Because educational and pre-employment assessments can have a tremendous effect—for better or worse—on people’s lives, a number of ethical issues may arise when designing, carrying out, and making decisions based on such assessments. Thus, in a departure from the workshop’s other presentations, which were concerned mainly with the scientific and technical issues related to assessment, Rodney Lowman, a distinguished professor of psychology in the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University in San Diego, devoted his presentation to potential ethical issues related to personnel assessment and selection. His intention, he said, was not to resolve the issues but rather to bring the questions to the attention of the workshop participants for present consideration and future contemplation.
Perhaps the best way to learn about ethics, Lowman said, is to examine thought-provoking case studies. He began his presentation by offering a detailed, albeit fictitious, case study that raised a number of potential ethical issues related to personnel assessment, selection, and assignment. Lowman gave the following fictitious account of a future scenario:
The year is 2035. The recruiting function, now affectionately known as “HR Drone” has electronically scanned the social media accounts of all persons in the Army’s target age range and integrated the results of those fitting the desired profile with high school and college tran-
scripts of those who submitted their credentials to the Uniform Job Bank (almost all high school and college students did so, since most prospective employers required that). The Uniform Job Bank also contains the test results “voluntarily submitted” of all standardized academic tests taken throughout the academic career. A personalized invitation to apply for advanced assessment is [delivered] to the most promising of the candidates. [Thumb prints and iris eye scans proctor Internet-administered] interests-ability-personality tests and … a live team assessment simulation with other such candidates.
A computer algorithm identifies the preferred profiles for a team position to be filled that is compatible with others already on the team. Diversity across genders and races is considered based on current underrepresented groups.
… Once a year, Army personnel re-take interests-ability-personality tests as well as measures of proficiency and continued fitness for duty….The results of brain scans, now effortlessly made at personal computers with an inexpensive BioCap are integrated into the database….Personnel interests-ability-personality profiles are constantly scanned when team vacancies arise. Individuals learn of their matched team options and may apply for such vacancies on nomination.
While the reaction to this scenario from other workshop participants was mixed regarding the feasibility of such a future, Lowman’s point was that many of these futuristic tools and technologies are not impossible to imagine, given current and emerging capabilities. And if those creating the tools and technologies do not anticipate and prepare for the ethical issues that will arise, Lowman cautioned that the practical utility of many tools may be limited.
With the case study providing context for the challenges ahead, Lowman encouraged the workshop participants to examine some of the issues that it raised. “What ethical issues arise from this hypothetical scenario? How would we address those concerns?”
To answer these questions, he said, the first question is whose ethics should be used to address and resolve ethical issues and concerns? A variety of professions have ethics codes, he noted, and they are generally distinct.
One of the best-known codes of ethics is that of medicine, which dates back to the Hippocratic Oath from the fifth century BCE. In his oath Hippocrates addressed a number of areas still of concern to medical doctors today: competence (“I will apply [prescriptive] measures for the benefit of the sick, according to my ability and judgment”), avoiding conflicts of interest (“Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit
of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief, and, in particular, of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves”), and avoiding doing harm to the patient (“I will keep them from harm and injustice”) (Edelstein, 1943).
Psychologists have their own well-developed codes of ethics, Lowman said, which are of particular interest when discussing testing and assessments because primarily psychologists and those in related fields create the tests and they sometimes, but not always, oversee or influence how the tests are administered and interpreted. He chose to focus on the code of ethics of the American Psychological Association (APA), which was developed in 1953, making it one of the original codes of ethics for psychologists. It has been widely emulated around the world, he said, and it is more advanced than many others in how it thinks through areas of conflict.
