Test Cheating Has Reached The Workplace

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Here’s how leaders can make sure employee assessments and certification exams are accurate.

Reports of academic cheating increased during the pandemic, which was likely due to more opportunities and temptations to cheat, on top of higher-than-normal stress and pressure. As stakes grew higher and types of cheating evolved and became more widely known, cheating has also reached into workplace tests and assessments.

Learning and development (L&D) professionals spend resources creating learning programs and assessments to better their employees and organizations, but many of them don’t understand or recognize the causes and consequences of cheating—much less address it—within their workplaces. Test fraud (as it’s known in the assessment world) poses a real risk to meritocracy, causes the devaluation of certifications, and even risks health and safety.

Causes and consequences of workplace test fraud

The purpose of tests and assessments in the workplace is to prove employees’ knowledge, identify areas of strength and growth, and assess readiness for roles. When the stakes are high—such as testing to get a role that has preferred conditions or pays higher—people are more inclined to cheat.

Financial pressures can make cheating seem like the best option if a promotion or more money is on the line. For example, in accredited market sectors like finance, where failure can have an impact on job retention and progression, economic drivers can affect the decision to cheat. More broadly, rising costs of living worldwide is another factor that can encourage cheating to allow for a higher-paying role. In these cases, it’s easy to both be motivated to cheat and rationalize cheating in a situation where one can link passing a test to their future income security and well-being, especially when their security is at risk.

Another significant pressure is language barriers: As globalization and immigration increase, more people are working in environments that may not speak their native language. Those who aren’t proficient in the language of a workplace test, despite their level of proficiency in a job itself, can be inclined to cheat because they may see it as the only way to pass. The room-for-error margin for a non-native speaker in an exam can be significantly lower, and they may feel they’re at an automatic disadvantage compared to a native speaker, so they want to “even their opportunities” by cheating.  

Despite these motivations, each instance of test fraud devalues the validity of a test and makes it possible for people who may not be equipped to move into positions that greatly impact the company as a whole.

How companies feel about cheating

Recent research commissioned by Questionmark revealed that companies throughout the U.S. and UK struggle to identify what constitutes as cheating. When respondents were asked what they would consider cheating, more than half (51%) thought that having another person present during the test was breaking the rules, while 6 in 10 (63%) of senior professionals believed simply wearing a smart watch during testing was cheating. If organizations are unable to define what constitutes cheating, it begs the question of how are they trying to address this problem?

The research also revealed that staggeringly over a third (35%) of businesses were not concerned about cheating in their organization, and 37% were not concerned with their ability to detect cheating. With surprisingly high levels of indifference despite the frequency and fallout we continue to see in the media, it could be that the consequences of test fraud are underestimated. 

Moreover, the research suggests that many organizations are failing to keep pace with cheaters, as almost half (47%) of companies surveyed stated that they relied on employees’ honesty as a safeguarding measure. While organizations should have trust in their employees, relying on honesty culture is not enough when it comes to high-stakes exams and ultimately leaves organizations dangerously exposed.

Addressing workplace cheating

Combatting cheating in the workplace requires organizations to establish a clear set of processes to ensure training programs are implemented effectively and to see a return on investment.

Here are a few strategic ways to reduce cheating:

  • Establish a formal testing policy. Without one, employees may not realize how seriously their company takes test fraud.
  • Publicize security measures. Communicate to employees what you are doing to secure tests and the consequences for cheating. Seeing examples of others disciplined for test cheating helps disincentivize the activity.
  • Remove the need to cheat. Provide good learning opportunities for all tests so that employees can pass the test without cheating.
  • Move testing to online. It has greater security, scope and greater learning success than traditional testing, and is much easier to manage.
  • Use proctoring services. When people are monitored while taking a test, it’s harder to cheat. Online proctoring is especially useful because it provides aids that aren’t available in traditional settings.
  • Make assessments inclusive. For people testing in a non-native language, for example, it provides translation capabilities.
  • Consider more frequent, smaller tests. Testing smaller amounts of information makes it easier to prepare and reduces the pressure to cheat.

The importance of testing with integrity

L&D has become the heart of organizations’ armor. Providing learning and certification opportunities gives organizations a competitive edge when it comes to recruiting or managing talent shortages. Moreover, it can help boost productivity among employees, allowing new recruits to gain job-specific skills while on the job and identifying employees’ strengths. Workplace cheating is a direct attack on employee talent and integrity and finding a way to combat test fraud is a topic that should be on every leader’s radar.

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