Chicago, Firefighters, and Tests…Oh My!

Supposed Bad News for Employers

This week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of a group of African-American firefighter applicants over the city of Chicago.   They claimed the applicant selection process had a disparate impact on African-Americans and was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Why did this happen?

Some Basic Facts in Plain English

Basically, July of 1995, the city of Chicago administered an assessment to over 26,000 applicants. The applicant scores fell into 3 groups:

The city randomly drew from the applicants who scored 89 or above to proceed to in the selection process.   These were the candidates labeled as well qualified. 

The candidates who scored below 65 were notified they were no longer in the running for a position.  They had failed the test.

The applicants who scored between 65 and 88 were considered qualified applicants.  They were told they had passed the test, but would not likely continue in the selection process. 

Then over a period of six years, the city of Chicago ran through the list of well qualified candidates and started bringing the qualified applicant list into the selection process.

Now the applicants case rested on the fact that the procedures utilized by the city statistically had an adverse impact on African Americans.

The city argued that the claims by the plaintiffs did not occur in a timely manner expected under the law.

What Can We Learn from This?

The lawyers will share a great deal about the technical factors under the law and they will be correct.  But for a moment forget the law and let’s just talk about what is right and known.

  • First…Tests are not infallible.  They should rarely be used alone for decision making. 
  • Second…Tests are not the best way to screen through 26,000 people.  There are much better ways such as realistic job previews that do not put an organization at legal risk.
  • Third…The City of Chicago screened out qualified people.  That makes little sense.  Some of those individuals may have been a better fit culturally than a so called “well qualified” candidate.  We must remember that tests do not measure everything and they do not measure everything well.
  • Fourth…Just because you randomly select from a group does not mean that the overall process is still not biased.  Adverse impact is something any employer should be aware and tracking.  It also helps if you are utilizing an assessment that has already demonstrated that it does not have an adverse impact effect. 
  • Fifth…What an impersonal process!   Treating candidates with dignity and respect helps keep you out of legal trouble and ensures a stronger acceptance ratio.  This type of selection process comes out of the dark ages.  We should engage everyone better. 
  • Last…They should question the value of the test and those that provided the expertise to the process.    They went through all of the well qualified individuals and still needed people.  Did the test actually measure or predict success well.  What was the evidence of validity?  More importantly, how could they continue using old test scores for so long-six years?  The scores could no longer be considered valid.  Who advises utilizing selection assessment this way?

If you forget about the legal and technical arguments you still come to the same conclusion.  The City of Chicago was using a poor process, which treated people like cattle, and invited legal scrutiny.  It is time organizations use tests in a thoughtful manner and treat candidates better.  It is only then that we will make better decisions and stay out of the courts!

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