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Finding the Best Applicant Fairly and Legally

How do you screen 50,000 applicants for 300 jobs and satisfy Equal Employment Opportunity law?

Several years ago, I was chief industrial-organizational psychologist in charge of assessment and hiring solutions for a Fortune 500 beverage company. The position was unique, in that the CEO – a very detail-oriented leader who placed a great deal of emphasis on “hiring right” – might, at any time, personally review the hiring process.

The charge was clear – only hire the best and do it both legally and in such a way as to ensure potential customers felt the process was fair.

One of the most challenging and creative assignments was a major plant start-up in Cartersville, Georgia. This was a high-visibility situation, given that jobs were scarce in that area and the plant would pay a starting rate significantly above any company or business within a 50-mile radius.

In fact, applicants came from as far away as California and other parts of the United States to participate in the hiring process. While we anticipated a high volume of interest in the 300 jobs to be filled, the interest far exceeded our expectations and resulted in more than 50,000 applicants for the 300 job openings.

So how do you screen this many applicants, hire only the best, satisfy EEO law and present a process that is seen as fair to everyone? The first step is to keep an open mind. The second is to work with your internal legal counsel, and the third is to partner with the local state employment services. I might add that the fourth ingredient is to be lucky enough that all of these “partners” are highly professional and in agreement with the common goal.

Our first challenge was to keep the total legally defined applicant pool as low as possible. (Note that, given the company’s strong reputation, favorable working conditions and highly desirable compensation, this company typically never has a problem obtaining a large applicant pool.)

A decision was made to advertise the job opening in the local county and all contiguous counties, since it could be reasonably expected that potential employees would be willing to commute daily from those counties to the plant. We knew this would bring in a large group of applicants.

Here’s where the first creative thought kicked in. Rather than send out employment applications to anyone – thus making them an applicant and subject to EEO law and adverse impact measures – we raised the hurdle to apply. All persons interested in a plant job were required to travel to the local State Employment Office, located close to the plant, and complete an “interest card.”

This was not considered an application. No information regarding a person’s race, age or gender was collected; we simply collected names and telephone numbers. This eliminated any possible suggestion of bias toward any protected group.

Here’s where the second creative thought was put forth. The company did not have access to those interest cards. The State Employment Office maintained the data and entered it into a computer program. In cooperation with our counsel, we prepared to reduce the 50,000 interest cards through a lottery approach (i.e. random selection). By using this method there was little or no way to inadvertently treat any applicant unfairly and adverse impact was almost impossible. Thus, we avoided 40,000 potentially unhappy applicants/customers.

Ten thousand people were invited back to the employment office to complete an official application to work at the plant. By partnering with the local employment service, we were able to establish a sense of trust and shared control with the City of Cartersville.

The next steps were part of the company’s typical hiring process. Every effort was made to ensure the assessment tools were job-related, which is a core requirement of EEO law. Content validity studies were conducted for each assessment tool.

In preparation to allay any concerns from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) or Justice Department, we maintained a “validation library.” The library included extensive technical reports detailing all work completed to prove the content validity of each assessment tool. We went one step further and created executive summaries for each of the technical reports.

While only one EEOC inquiry was made out of 50,000 potential applicants, providing the executive summary (in this case, for our structured interview) closed the case quickly in favor of the company.

The Assessment and Selection Process

Step 1 – Cognitive Ability Testing

It was important to ensure new employees could read at the appropriate level, perform mathematical computations the position required, problem-solve and learn on the job. A cognitive ability test, with the cut score set to minimize or eliminate adverse impact, was used as the first screening.

Step 2 – Structured interview

We needed to know how well the candidates could communicate basic ideas, and we wanted to hear prior examples of how they applied skills and competencies relevant to this job. A competency-based structured interview was developed and all interviewers attended training on this approach. The second step of the selection process required candidates to perform well in the interview.

Step 3- Assessment Center

Assessment centers can be rich with information and, if developed correctly, help candidates feel the process is a fair sample of the job (face validity).  An assessment center is not a place; it’s a procedure that gives candidates an opportunity to show what they can do rather than just talk about it.

A typical assessment center brings a group of candidates together to be observed by trained assessors. Candidates are asked to participate in work samples (a small piece of the job) and business simulations.

Validated through a content validity approach, our assessment center resembled the kind of work done on the job and the team culture it required. It was a strong measure of, among other things, the ability to work as part of a team.

Step 4 – Drug Screening

Candidates who passed the assessment center step were required to undergo drug screening. We used both urine and hair sampling. Needless to say, a clear head is critical to work in a high-speed manufacturing environment.

Step 5- Background Check

The final hurdle – after making a job offer – was to complete a criminal background check and work history review on successful candidates. This was important to ensure the safety of other workers and to hire reliable employees.

Throughout the entire assessment, selection and hiring process, we monitored the potential of adverse impact toward protected groups. Monthly analyses were conducted on each step of the process, including the final hire.

No violations occurred. We were able to satisfy the EEO requirement of “fairness” in the recruitment, assessment, selection and hiring process, while also accomplishing the CEO’s mandate.

EASI•Consult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult®, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.

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