The Impact of Psychological Profiling of Australian Correctional Officers

By Lough, Jonathan Wald, Elise; Byrne, Kenneth; Walker, Gordon

Correctional work is a highly stressful occupation that can impact the health of correctional officers (Casey, Dollard and Winefield, 2001). Health has a direct connection to the use of sick leave and stress claims, both of which are costly and can have a significant impact on the efficiency of an institution and the safety of officers and inmates. Hiring the right staff is crucial, as the cost of hiring the wrong person includes increased stress and sick leave. However, a poor hiring decision has other risks, too, such as low team morale; threats to safety of self, teammates and inmates; increased stress on managers; and risk of negative publicity. Coping with stress is an important quality in a correctional officer, but not everyone copes with stress in the same way. What can be very stressful for one person may be only a minor annoyance for another. Experience shows that some people are more psychologically suited to correctional work than others. Equally important is that some applicants are attracted to the role to satisfy pathological psychological needs.

Pre-employment psychological testing has become sophisticated during the past decade, and research has shown the tests to be reliable and valid predictors of many facets of job performance (e.g., Casey et al., 2001: Christensen, 2002; Lough and Ryan, 2005; Lough and Ryan, 2006). In addition, pre-employment psychological testing has become increasingly used in paramilitary fields such as law enforcement and corrections (Byrne, Culler and Culler, 2002). Few studies have exclusively examined correctional officers, and fewer have yielded results of any note. However, Holland. Heim and Holt (1976), while not finding any relationship between screening and job performance, did discover Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) profile similarities between officers and inmates. In addition, Berkley’s (2001) 20-year review of Pennsylvania’s correctional officer personnel selection practices acknowledges both the potential of psychological screening and the lack of genuine research in the area.

This article examines a study of pre-employment psychological profiling performed with the Australian Institute of Forensic Psychology’s (AIFP) Public Safety Psychological Profiling System. The institute’s profiling system has good research support (e.g., Byrne et al., 2002; Lough and Ryan, 2005) and has been widely used for correctional officer applicant screening in Australia (Byrne, 2001; Choy, 1998).

Correctional Officer Roles And Job Demands

In recent years, custodial systems have moved toward a casework model (Casey et al., 2001), which combines the traditional security role of the correctional officer with a human relations role. This approach reduces the focus from incarceration and places greater emphasis on rehabilitation. The key goal of imprisonment becomes helping offenders to assume a law-abiding lifestyle that will result in them not returning to prison (King, 2000).

The adoption of this casework model has led to significant focus on the role and expectations of the correctional officer. The job has moved well beyond just containing and managing inmates. The successful officer in a casework model is required to have a host of additional skills, including, but not limited to, better interpersonal sensitivity, higher intelligence, self-insight and a more flexible approach to the enforcement of rules and procedures.

Job Stress and Burnout

Job stress refers to the specific relationship an employee has with the work environment (Schaufeli and Peelers, 2000). Job Stressors are the factors that drive this process. Typical job- related stress reactions include high blood pressure and other health problems, dissatisfaction, absenteeism, stress claims, and substance abuse.

The stresses a correctional officer faces are clearly greater than those faced in the vast majority of other vocations (Finn, 2000; Johnson and Johnson, 1997). Stressors such as the ongoing threat of violence, the negativity of inmates, shift work and society’s generally negative view of this role are all powerful contributors to the stress of the job. Extremely stressful events can sometimes lead to conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (Johnson and Johnson, 1997). Therefore, the appropriate mix of personality traits would appear to be important in selecting successful correctional officers. Individuals not psychologically suited to coping with the correctional environment are more likely to suffer more stress, which ultimately leads to more sick leave, stress leave and greater staff turnover.

Personality Screening

Determining who will be successful in a job – particularly over a period of four years – is an extremely challenging task. Pre- employment personality screening is usually better at detecting who will not succeed in a job than identifying who will. There are numerous reasons for this, as outlined by Byrne (1994; 2001).

First, it is exceedingly difficult to describe exactly what a “good performer” looks like. By nature, performance evaluations will always be subjective. People will tend to get higher ratings because of factors such as having a good sense of humor, sharing similar values as their boss and meeting the standards that a particular supervisor sets. A person who is regarded as below average by one supervisor can be seen as a good performer by another.

