A blog post on Huffington Post caught our eye last week (Employment Testing for the Priesthood Can Prevent Child Abuse). The title concisely states the thesis, but aside from a few sensible sounding comments about pre-employment testing from a headhunter, the rest of the article unfortunately does not offer any logical support for the over-reaching title. It also perpetuates some misconceptions about pre-employment testing, which is what I want to address here.
It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that we’re big believers in the utility of pre-employment testing, but it’s also important to recognize the limits on the power of such tests. They are not a panacea that can solve all the HR-related problems of any organization, even when used properly.
This blogger’s argument unfortunately rests on an inaccurate idea of how pre-employment testing works. To begin with, let’s set aside the fact that joining the priesthood is a lengthy process of study and commitment, making comparisons with other “you’re hired, you start tomorrow” work settings inappropriate. And let’s also set aside the obvious fact that the church’s current difficulties would seem, from an organizational perspective, to be much more about review and internal management than about hiring per se.
All that said, if any organization could in fact push the envelope on pre-employment testing, the Church would be one of the few. After all, questions about religious faith, sexual orientation, marital status – which would be illegal to ask at, say, the post office – are perfectly relevant to ask prospective priests. We would imagine that the latitude to pursue mental health testing for prospective priests would be wide (much like for police officers), in contrast to more traditional work settings where such inquiries are usually not legally permitted. We sometimes have people call us up and say that they just had to fire a crazy person, and ask us if we have tests that can help screen out such employees in the future. Tests for psychopathology, however, are generally not permitted in the US in the context of pre-employment screening, because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which makes it illegal to administer anything that can be construed as a medical exam as a condition for offering employment in most settings.
But even if the church had the latitude to pursue intense clinical testing, what exactly would these tests be looking for? The author of the blog post doesn’t offer any help on this question. And even if there were a test that would indicate predilections for certain kinds of deviant behavior, the fact is that no employee assessment tool is a perfect predictor, guaranteed to screen out everyone who is a “bad apple”. In fact, employee assessment tools are about increasing your hiring accuracy rate, or decreasing your likelihood of hiring a “bad apple” of whatever kind, not about ensuring it will never happen.
In a future blog we’ll discuss in greater detail how pre-employment tests offer information and utility, but not certainty. Many prospective clients we speak with who are just beginning to investigate pre-employment testing expect that tests should somehow provide a perfect rank-ordering of how a group of new hires will perform on the job. (Sadly, the marketing departments at some of our competitors do not try very hard to clear up this misperception.) Such a faith in the power of testing is unrealistic. In fact, the pursuit of perfection in testing can be highly counter-productive: if the threshold for selection is set so high that it absolutely minimizes (but never eliminates) the chance of failure, it will also screen out many employees who would have been excellent performers. These cases are called false negatives, and they represent a costly yet unobserved error in lost opportunity.
It is the horrible nature of the documented and alleged cases of abuse that makes us all want to consider ways to ensure it never happens again. Our point is that faith in some unspecified pre-employment tests over and above what the Church is already doing at the selection level is probably misplaced. Such tests don’t exist, would never be failsafe, and would likely exclude large numbers of potentially valuable employees.