The legal consequences of acing an ethics test.

If you ever wonder why state employees are so marvelously equipped to believe six impossible things before breakfast, this story from Inside Higher Education will provide some context:

Who would have thought that doing too well on a test could get you in trouble?

Certainly not Tony Williams. After passing a new online test on ethics required of all state employees, the tenured professor in the English department at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale received a notice from his university ethics officer and from the state inspector general that he was not in compliance with state ethics regulations, a failure that state officials said could result in punishment that included dismissal. The reason? He had completed the test too quickly.

(Bold emphasis added. More below the fold.)

"It's a very simple test designed for thousands of state employees, and it's more relevant for people in purchasing or positions of power," he said. "Anybody with a fair degree of intelligence can get through it quickly."

However, state officials have asked him to complete another ethics training course for "noncompliant employees," which they sent him in the mail. The letter sent to the professors states how long it took them to complete the test, and reads: "Contrary to instructions, you appear to have failed to carefully read and review the subject matter contained in the program's introduction and the lessons." After completing the course, Williams and others were told to sign a letter acknowledging their participation in the "ethics orientation for noncompliant employees."

Hold on a moment. From one piece of data (the length of time it took to complete an online test), the state can judge that Williams wasn't reading and reviewing the necessary material carefully enough. Implicit in this is the assumption that the "lessons" that preceded the test were something that state employees would need to slow down and read carefully -- presumably because it was brand new information with which they were not acquainted. So, someone who is already well-versed in basic ethical principles -- who already knows how to use his ethical compass for good decision making -- and, quite sensibly, doesn't spend a lot of time poring over the "lessons" before acing the test is, therefore, out of compliance with state ethics regulations.

In other words, the state of Illinois would prefer employees who are learning ethics for the first time in these online lessons, or who are anal-retentive about following instructions to "read carefully" (and slowly) over employees who already know how to make ethical decisions and read efficiently?!

And they say bureaucracies are bad at making good decisions.

The article continues:

But Williams said that signing the form places him in a bind. First, he does not believe that he violated any of the rules for taking the test, which does not have a minimal time for completion. Second, his union's collective bargaining rules allow for harsher penalties from the university if a person has prior marks on his record. Signing the form for "noncompliant employees" may jeopardize his ability to defend himself should he come under any future disciplinary action, he said.

Drawing a line, he and at least three other professors at Southern Illinois refused to sign the form by last week's deadline. "We're going to sue the state for the illegality of this training," said Marvin Zeman, a professor of math and president of the faculty union, which is affilated with the National Education Association.

Zeman has also refused the sign the form. His letter from the state inspector general charged that he had completed the test in only 6.18 minutes. Zeman said that he is not certain how much time he spent on the test, which he took from his office, but he said that it was quite easy. "They are just stating something and I have no way to challenge it," he said. "I didn't time myself because I was never told about a time limit."

"Each question had four choices and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out," he said. Zeman said that he has not been presented with evidence that he violated anything in the state's ethics laws by completing the test too quickly. He also said that signing the form may subject him to harsher penalties if he becomes the focus of disciplinary action in the future. "I'm opening myself up to future trouble," he said.

Morteza Daneshdoost, professor of electrical and computer engineering, agreed. He recently sent out an e-mail to faculty members advising them that if they signed the form, they should add the line, "I am signing this document under duress and my signature does not mean my agreement with its contents or its allegations." Morteza said that they advised faculty members to add the line after consulting with a lawyer.

How ethical is it for the state to exact a penalty for a rule that they didn't announce (you must spend at least this much time taking the online ethics test)? How ethical is it for the state to pressure its employees to sign a letter indicating that they are non-compliant when, by any reasonable standard, the employees have complied with the ethics policy?

Not very ethical at all, I reckon.

Part of the fear by professors comes from statements made in the press by Gilbert Jimenez, deputy inspector general in the state inspector general's office. Last December, Jimenez told the Daily Egyptian that it was unreasonable for anyone to spend less than 10 minutes on the exam.

"This person is holding onto a cheat sheet," he told the student newspaper. "That's what it tells me." He raised similar concerns in an article that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times in early January.

However, Jimenez told Inside Higher Ed that he had been misquoted and that he has not made allegations to reporters that professors may have cheated. He further stated that he had no proof that anyone had cheated, but for any professor to finish the test in under 10 minutes "raises questions as to whether they had assistance."