In addition, once individuals are hired, it is impossible to predict what challenges life will throw them. For example, there is no way of knowing that once a person is hired, he or she will get divorced in two years, leading to a period of depression and decreased work performance thereafter.

Despite all efforts, it is also very difficult for a person to know what a job really requires before he or she is actually in the job. Thus, people can genuinely say that they understand what is required and think they will enjoy it. However, no one ever knows until he or she is in the job.

Once hired, it is impossible to predict how any one applicant will get along with the supervisor to whom he or she is assigned. There will always be a variety of personalities among a group of supervisors. Similarly, there will be different levels of competency. How the “chemistry” between the applicant and supervisor works out is impossible to predict.

Finally, different facilities make different demands on the officer. Working in a maximum-security facility is likely to have different demands than a role in a minimumsecurity facility.

Despite these variables, it is usually necessary to hire correctional officers to a “one size fits all” standard. On the other hand, it is much easier to detect a constellation of personality traits that would strongly suggest that the person will not be suitable. For example, the applicant with a lower than average IQ, a high need to dominate others, a rigid and authoritarian attitude toward enforcing rules, poor interpersonal sensitivity and a high degree of racial bias is likely to be a problem performer in any correctional setting.

Australian Research With The AIFP System

The AIFP profiling system was designed to screen a variety of public safety applicants, including correctional officers. It has been widely used in the United States and is well supported by research (Guller, 1994; Culler, 2003). The system has been used in Australia since the early 1990s. The institute’s system comprises six separate psychological tests and a subsequent structured interview. All of the components have been fully adapted for Australian conditions, have good reliability and validity, and have solid Australian norms.

Choy (1998) compared New South Wales correctional officers screened for selection with the AIFP battery with an unscreened group. She reported significantly lower rates of attrition (dropout) and sick leave claims among the AIFP-screened cohort after two years of service. Similar findings were reported among South Australia correctional officers (Casey et al., 2001), with screened officers taking approximately half the number of sick days of their unscreened counterparts during their first two years of employment. Byrne (2001) examined AIFP-screened and unscreened Queensland correctional officers during their first two years of employment. The findings mirrored those of the New South Wales and South Australia officers. AIFP-screened recruits had a notably lower dropout rate and took a significantly lower number of sick leave days.

These performance improvements translate directly to cost saving – Choy (1998) reinforced the financial benefit of the screening process by noting that the New South Wales correctional department sick leave payouts had decreased by 39 percent, or about $1.36 million. Further analysis of Choy’s data revealed that, based on the reduced sick leave, the screening process yielded a return on investment of approximately 3,000 percent. Lough and Ryan (2005: 2006) also reported strong return on investment figures. Byrne, Culler and Culler’s (2002) summary of findings of AIFP profiling in the corrections context reinforced the utility of the process and its financial benefits.Research Question And Method The identification of applicants who are likely to be resilient to jobrelated stress (and thus have a lower level of absenteeism or attrition) is a crucial issue for correctional departments. Thus, this study examined the relationship between the AIFP battery and sick leave. More specifically, this research hypothesized that AIFP- screened correctional officers would have lower amounts of sick leave and attrition than those officers selected without profiling.

For this study, data from a total of 891 people were used. Archived sick leave data (supplied by the Queensland Department of Correctional Services) was provided for two groups of officers. The pregroup comprised 451 officers hired before the AIFP test battery was implemented. The post-group, or AIFP group, comprised 440 officers who took the AIFP test battery as part of their employment screening.

Sick leave data were only used for the first four years of each group’s employment, as many of those in the pregroup had been employed longer. Sick leave data were provided in total number of hours taken per year per person. All data were de-identified in order to maintain confidentiality. At no stage in the research process was it possible to identify an individual officer’s name.

AIFP Profiling System

As previously mentioned, the AIFP system includes six separate psychological tests and a subsequent structured interview. The six tests are described below.

The Candidate and Officer Personnel Survey (COPS) is a test designed by AIFP (through extensive research) specifically for the purpose of screening public safety officer applicants. It is a 240- item forced-choice (yes or no) bio-data questionnaire instrument. The COPS test contains 18 scales, which include such measures as social adjustment, self-discipline, motivation, aggression and attitudes toward work and superiors.

