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'Maya Personality Honesty Tests': One Alternative to Traditional Recruiting?

Feb 1, 2008
One of my strangest HR projects involved kiosks and personality tests to determine if an employee had a predisposition for theft and criminal activity. Our strategic ally was a company that had started out doing polygraphs or lie detector tests and then had to change their business model when the Supreme Court ruled lie detector tests were not reliable enough to be admissible as evidence in court.

As a response to this Supreme Court ruling, our business partner developed a series of personality tests of which many are still used today by major corporations. These tests could determine fairly accurately whether a prospective employee was predisposed to steal but they were very odd questions.

My initial review showed the tests would not work as many of the questions were silly or simply did not make sense. The CEO told me these questions worked only for criminal minds and would seem absurd to anyone else. Go figure. The tests had been administered millions of times so their reliability and accuracy was very high.

Sometimes those of us that work in 'advanced business environments' such as Silicon Valley think that all discoveries and insights come from high powered big corporations. While that may be partially true, it is also true that many great ideas and innovative methods can come from not so advanced markets and from unexpected places.

Such is the case with what the Maya called 'pruebitas' or little tests to determine one's honesty and integrity. Here are three gems:

The first is from Pancho, a friend that now has a chain of furniture stores in Playa del Carmen, Merida and Chetumal. Like most entrepreneurs Pancho wanted to start out hiring honest employees since he knew the high costs of embezzlement and theft.

"Amigo Gringo," he laughed, "it was all too simple yet very effective...and something you advanced business people would probably never do. Like many businesses we would run an ad in the newspaper saying we were hiring. But when the prospective employee showed up, we would tell them that the manager was sick but we would give them an advance and they could come back in two days for their interview."

"The prospective employee signed nothing and we did not even know their name...it was if we were giving away free money. We started out with 300 pesos which isn't much to you Gringos but to many workers in Mexico it is a lot. Like you, many of our competitors thought we were crazy and laughed at our stupidity at giving away free money. I'm sure many of those prospective employees thought we were crazy too and they never came back. But it wasn't free money."

"Those that did come back were honest and we knew they wanted to work. And almost all of them ended up being good, long term employees. Now you Gringos are so smart with numbers, what does it cost when you hire a bad employee?" he laughed, "and remember here in Mexico it is difficult to fire anyone and if you do you have to pay them for lost wages."

The second test was a bit simpler and was used by my friend Octavio who has a jungle ranch next to ours. Octavio and his wife had some fifteen kids. Octavio insisted on leaving money and other items out in clear view in his ranch house. Having raised his kids to be extremely honest, he knew that none of them would ever remove anything without his permission. Many Maya are this way.

So when their kids would bring home their friends, usually nothing would be missing. But when it was, Octavio would immediately know and ask his kids to not have their dishonest friend back. No real big deal except Octavio was assured that his many children would not be running around with the wrong crowd. Not surprisingly none of his kids became criminals probably because they didn't hang out with friends that were criminals.

The third test is not so much a test as a way to ensure honesty and behavioral continuum. Those Maya parents with means will often make their children's inheritance conditional on their children's continued good behavior. This can continue into their fifties and sixties and beyond; sort of like Santa Claus not giving out the goodies to those that have been bad. While not actually a business strategy this approach works on several levels. It also means being a good boy for a very long time.

A number of my Maya friends have suggested similar strategies with my business dealings in Mexico. Before doing business with anyone, they suggest giving someone I don't know a few small tests first. It may sound corny but it works. Through these tests we have been able to determine quickly and accurately a person's integrity level. And like my friend Pancho says it's much cheaper to lose a little up front instead of losing a lot later.

Since then other tests have popped up, such as leaving cold beer available for workers to see who will, if offered free beer, take advantage and drink on the job. It's true; that one's really not fair.

Fair? But is employee dishonesty ever really fair?
About the Author
Jack Deal owns Deal Business Consulting in Santa Cruz, California. Related articles may be found at http://www.jddeal.com/blog and http://www.freeandinquiringmind.typepad.com
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