"I wonder about cheat sheets," he said.

Jimenez added that any state employees who have not finished the required retraining and signed the form of noncompliance are in violation of state law. "We will direct their agencies and departments to begin discipline, up to and including discharge."

(Again, bold emphasis added.)

No, there's no proof that the professors who finished the test too early cheated. It just seems suspicious to a state deputy inspector general. Professors aren't noted for being quick readers, or for retaining information they've encountered previously, after all. And they sure don't know much about the design of multiple-choice tests.

I have no proof the Mr. Jimenez is being a completely unreasonable bureaucrat who is throwing around his weight to satisfy his own appetites rather than the greater good of the state of Illinois. It just seems suspicious to me.

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My company puts us through ethics quizzes periodically, where you have to do some reading and then answer some questions. But most of the questions are along the lines of:

You see a fellow employee steal cash from the cash register when he thinks no one's looking. Should you:
a. Mug him after work and take the money.
b. Confront him after work and make him share it with you.
c. Say nothing.
d. Report what you saw to your manager.

Anyone with an ounce of common sense can come up with the right answer in ten seconds.

If this test is really being required of all state employees, I wonder how all of the state's judges are reacting to this. Presumably, they too would be rapid test takers.

Six minutes? Shoot, I'll bet I could ace it in less time.

It's interesting all the "cheaters" are employed as professors in the state's university system. What is the state saying about the quality of that system?

By Unlearned Hand (not verified) on 23 Jan 2007 #permalink

Way back when I was in journalism school, we were told that calling someone a criminal is libel per se. I am not certain about the law, not being a lawyer, or about whether saying someone is in violation of state law is the same as accusing them of being a criminal, but if I were one of the employees in question, I might consider contacting a lawyer. Of course truth is a defense, but then the accuser would have to prove guilt.

As an alumni of SIU-C, I can attest that certain people at my alma mater would do just about anything to get rid of someone who turns out to be too ethical. This sounds sadly like "par for the course" at my old school.

Ooh, the things I learned in that place....


By Roadtripper (not verified) on 23 Jan 2007 #permalink

I took that test as well and was cited for non-compliance for completing it in just under 6 minutes. I did not cheat. It's just that the actual test has only 10 questions, they are all commonsense answers, and it's the same stupid test I've taken twice before (it's mandatory each year). I think I vaguely remember there being some mention of a minimum amount of time mentioned somewhere in the material (possibly right at the end when you "signed" then docment). Just like the professors mentioned in the story, very little of the guidelines and questions pertain to me, since I'm not in a position of power. Everyone I know who didn't get cited only avoided the citation because they ate lunch at the same time, or went to a meeting and then completed the test. Which when you think about it isn't any more ethical, but they can't know that. I got a 10/10.

By MiddleO'Nowhere (not verified) on 23 Jan 2007 #permalink

At my company we have to take various courses followed by online quizzes each year. The ethics course is really quite interesting and the cases on the quiz, which change each year, are thought provoking and sometimes challenging.
We also have to re-do the information security course each year. Because the website was confusingly designed, I accidentally discovered I could skip the course by taking and passing the test first.

I teach at a Community College in Illinois and we had to take that ethics trainig thing as well. Our HR director specifically told us that spending less than 30 minutes would get us in trouble. So, I did it over lunch, alternating reading sections of the test and checking my favorite blogs... took me over an hour. :-)

By Frenchdoc (not verified) on 25 Jan 2007 #permalink

Sounds like a test I took for driver's license renewal once. Four choices. You couldn't go wrong by choosing whichever one made alcohol look worse. If alcohol claims X many lives yearly (A = 1, B = 10, C = 100, D = Eleventy gazillion), pick D. A similar principle could be found for many other classes of test question in the examination.

There is something that needs to be added to this discussion, something that goes to the heart of the matter, from which the tests are a distraction (and means of intimidation): no politician has any business requiring us to take an ethics test as long as it remains legal to accept campaign contributions from parties over whose interests you will have some jurisdiction or influence if elected. (And you can find out from this very ethics test under discussion that taking such campaign contributions is, in fact, perfectly legal, as everyone knows already. Two tickets to a Bulls game from a contractor - no go - but $100,000 towards the next election - no problem.)

By Charles Delman (not verified) on 29 Jan 2007 #permalink