The psychometric properties of COPS are sound. Culler (1994) reports the internal consistency (KR-20) of COPS at 0.86. Test- retest reliability varies according to scale, but ranges from 0.74 to 0.94 (Culler, 2003).

The Edwards Personal Preference Schedule is a broad measure of personality that assesses characteristics directly related to correctional officer performance. These include levels of assertiveness and dominance, ability to fit into a team, willingness to follow orders, tolerance for routine tasks, desire to help others and ability to learn from experience. This is a published, widely available test.

The Social Opinion Inventory measures locus of control, which refers to the extent to which individuals feel in control of their own life or, in contrast, feel that they are the victims of fate, luck or other forces beyond their control. This is a well- established and thoroughly researched construct in psychology.

The How Supervise Scale is a measure of judgment in interpersonal situations. This is a published, widely available test.

The Shipley Institute of Living Scale is a standardized, well- researched test of general intelligence. It is also a published, widely available test.

The Opinion Survey is a measure that assesses attitudes toward enforcing rules and procedures, ranging from rigid and “hard line” to overly soft and naive. Byrne (1994) reports the reliability (Cronbach’s alpha) of the test at 0.82.

The six individual test findings are statistically integrated to provide an overall summary of the applicant’s psychological suitability for a correctional officer position. These findings are complemented by a highly structured follow-up interview. Unusual responses or issues flagged by the tests are investigated more thoroughly. Findings from both the testing and interview yield an overall profile of the person, which is compared with the job requirements. Once the process is complete, the profile is used to guide and assist the selection panel in deciding whether a candidate should be advanced to the next stage of the selection process.

It should be noted that the AIFP system attempts to exclude poor candidates rather than “select the best.” The system is not designed to predict top performers, but rather to limit the likelihood of an unsuitable individual being hired.

Results

Sick Leave. Each year of sick leave data was compared between groups. Table 1 shows how the pre-group and AIFP group differed during the four years. Data are presented as mean hours per person per year.

Independent samples t-tests revealed statistically significant differences (at the 0.001 level) between the groups at year 1 – the AIFP group’s mean (25.7) was noticeably lower than the pregroup’s mean (34.1). A similar result was evident for the second year – the AIFP group’s mean of 17.1 hours was significantly less than the pregroup’s mean of 49.1.

A difference in sick leave in the third year was observed (59.6 vs. 72.4, in favor of the AIFP group), but this difference was not statistically significant. Minimal differences were observed between the groups at year 4. The difference between groups over the full four years (AIFP: 169.1; pre-group: 220.0) was statistically significant.

On average, the AIFP group took significantly less sick leave than the pregroup during the first two years, and over the full four- year period (see Figure 1).

Dropout rate. At the end of four years, 133 employees from the pre-group had left work, and the AIFP group had 103 fewer employees. These figures represent an attrition rate of 29.5 percent (pregroup) and 22.8 percent (AIFP group), once the data were adjusted to account for the sizes of the original groups. Chi-square analyses revealed a significant association between dropout rate and group (chi sq = 18.42, p

Please note that, for each group, the number of employees providing sick leave data is not equal to the original group figure minus dropouts. This is because people who ceased employment in their fourth year still contributed to sick leave data.

Discussion

The goal of this study was to investigate the effect of psychological screening on objective performance measures among correctional officer applicants who had been hired. Sick leave and attrition were compared between two groups of employees. The pregroup was a sample of correctional officers hired without psychological profiling, while the AIFP group only contained applicants who were judged to be psychologically suitable for correctional work.

The current study’s findings support the notion that psychological screening is an effective selection tool for correctional organizations. During the first two years of service, the AIFP group took significantly less sick leave than the pregroup. There is still a difference in the third year, and while it may not be statistically significant, it still contributes to the overall finding; it is only in the fourth year that the groups converge. The three years’ worth of differences strongly contribute to, and are primarily responsible for, the overall four-year difference between the two groups.

The AIFP group was also significantly less likely to have its employees leave service within the first four years.