The APA code of ethics, Lowman continued, “has 5 aspirational principles, which are things that people are supposed to think about and aspire to, and 10 enforceable standards.” As an example of an aspirational principle, he exhibited the following principle, which concerns beneficence and nonmalevolence:
Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm. In their professional actions, psychologists seek to safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally and other affected persons, and the welfare of animal subjects of research. When conflicts occur among psychologists’ obligations or concerns, they attempt to resolve these conflicts in a responsible fashion that avoids or minimizes harm. Because psychologists’ scientific and professional judgments and actions may affect the lives of others, they are alert to and guard against personal, financial, social, organizational, or political factors that might lead to misuse of their influence. Psychologists strive to be aware of the possible effect of their own physical and mental health on their ability to help those with whom they work. (American Psychological Association, 2010)
Lowman also provided examples of the enforceable standards from the APA code of ethics. For example, Standard 2.04 says, “Psychologists’ work is based upon established scientific and professional knowledge of the discipline.” Standard 9.02, which has several parts related to assessments, says in part (a), “Psychologists administer, adapt, score, interpret or use assessment techniques, interviews, tests or instruments in a manner and for purposes that are appropriate in light of the research on or evidence of the usefulness and proper application of the techniques” (American Psychological Association, 2010).
“If you scan the psychology ethics codes of professional psychology organizations around the world,” Lowman said, “you will find that most
of them are saying some version of the same thing.” That is, they tend to follow much the same lines as the APA code of ethics. Some of the common concerns are obtaining informed consent, avoiding harm, protecting the rights of participants in research, making sure that practice is based in scientifically obtained knowledge, avoiding multiple relationships that can harm others, and respecting the rights of the individuals with whom the psychologist works.
Most other professions have codes of ethics as well, Lowman said. Accountants, dentists, lawyers, social workers, nurses, and teachers—all of these have codes of ethics that define some version of what is appropriate behavior. One glaring exception is managers. “I would be happy to be proven wrong,” Lowman said, “but there is no widely accepted code of ethics that managers are expected to follow.” There has been a great deal of work aimed at professionalizing management, but there is as yet no recognized code of ethics for the profession. Lowman described a code of ethics that a group of students has created for managers—specifically, an “M.B.A. oath”—but he said that nothing of the sort has been adopted.
“This is a problem,” he said. “It is a problem because we as psychologists and others who do this kind of work are the ones who often create the instruments, but it is managers who are the ones who use them to make decisions about what assessments, if any, to use.” The psychologists and others who create the tests often have no real control over testing decisions. And in the absence of managerial ethics codes, decisions often end up being made not by scientific judgment but through laws and court rulings, which generally result in decisions that are slow and difficult to change. As an example he mentioned the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures of 1978, which have been “stuck in time” with less and less applicability but no political will to change them (U.S. Government, 1978). He noted that a recent article argued that the Uniform Guidelines have been a “detriment to the field of personnel selection” (McDaniel et al., 2011).
To close, Lowman raised six specific ethical issues relevant to assessment technologies, and he discussed each briefly. His goals, he said, were to raise questions, not to answer them, and to trigger thought and discussion about the issues.
Issue 1. What are the ethical issues in expanding what is assessed from single variables or domains to profiles?
Lowman described an assessment of eight candidates for the position of city manager in a major U.S. city (Lowman, 1991). All the candidates were either already city managers or had an equally appropriate background. To help distinguish among them, personality profiles were created for each by assigning scores for six characteristics—enterprising, social, conventional, investigative, artistic, and realistic—and ranking those characteristics for each candidate. The average interest profile of the eight candidates combined had “enterprising,” “social,” and “conventional” as the three most prominent characteristics, “which is where you would expect a managerial profile to be,” Lowman noted. But only one of the eight candidates matched this profile as an individual. By analyzing the candidates in this way, he said, it was possible to gain insight into their overall patterns of characteristics, which would not have been obvious looking at just their individual characteristics in isolation.
But such an approach raises certain ethical questions, Lowman said. If validity is an ethical obligation, what are the appropriate paradigms for validating inferences from profiles versus individual variables? Second, to what extent can some characteristics that may be relatively low in a profile, such as cognitive (or general) intelligence, be compensated for by other variables, such as emotional intelligence or team skills? And third, who decides issues related to profile fit? How should technical experts in assessment deal with others who have influence in making selection decisions?
Issue 2. Is it ethically more appropriate to administer tests “once and done” or on multiple occasions over a career?
Since it is becoming increasingly technically feasible to assess people frequently, Lowman asked, to what extent should that be done? Is it more fair or ethically appropriate to test on a “once and done” basis or to test on multiple occasions throughout a career, particularly as job requirements change? And what kinds of assessment and ethical issues arise if abilities or aptitudes, to take one example, are known to decline over time?
