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Small Grant

Getting to Know SIOP’s Award Winners

Liberty Munson 
Microsoft Corporation


Garett Howardson
CEB, Inc.



I recently had the opportunity to talk to Ann Marie Ryan and Abdifatah Ali about the small grant award that they won from SIOP in the Spring of 2016. Although Jessica Keeney was unable to join the conversation, she did provide additional insights via email. Let’s take a closer look at the research that they are doing and how it will help not only organizations make better hiring decisions but also help a increase the fairness of hiring decisions for a group that is commonly overlooked because of their past.

Overview of the Grant

The purpose of Small Grant Awards is to provide funding for research investigating topics of interest to both academicians and practitioners. Partnering with a practitioner—Jessica played that role in this research—ensures that both the academic and practitioner perspectives are considered and the resulting research benefits both the science and practice within our field.

Each grant proposal is evaluated by both academic and practitioner members of the subcommittee for its significance in advancing both the science and practice of I-O psychology, justification for budget requested, research approach, innovation, and appeal to a wide audience. All grant award recipients are required to deliver a final report to the SIOP Foundation within 1 year of the date of the award.

In this case, Ann Marie, Abdifatah, and Jessica received a $2,500 grant for their research to understand why those with criminal records have difficulty finding jobs, increase the fairness in the hiring practices associated with these individuals, and help these individuals develop more effective interviewing techniques. This research stems for their long-time interest in fairness in hiring and the stigmatization that occurs during the hiring process (both consciously and unconsciously).

The Spark of an Idea

While conducting research on the job search process at a job placement center, people began telling them about some of the challenges they face. Several mentioned that their biggest challenge was not even being given the opportunity to interview because they had criminal records, sometimes decades old. They wanted advice for what to do improve the likelihood of getting the interview, and then, if they did, how they can best present themselves during the interview.

This sparked their interest in a line of research focused on the job relatedness of an applicant’s criminal activity and to what extent that is and should be considered in the hiring process. Further, what strategies could these applicants employ during interviews to deemphasize their criminal records and showcase their relevant job related skills?

Forming an Academic–Practitioner Alliance

This research stream is truly an academic–practitioner collaboration. Jessica’s employer at the time, APT Metrics, was providing litigation support for the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit. As part of that work, they developed a methodology for validating criminal background checks to ensure that employers only consider job-relevant crimes. Around that time, she learned that Ann Marie and Abdifatah (from her alma mater) were also researching criminal background checks. Initially, it appeared that they were approaching the topic from different perspectives with the practitioner focus on how employers can protect themselves from litigation and the academics focus on how to help individuals with criminal records obtain employment. Fundamentally, however, they were studying the same question: How can employers use criminal background information in a fair, relevant manner that doesn’t deny individuals employment for which they are qualified?

The Unique Contribution

Jessica argues that criminal background checks are the last frontier of employment testing for I-O psychologists. We have studied and validated interviews, written tests, and physical ability tests, but we have not focused on background checks although they qualify as selection procedures under the Uniform Guidelines just like any of those other assessments. Employers who do not conduct background checks are exposing themselves to negligent hiring, but research also shows they are also more likely to make discriminatory hiring decisions, using criminal background as proxies for race and socioeconomic status when they do. Thus, it is in both the employer and applicant’s best interest to conduct background checks and do them well. I-O psychologists are in a unique position to leverage our skills and inform organizations about the most effective approach to understanding and applying the information obtained from background checks.

Key Factors to Successfully Grant Applications

They believe that much of their success at winning this award is related to three key factors:

  • Developing a strong academic–practitioner partnership that results in outcomes that will contribute to driving our science forward as well as improving organizational hiring practices,
  • Presenting the initial research at a well-received SIOP session (so they knew there was interest in what they were doing), and
  • Having a well-defined, long-term research plan.

What They Were Surprised to Learn

Ann Marie commented that her most surprising insight was the variability in beliefs related to criminal records. Some believe that any criminal record should exclude a person from a job regardless of when the crime took place or what it was without realizing that the more time that passes since the commission of the crime, the less likely it is to happen again. Unfortunately, this belief contributes to recidivism because without employment, ex-convicts are more likely to repeat offend. Further, most people don’t want to work with someone who has a criminal record; they don’t make the connection that a particular crime is rarely tied to someone’s ability to perform their job or to job-related skills and competencies. Person-oriented jobs, in particular, are more likely to suffer from this bias.

Now, For Something Fun

I always like to end these interviews with something fun. Let’s start with something interesting about our award winners. Abdifatah was in a hip-hop band between high school and college, opening shows for other musicians. Ann Marie is a huge Michigan State football fan (you don’t have to wonder how she spends her Saturdays in the autumn!); she loves to travel and was in Machu Picchu, Peru, this spring.

As for what piece of advice would they give to someone new to I-O psychology ala “If you knew then what you know now,” Abdifatah’s advice for other graduate students is to learn from your and other’s life experiences, really listen to what they are saying because that’s where you’ll find the best nuggets for future research. You can learn as much from those experiences as you can from the literature.

Ann Marie’s advice? Don’t lose sight of why you’re in this field in the first place; people’s work lives matter. Ask yourself, “What am I doing that can help make the workplace better?” Stay passionate about what you do and the impact that it has; remember what attracted you to the field in the first place.

Liberty Munson is currently the principal psychometrician and Assessment and Exam Quality lead at Microsoft. She is responsible for ensuring the validity and reliability of Microsoft’s certification and degree programs. Her passion is for finding innovative solutions to business challenges that balance the science of assessment design and development with the realities of budget, time, and schedule constraints.

Liberty loves to bake, hike, backpack, and camp—basically, if the sun is shining you’ll find her enjoying the great outdoors; if not, she’s in her kitchen tweaking some recipe just to see what happens. She has also been actively involved in editing Microsoft’s cookbook to raise money for a local charity, FareStart, as part of Microsoft’s Give Campaign. And, she just got a new mini schnauzer puppy, Apex!

Garett Howardson is currently an assistant professor of Psychology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, and an adjunct professor of I-O Psychology at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. In addition to his academic responsibilities, he regularly consults with the American Council on Education and the U.S. Army Research Institute (among others) on a variety of topics. 

Most of his work focuses on quantitative, psychometric, and/or computational issues to better understand the psychology of modern, technical work writ-large (e.g., aerospace technicians, computer programmers). 

Garett is also an avid computer geek. In fact, he has a degree in computer science, which he avidly applies to his research and consulting in pursuit of one deceivingly simple goal: better integrate I-O psychology and the data/computational sciences to understand work.