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How to Use Preemployment Tests and Mitigate Adverse Impact Along the Way

Plenty of recruitment and hiring professionals rely on applicant testing during the prescreening process. Assessments not only help narrow the field, but also shine a light on superstar performers.

Unfortunately, even the most professionally developed tests can impact members of certain groups differently. If that happens, the test is said to have an “adverse impact” on the negatively impacted group — turning the assessment test from a corporate asset into (potentially) an expensive liability.

What Is Adverse Impact?

Adverse impact refers to a procedure, practice, or test that consistently registers a substantially different passing rate between two groups, regardless of intent. 

Many equate adverse impact to discrimination. This is not true. You will almost always be able to find adverse impact because data can be analyzed in any number of ways. But the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (UGESP) makes it clear that if a test potentially has an adverse impact, a rigorous validation process can prove the test is “valid and consistent with business necessity.”

For example, we often find that computer tests have an adverse impact on applicants from older generations. So many of the input devices that are necessary today (e.g., keyboards, mice, etc.) did not exist just a few decades ago. For most jobs, using a computer keyboard and mouse to enter data into specific fields is “valid and consistent with business necessity.”

Another adverse impact example would be physical ability testing. Women fail firefighter physical exams at a rate of 50-to-1, which is some serious adverse impact. That said, being able to drag a dummy to safety is necessary, so the adverse impact does not prevent the physical ability test from being used.

Some organizations have gotten into trouble because they tested for above-and-beyond job requirements. Imagine a job for which a worker has to carry 50-pound bags of concrete and stack them on pallets. If an organization tests with 95-pound bags — when bags on the job weigh no more than 50 pounds — the test would be deemed invalid, and the employer would be responsible for the adverse impact.

A couple of years ago, CSX Transportation paid $3.2 million to settle a sex discrimination lawsuit when its physical abilities test unfairly had an adverse impact on female job candidates. Per the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) allegations, CSX conducted isokinetic strength testing, a three-minute aerobic test, and arm endurance tests that had a discriminatory impact on women applying for jobs as conductors, material handlers, and clerks. The EEOC did not claim that the discrimination was intentional.

How to Mitigate Adverse Impact

Of course, skills-based tests aren’t always airtight, particularly if they’ve been developed in-house. Businesses that want to give all candidates the greatest chance of showing their abilities and acumen should focus on skills-based tests that show maximum utility at the least legal exposure risk.

Plus, leaders can go one step further by requesting or issuing a validity report. Software from TestGenius and CritiCall includes a content validation wizard that follows sections 14C and 15C of the UGESP; our software queries successful incumbent employees for specific information that builds a UGESP 15C validation report. The employer is then justified in using the test in a way that is “valid and consistent with business necessity.”

Furthermore, our validation process helps to hire better performers because it matches the test to products created on the job using skills necessary on day one. That makes it a win-win for the employer.