Cheating on Pre-employment Assessment Tests

Many retailers have largely automated the hiring process with online personality tests. The system cuts the time store managers must spend in interviewing applicants. But the test also is creating a culture of cheating and raising questions for applicants about its fairness -- even as it becomes a critical determinant of who gets a job and who doesn't in a stressful era of rising unemployment in 2009.

Today, many retailers are cutting their work forces, but that just makes the test even more critical. So many people now are seeking what jobs remain in retail that the test's maker says it processed about 29 applications for every opening in 2008, up from 22 in 2007. Meanwhile, for the retailers, it has become doubly important now to employ only the most productive people.

The producers of the test say they believe the incidence of cheating is low, because there's no decline in the benefits it brings retailers: lower employee turnover, better safety and improved sales performance.

These tests aims to screen out those with personalities that make them less suited for such work. Some applicants take a personality test using in-store devices. For many employers, this is just one piece of the hiring process. Interviews and management judgment are still key parts of the equation.

The problem is that applicants scoring low on these pre-employment assessment tests are unlikely to get an interview. How well the test distinguishes good candidates from less good is difficult to judge. Many companies using such pre employment assessment tests say they are happy with the quality of candidates they hire because the tests focus only on the people who, statistically, are the right candidates.

Despite its successes, some companies have dropped the test, partly because applicants for jobs preparing foods can pass the screening test and then get on the job and donít have the skills to perform the basic functions.

The more critical the tests have become to getting a job, the more applicants are trying to game it. They do so by repeating the test several times, by comparing notes, by consulting an online cheat sheet or by having a friend take the test for them.

Answer keys to these tests can be found on the web and even on Facebook and Wikipedia.

It's hard to know the accuracy of these answer keys. Those who use them generally don't view them as the product of an inside leak but merely as the fruit of trial and error by applicants who managed to get the jobs.

Test makers say that to cheat, a person needs feedback on which answers were 'correct' and that feedback isn't available to test takers. As a result, they argue it is not possible for the test answers in the online posting to be an accurate answer key.

Some suggest such keys must be removed from Internet sites because they represent copyrighted material. In addition, they opine, the suggested answers are frequently incorrect, out-of-date or both. Still, no answer key is needed in the case of surrogate test takers. Some say they are so disdainful of the test that they have cheated to spite the test company. In one case, a woman said she took the test twice for a friend who needed a job quickly.

Others argue that there is no correlation at all between top scores and good customer service. They suggest these tests are a way for companies to hire robots. A lot of people who score high just figured out how to cheat the system, or are just the 'yes' people, and that these tests make them more capable than anyone else.

Still others argue the way in which the answers relate to the job requirements is...not obvious. And when applicants can't easily see how test questions relate to the job, they tend to respond honestly to the questions, providing a built-in design safeguard against 'gaming' or cheating.

Pre-employment job screening efforts date back to a century ago, when industrial psychologists realized that some people adjusted better to certain occupations than to others and that difference in temperament mattered. By the early 1990s, industrial psychologists developed multiple-choice tests to measure dependability and reliability in hourly workers.

Most pre employment tests assess job applicants with a focus on dependability, customer service and safety, for instance -- concentrating on traits such as self-control, liking people or adaptability. Some job applicants say they feel inclined to cheat, or help others do so, to get back at a test they feel unfairly rejected them because they answered it honestly. They've set up groups, such as on the web to game the system.

Some tests measure something that is supposedly immutable -- an applicant's personality -- those who do poorly on the test can usually try it over and over. Most retailers let applicants who score low to take the test again as soon as their initial job application expires, often in 30 days. The hiring manager at a store, in most cases, won't know their original score.

Some suggest that allowing repeat tests makes sense because getting an initial low score doesn't necessarily mean an applicant won't be acceptable for another job at the same employer.

Most PEOs offer pre employment tests to employees as part of their service. PEOs have an interest in hiring the most qualified candidate for a job. For more information on a the PEO industry, please visit