The simplest – and most logical – explanation for these results is that screening candidates ensures that only the personnel hired are the most psychologically suited for the job. These individuals are less likely to find the job overwhelmingly stressful and are probably also better equipped to handle the stress that they do feel. Consequently, they are less likely to require sick leave, and are also less likely to resign because they “can’t take it any more.”

The difference between the two groups narrowed noticeably at the fourth year of employment. This is an interesting finding. The likely explanation for this is “self-selection” in the pregroup. Pregroup members who find they are not suited to the role are likely to take more sick leave at an early stage and are also more likely to cease employment. In essence, those individuals unsuited for the position weeded themselves out of the pre-group during the first two years (this also explains the higher dropout rate of the pregroup). Consequently, those lasting to the third and fourth years are, by definition, better suited for the role. The question of whether they have been assimilated into an existing culture of higher sick leave and stress leave remains unclear. For example, it is conceivable that the (negative) modeling behavior of long-serving officers might influence and therefore modify the behavior of the newer officers after a period of time. Further research into this area would be illuminating. Comparing the psychological profiles of those individuals from the AIFP group who lasted more than two years, and those that left within the first two, would be an interesting avenue for future research.

A substantial strength of the current work was the relatively large number of participants and the similar size of each group. This allowed for enough instances of somewhat rare events (such as sick leave and dropouts) to be meaningfully compared across the two groups. It is possible that even larger group sizes would lead to more compelling statistical findings. However, given other Australian research with correctional officers (e.g., Casey et al., 2001; Choy, 1998), it seems unlikely that the directional trends noted would be altered.

The possibility of a historical artifact impacting the findings of the current study cannot be fully discounted. The study took place over a four-year period, during which time detainees came and went, work conditions may have changed, and the administrative environment evolved. While communication with the Queensland Department of Correc-tional Services during the study did not flag any such issues as possible influences, it must be acknowledged that the possibility of an undetected maturation covariate does exist. However, this is a challenge faced by almost all longitudinal studies of this kind. Important implications can be drawn from this study’s results. The ability to differentiate, using the AIFP profiling system, between more suitable and less suitable candidates at the hiring stage is clearly desirable. A healthier and more able work force provides obvious benefits.

Financial Implications

The financial benefits of lower dropout rates and reduced sick days are compelling. For example, over the four years the AIFP group took 2,101 fewer days of sick leave. If a conservative figure of $400 per sick day is used, that represents a financial savings of $840,400. That equates to nearly $250,000 per year. Keep in mind that the AIFP group was smaller than the pregroup.

Similar implications exist for the reduction in dropout or attrition rates. The AIFP had 29 fewer dropouts over the four-year period. If a figure of $50,000 is assumed for the entire recruitment process (Job ads, screening applications, profiling, interviewing and training), then the AIFP process yielded a savings of $1.45 million during the life of this study.

Future Research

The next phase in this research process is to examine the differences between the groups across new measures, such as disciplinary action and compensation claims. Investigating these areas will provide a more complete picture regarding the effectiveness of psychological screening. Furthermore, longitudinal data regarding work performance (e.g., supervisor ratings) could provide good information about whether a worker thrives in his or her work environment or whether he or she “just gets by.” Examining the deidentified (to continue to preserve anonymity) AIFP profiles of the dropouts might also reveal useful information, shedding light on why “more suitable” candidates still cease employment. However, complicating factors, such as changes in the correctional institutions or culture based on the different eras of employment, would need to be taken into account.

The new ground covered by this research represents an exciting step in the development of correctional officer selection procedures, both in Australia and elsewhere. Most important is that the findings of the current study have provided a clear foundation for further study. Psychological profiling as a method of selecting correctional officers appears to be a worthwhile and valid course of action – a course now backed by some targeted research.

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Jonathan Lough is director of Lough Research Services in Melbourne, Victoria (Australia). Elise Wald is a member of Monash University’s Department of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine in Melbourne, Victoria. Kenneth Byrne is director of the Australian Institute of Forensic Psychology. Gordon Walker is a lecturer in Monash University’s Department of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine.

Copyright American Correctional Association, Incorporated Jul/Aug 2007

(c) 2007 Corrections Compendium. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

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