright BIASED against perfectly competent introverts & intelligent people who are basically not robots. If you’re not a little conservative, goody two shoes, yacking, brainless twit then you won’t want to answer these tests honestly….

    Different personalities make the world a better place, and having a bunch of drones working for you does NOT make a better business. These huge corporations are kidding themselves by depersonalizing the interview process. As a customer, I don’t see any difference with these businesses’ employees compared to how they were in the past, or compared to businesses who do not use such tests. As far as I am concerned, some of the questions on these tests are as prejudiced as hiring someone based on race or gender. It is most definitely unfair DISCRIMINATION.

    Not to mention, 9 times out of 10, the businesses using these tests are minimum wage retail jobs. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? This is not rocket science & they pay a pittance. They pay at or are barely above POVERTY levels of income. It’s disgusting how they make people jump through hoops for a job any idiot could do (it’s sooo hard to cashier & be nice to customers – UH HUH). As a professional, I don’t get administered any personality test on an interview, and I can make 3 times what these jobs pay….. They are so full of themselves.

    And newsflash: NO ONE wants a “career” with these businesses. No one REALLY wants a minimum wage job at Best Buy or Lowe’s or Starbucks. No one over the age of 20 anyway…and those young people want those jobs because it’s all they are usually qualified for at their age. Other people want these jobs only because they NEED them. No one’s dream is to be a cashier….. In this economy, many people need any job they can just to eat & pay rent. It’s called SURVIVAL. You cannot afford to be picky about your job, but that means it’s an employer’s market and they can & will be picky – ridiculously picky to the point where it becomes outright prejudice & they are very possibly shooting themselves in the foot.

  6. Hey, fight the man (I think that’s what you meant to say in your fury to establish a User Name):
    I’m often angry but never late to work – where do I fit in?

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