Situation testing

Situation testing

Situation testing is an experimental method aiming to establish discrimination on the spot. The aim of the method is to reveal and record discriminatory practices whereby a person who possesses a particular characteristic is treated less favourably than a person who does not possess this characteristic in a comparable situation. This is done by placing rigorously selected testing pairs in situations that are considered particularly vulnerable to discriminatory treatment (e.g. entrance to a restaurant, job applications, housing). The testing pairs are established in such a way that they differ solely on the basis of a single characteristic reflecting the discriminatory ground (ethnicity, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability). If one of the members of the pair faces different treatment, the distinction points to discriminatory behaviour.

Pairs consisting of one disabled and one non-disabled person with the same qualifications in terms of experience and education send similar letters of motivation and curricula vitae – except for the mentioning of the disability – apply for a job that requires no particular physical abilities. When the disabled persons are invited less frequently to job interviews, the situation testing has revealed a case of discrimination.

These are some of the more frequent domains where situation testing has proved its use: and value:

  • Access to housing.
  • Services and goods: entrance to taxis, nightclubs, restaurants.
  • Employment: pairs of testers check application procedures. If the employer is reluctant to accept testers of a protected ground and accepts the testers of privileged ground, this amounts to discrimination.
  • Access to health care

Most situation testing revolves around the protected ground of ethnicity, but testing has also been conducted for disability, social profile and sexual orientation.

Situation testing has three major purposes:

  • Research: Situation testing has a long tradition of use in sociological research and public policy development as a systematic research procedure for creating controlled experiments analysing discriminatory treatment and revealing patterns of discrimination in society.
  • Awareness raising: Situation testing can be used to raise awareness about structural but hidden discriminatory practices in society.
  • Litigation testing: Situation testing has potential to strengthen evidence in individual cases. Litigation testing targets a specific organisation suspected of discriminatory behaviour with the purpose of gathering the facts pointing to a presumption of unequal treatment and allowing the judge to return the burden of proof.

Several legal criticisms have been leveled at situational testing. Situational testing could amount to provocation to commit a crime and threaten the right to respect for private life. In both cases, situational testing does not by definition amount to unfair evidence, but it should be remembered that this technique establishes an artificial situation that has some drawbacks. Where situation testing involves human interaction, the fictitious candidates could be so willing to detect discrimination that they unintentionally distort the results or do not comply with national regulations on the right to private life. These risks are not imaginary and necessitate the careful monitoring of situation testing and methodological rigor:

  • Ensure full comparability between the testers in a pair

Pairs of testers involved in testing ethnic discrimination at the entrance to a restaurant should have the appropriate clothing style and similar appearances; they should enter at the same time and they should behave in the same manner.

  • Ensuring fairness and credibility: there should be no emotional link between the testers and the victim of discrimination or the person being tested (no family relation, no prejudice prior to the testing). Moreover, there should be justifiable grounds for conducting the testing, either a reported case of discrimination or a high number of complaints.
  • Ensuring representativeness: the testing should be based on a representative sample of testing pairs.
Careful planning:
  • A person with expertise in the field of discrimination should be in charge.
  • The test organiser should draw up a protocol with various elements to take into account to guarantee comparability, the use of third parties as witnesses or technical documentation (audio or video recordings), et cetera.
  • The test organiser should guarantee the credibility and objectivity of the testers.
  • Immediately after the testing, the testers should fill out a form describing the testing.
  • Finally, the test organiser should write a report on the results of the testing.