Complaints & Appeals Related to Testing: An Overview

If you have an active selection program that processes large numbers of candidates through successive hurdles type of processes that include written and oral exams, the probability you are going to get complaints and appeals is high. The number you receive and how you handle them is largely within your control. While it is true that most jurisdictions have an appeal process that is spelled out by their Civil Service Rules or other regulations that guide their operations, it is also generally true that these rules are subject to change. So I acknowledge that, for the present time, the manner in which you deal with complaints and appeals may be dictated to you. I would also like to stress that in your role as an HR Professional it is part of your responsibility to do what you can to ensure that your rules reflect current practices and procedures in the field of testing.

You may also have written contracts with unions and/or consultants and test publishers that specify how appeals will be handled and in those cases you are obligated to follow those guidelines during the life of the contracts. However, I still believe the number of complaints and appeals you receive can be minimized by your approach to the testing process. Unfortunately, even though a lot of the finesse involved in handling applicants and their issues must be learned through experience, having good guidelines to follow and a positive customer service attitude can go a long way in mitigating the impact of complaints and appeals.

I believe that it helps to make some distinctions regarding appeals concerning the separate stages of the selection process along with making a distinction between appeals provided to applicants participating in open competitive exams versus employees participating in promotional exams open to employees only. My experience and association with a large number of practitioners in the field of employee selection has taught me the following:

An appeal is something put in writing that involves a specified set of procedures and requirements that must be followed by both the appellant and the agency.

A complaint may be verbal or written and typically does not involve any specified procedures. In that regard, complaints often lack substance and specificity and do not obligate the agency to react. Complaints can often be resolved by an explanation of an agency’s procedures and/or an apology that soothes the feelings of the offended party and eliminates the need for additional follow up.

While appeals tend to be more serious and can have a bigger impact on your selection procedures, complaints should never be taken lightly. While no one likes receiving complaints, your attitude toward them and your handling of them can have positive and negative impacts upon your agency. I believe that we have all received complaints regarding our own behavior or our testing process that seemed so frivolous that it felt like any time spent on them was wasted. However, legitimate complaints can be a valuable tool in improving our processes. In that regard, utilize every complaint as part of your program to eliminate complaints.

In my experience, a large number of complaints relate to the concept of “fairness.” In fact, the whole idea of “fairness” seems to be at the center of most of the complaints that I personally received or overheard said to a test monitor or the test taker’s peers. I’ve always believed that fairness was in the eye of the beholder and even though nothing is truly fair in this world, what we need to talk about in test administration is consistency. I will discuss more about complaints and dealing with them after touching on a little more detail with appeals.

Since appeals are more formal, the rules often spell out what can and cannot be appealed, along with procedures for filing an appeal. Unfortunately, the mere fact that procedures for appeals are put in writing often gives potential appellants the impression that they have “appeal rights.” This is often the foundation for many of the issues encountered when dealing with appellants in the appeal process.

Something I will stress later is the fact that appellants should be told and helped to understand that an appeal process has been put in place to assist with resolving what an applicant might consider an egregious error. Further, they should understand that the process was developed by Human Resources as part of their effort to provide outstanding customer service and is not imposed upon them by some outside entity that has oversight over HR practices. It should be clear that the process is not a right, but just a process to allow appellants to ask that an issue be investigated with the extent of that investigation and the outcome of any such investigation being left up to HR. If your rules don’t read this way (or you don’t have rules regarding appeals), it would be valuable to write some that reflect this approach.

In sorting out appeals, it is also important to determine:

  • Which portion of a selection procedure can be appealed,
  • How the appeal will be conducted,
  • What materials the appellant will be provided,
  • When the appeal must be submitted,
  • What the possible outcomes can be, and
  • Who will make the final determination.

In creating or amending the appeal process, it is important to understand that it is generally beneficial to provide separate appeal procedures for current employees taking promotional exams and external candidates taking entry-level tests. In most cases where separate procedures exist, the employees’ opportunities for appealing separate parts of the selection process are greater.

While complaints are typically not as involved as appeals and have fewer guidelines regarding how they are handled, they can still be serious if not dealt with correctly.

One of the first steps in handling complaints is to try to avoid them. As mentioned previously, a lot of complaints focus on what candidates consider to be unfair treatment. Avoiding complaints from that arena should focus on treating all candidates as consistently as possible. This includes providing detailed pretest instructions for every stage in the process, including:

  • What the test will cover,
  • What the next phase in the process is,
  • What is involved in that process,
  • When it will be given,
  • How scoring is conducted,
  • What is considered a passing score or condition, and
  • When results will be given.

It is also wise to provide test training sessions and simulations for all areas of the test and be sure to hold these sessions at more than one time so that the largest numbers of people possible have the opportunity to attend.

The day of the written exam, it is important to get everyone in the room and seated as quickly as possible, ensure they receive the proper materials and start on time. As people arrive, they should be treated with courtesy and respect, greeted with an attitude that shows them you are glad they are there. The room should be as comfortable as possible and free of outside noise. Proctors and test monitors should make sure to keep talking between each other and other distractions at a minimum.

Provide instructions for taking the test again and go over restroom and emergency procedures, both out of necessity and as a way to demonstrate concern for their welfare. Instructions should not be overly wordy since candidates are eager to test, but they should be long enough for them to know what they are doing, where they go for what and what to do if they have a question or are finished with the test.

Consider all questions during the test as to whether they are legitimate inquiries about the test itself or an item on the test. Have one designated individual answer questions so that those answers are consistent. If an answer clarifies a test question then it should not be given or it should be announced to all. Make sure the amount of time remaining for the test is visible to all candidates.

The test itself should appear to measure what is says it measures. That is, it should have “face validity.” While the concept is not an actual statistical term, it is valuable if candidates can look at a test and believe that it looks like it is asking about information a public safety officer should know. I have found that there are a lot fewer complaints about tests that look right than those that do not, even though the latter may have demonstrated better criterion related validity.

Additionally, it is important to be sure no one appears to get preferential treatment. Test administrators often get to know repeat testers by name or may even have friends taking the test, but any overly friendly greeting with these people is bound to make others feel slighted and could lead to complaints.

Ultimately, I have learned that complaints are best handled at the lowest level possible, allowing the complainant room to move up the chain of command if he or she is not satisfied at the lower level. Again, the complainant should be taken seriously and treated courteously. If all standard rules and procedures were followed, this should be made known to the complainant. If the rules specify any remedies, this should also be made known. Once a complainant has been given ample time to be heard and the issue has been made clear, the complainant can be given an opportunity to voice what he or she believes should be the solution. If the solution is not appropriate to be granted or if it is not within your power to grant such a solution, it is appropriate to suggest that you will move his or her complaint up the chain or tell him or her they can do so on their own if they wish. Be sure to brief the person who may receive the call next.

Remember not every customer can be satisfied and complaints will come, but you really don’t have anything to worry about if you follow the rules and treat people with courtesy and kindness. The next article we will discuss appeals more in depth.

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About Robert Burd

Robert is an HR professional with over thirty years of experience in public sector human resources specializing in selection including: test development and validation, designing and conducting oral boards, assessment centers and physical fitness testing.

2 thoughts on “Complaints & Appeals Related to Testing: An Overview

  1. Pingback: Considering Your Appeals Process | Assessment Services Review

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