Issue 3. What are the ethical issues in selecting for “team fit” versus selecting the “best qualified” individual?
Concerning the selection of individuals based on team fit, Lowman raised several ethical issues: Is it ethically appropriate to evaluate people for real-life, high-risk decisions in the context of their fit with other people, such as the goodness of fit for teams? In particular, since the goodness of fit for a team presumably changes, based on the make-up of a team and the purposes for which the team was assembled, can that be a fair basis
for selection? Furthermore, is it fair or ethical to make selections based on qualities over which an individual has no control? Finally, in assessing for “team fit,” are the major criteria relatively stable and unchanging characteristics of people, such as personality dimensions, or are they potentially trainable behavioral skills that can be learned to some degree, and, ethically, does it matter?
Issue 4. Is it ethically appropriate to use biological assessments or molecular markers in assessment?
Do biological assessments and markers cross some sort of line—at the very least a perceptual line—that should not be crossed? Lowman said that he had recently shared the futuristic scenario he presented with a graduate class, and the only aspect of the scenario that bothered them was the use of biological and genetic type markers. Is there a substantive issue here, or just a perceptual one, and what difference does it make?
What should be the ethical “rules of engagement” for using biological molecular data in personnel selection? The science may not be quite there yet, but it is coming, Lowman predicted.
Finally, are these biological and genetic data sources really different in kind, conceptually and ethically, from cognitive ability, personality tests, and other psychological measures, or are they just something with which people are not yet familiar?
Later in the workshop, Gerald Goodwin, of the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, noted that the ethics of genetic information in military selection is not a concern for the foreseeable future. “Congress passed a law banning all organizations, federal and nonfederal,” he explained, “from receiving, using, or retaining genetic information for … employment-related decisions.” While there are exceptions to the law, including an exemption for the Department of Defense, “the Department of Defense has not opted to pursue it.” Goodwin continued, “regardless of the ethics of the matter, it is illegal, and it is illegal for everyone, pretty much” (see U.S. Government, 2008).
Issue 5. What feedback are candidates entitled to receive?
Is feedback on assessment results an ethical right? The issue can be thought of in analogy with credit ratings, Lowman said. “You can find out what your credit ratings were. You still get turned down, but at least you know what some of the data were.”
According to the APA ethics code, in most types of testing it is required that anyone who is tested should receive feedback. However, one exception is in the case of testing done for the purpose of personnel selection.
“I am not sure that was a good ethical change to have made in the code,” he said, “but that is what it is.”
In addition, which information—if any—should be withheld if feedback is given? And what sorts of issues arise concerning feedback on biological and molecular results?
Issue 6. What are the ethics of using unproctored or proctored Internet testing?
If all testing will ultimately be able to be conducted online, what ethical issues arise concerning the need to ensure validity and protect applicants? As more and more organizations are moving to unproctored Internet testing because it is more efficient and less expensive, is additional proctored assessment needed? And is online assessment of groups and teams ethically fair and appropriate?
Lowman ended with three quotations intended to provoke further thought. He cited former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart as having said: “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.” And from philosopher Bertrand Russell: “An ethical person ought to do more than he’s required to do and less than he’s allowed to do.” And from Lowman himself: “Ethical questions and conflicts anticipated and discussed tend to be ethical issues avoided.”
American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. With the 2010 Amendments. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Available: http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/principles.pdf [July 2013].
Edelstein, L. (1943). The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lowman, R.L. (1991). The Clinical Practice of Career Assessment: Interests, Abilities, and Personality. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
McDaniel, M.A., S. Kepes, and G.C. Banks. (2011). The Uniform Guidelines are a detriment to the field of personnel selection. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 4(4):494-514.
U.S. Government. (1978). Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. Part 1607, Title 29, Labor, Subtitle B–Regulation Relating to Labor, Chapter XIV–Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Available: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2011-title29-vol4/xml/CFR-2011-title29-vol4-part1607.xml [July 2013].
U.S. Government. (2008). The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Available: http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/gina.cfm [July 2013].
This page intentionally left blank.