By BLR Founder and CEO Bob Brady
In the end, prodded by public opinion and politics, the city decided to throw out the results of the test. (Note: The city didn’t decide to promote lower-scoring applicants—it just decided to start over again.)*
And then the trouble began. The union representing the firefighters sued and, in a well-publicized case, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided against the city.
The events that led up to the case are an example of a "perfect storm" where several factors come together to yield a big, bad result:
I'm glad I wasn’t the HR manager charged with maneuvering through this minefield. *
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The combination of these factors made it nearly impossible for HR to function effectively, but city HR professionals tried their hardest. The city charter required that a test be used to determine promotion, so the city hired a well-known, highly qualified firm to develop one, paying them $100,000.
Both the test developer and the city followed a rigorous protocol designed to ensure that the test was good and that it was not compromised. For example, no one in HR was allowed to see any test question before it was administered because of past accusations that questions had been leaked.
The test was administered and, when the results came back, no African Americans—and only one Hispanic—made it into the top of the list, though they were heavily represented in the rank and file. It wasn’t that a good number didn’t pass the test, demonstrating considerable competence. However, under the rules, only the highest-scoring individuals made it into the hiring pool.
This put city administrators in a very precarious position: Use the test scores and face a very unhappy minority community and probably a lawsuit on the basis of "adverse impact," or ignore the scores and face a lawsuit because of "reverse discrimination."
The Civil Service Commission, which had to certify the results, voted 2 to 2 (the fifth member did not participate because she was the sister of one of the white firefighters). Under the rules, a tie meant that the results were not certified, and that they had to go back to the drawing board. The high-scoring applicants were understandably outraged. They’d studied long and hard and now their efforts were for naught. They decided to sue and were recently vindicated by the Supreme Court.
Do we really think that a paper and pencil test—or for that matter, any test—is really the best way to determine who will be best able to lead firefighters? As this test was devised, it measured ability to memorize and reason. It is important—essential—for a leader to know procedures and best practices, but that is just part of what is required.
The test does not measure the ability to lead firefighters under pressure or deal with complex community issues in high stress situations. Any of us who have worked with similar instruments have seen cases where the highest-scoring individuals were not necessarily the best qualified. Tests measure job skills, and they do so in a particularly "academic" way. They don't measure life skills, which are hugely important in leadership positions. (** Please give us your opinion on this question. See survey below.)
But HR's hands were tied. The city charter required tests and the union was inflexible. No doubt, the requirement was put in place to counter political appointments, whereby supporters received the spoils of victory, which was probably even worse. That is the argument made by test proponents today.
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As the tone of this column probably makes clear, I don't think that a test is a very good way to decide who gets promoted in a fire department. On the other hand, political bosses, be they 19th century WASPS and Irish, or 21st century African Americans, probably have a different view of "merit" than HR managers.
If I had to choose, I'd choose a test, but I would make sure that the test takers’ pool includes all potentially qualified individuals. I would put everyone who passes the test into a promotion pool, and then rely on department managers and HR managers to make the all-important subjective assessments. Civil Service officials would have the power to review and approve. You can be assured that politics would enter into any such equation, but this is government. Politics will intrude. It is different from a private organization, where delivering a product and making money is the goal. The Fire Department's "product" is public safety. That calls for more than just putting out fires.
Remember the saying, "You hire people for what they know, and you fire them for who they are." A test doesn't measure that.
Anyway, that’s my e-pinion. I'd love to hear yours. E-mail me at Rbrady@blr.com.
* Full disclosure: I should note that the city’s HR director at the time the decision was made, Tina Burgett, is a personal friend, though we’ve never discussed the case. (We share a passion for cabaret singing.) My judgment may be colored by friendship, though I hope it isn't.
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