Moneyball in the Workplace

Forget the prestigious college degree. Skip the unpaid
internship at a respected company. Those things are headed the way
of fancy résumé paper. In the future, whether or not you land your
dream gig will depend more on how often your retweets get
retweeted, how far you live from the office, or how you answer
multiple-choice questions designed to assess your empathy,
sociability, and ability to deal with repetitive tasks in highly
regulated environments.
Companies such as Xerox, The Wall Street Journal
recently reported, now pay more attention to a candidate’s
“personality” than they do to his work experience—at least when
they’re looking for people to staff their customer service call
centers. Such screenings are not only about temperament. Employers
are also evaluating how a worker’s commute might affect his loyalty
and which social networks he participates in. With mountains of
data at their fingertips, work force analytics consultants can now
determine what attributes and propensities are associated with
success in a given position. If you possess those attributes and
propensities, congratulations, you start on Monday.
This is not an entirely new development. In 1830 George Combe,
one of England’s most prominent phrenologists, explained that he
could tell if a prospective servant was conscientious or
untrustworthy by examining the bumps and bulges on his head. Nearly
a century later, advocates of deterministic skull measurement
continued to tout its potential as a human resources tool, with a
letter writer in The Phrenological Journal describing it
as an efficiency tool on par with typewriters and telephones. “It
seems but a short time in the future,” the correspondent suggested
hopefully, “when our favorite Science will have the confidence of
business men to such an extent that an applicant will be asked,
‘Have you a scientific description of your Mental and Physical
qualities?’ ”
Given contemporary harassment laws, extended head fondling as a
means of assessing potential hires should probably be avoided. But
while phrenology never caught on in the workplace, the desire to
take a quick, quantitative, predictive measure of would-be workers
never died. As Annie Murphy Paul documents in her 2004 book The
Cult of Personality Testing, psychometric visionaries
throughout the 20th century invented instruments such as the
Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in their efforts to map the
human psyche. Business interests saw the utility of these tools,
which sort disparate individuals into more general stock-keeping
categories that are easier to track and manage.
Like George Combe, commercial outfits that adopted tests like
the MMPI and MBTI hoped to divine the intrinsic nature of potential
employees. Were they honest or deceitful? Were they dependable,
obedient, outgoing? Or would they take a lot of sick days, spend
too much time at lunch, and steal company property?
While critics have repeatedly challenged the efficacy of these
tests, today’s advocates say the evaluation process has
fundamentally changed because so much more data are available.
Imagine, for example, a database of 10,000 individuals who have
proven themselves to be effective call-center employees. A company
might have access to their personality test results, their training
records, the performance metrics that are kept on them each month
as they go about their jobs, and so on. Data scientists analyze
this information in myriad ways, eventually detecting useful
trends. ;
Employees who live within 10 minutes of the office may be 20
percent likelier to stay at the company at least six months than
ones who live 45 minutes away or further. Employees who have a
college degree may be less inclined to stick with a call-center job
than those who do not. According to The Wall Street
Journal, Evolv, the company assisting Xerox in its recruitment
efforts, determined that the ideal candidate to staff the company’s
call centers “uses one or more social networks, but not more than
four.” ;
As more companies adopt this approach to recruitment, expect a
parallel push to expand employee protection laws. Not getting a job
because your car is 12 years old or because you live 40 miles away
from the office may not seem as unjust as not getting a job because
of your race, sex, or religious beliefs, but it’s still untethered
to performance and comportment.
Yet ultimately what this approach represents is a move away from
the white-collar shamanism that informs traditional hiring
practices—the ritual of the firm handshake, the incantatory power
of résumé action verbs like iterate and
prioritize. In contrast, work force analytics aims to
scrutinize call-center employees as closely as
post-Moneyball general managers scrutinize shortstops,
using as many quantifiable characteristics as possible. “The hourly
workforce is tremendous in the richness of data available to
evaluate,” an Evolv white paper reads. “For a given hourly employer
there are billions and sometimes trillions of data points that can
be systematically evaluated to understand and then optimize the
workforce.”
While surveillance of such magnitude may conjure grim visions of
intrusively, oppressively optimized cubicle serfs desperately
trying to meet call quotas, there are liberating, empowering
aspects to this kind of data analysis. For example, by analyzing
thousands of work histories, Evolv determined that there is “very
little relationship between the number of jobs an employee has held
and their current tenure,” and that “companies that screen out job
hoppers and the unemployed have been needlessly limiting their
candidate pool.” Even more strikingly, Evolv suggests that while
many companies refuse to hire applicants who have criminal records,
including some who have only been arrested, its analysis shows that
“crimes committed before a person entered the workforce had no
predictive value for any counterproductive workplace behaviors,”
and that “people with records who stay arrest-free for four to five
years are only as likely as the average person to be arrested
again.” ;
While Evolv specializes in hourly workforces, other companies
are applying similar techniques to other sectors. SHL, a
London-based firm that specializes in “talent management
solutions,” used data “from almost 4 million assessments in close
to 200 countries” to determine what characteristics define
employees with top-level leadership potential and where the
greatest reserves of such individuals can be found. Among its
conclusions: Mexico, Turkey, and Egypt “have the greatest source of
potential future leaders.” In addition, SHL found that while the
“difference in leadership potential for women and men is less than
1 percent, men hold senior positions 3 to 1 over women.”
In this new world of data-driven hiring practices, Ivy League
degrees and résumés that boast stints at marquee companies won’t
matter as much as new metrics that have been designed to show a
person’s fundamental attributes and abilities over time. In theory,
at least, more people will have more opportunities as Big Data
reveals that talent can come from anywhere.
Of course, as the Moneyballization of the workplace proceeds,
what this also means is that soon we’ll no longer be able to hide
our career .290 on-base percentage with an artfully worded résumé.
Our proficiencies and weaknesses will be far more transparent, just
as they’ve been for professional athletes ever since baseball card
publishers started routinely printing statistics on the backs of
cards in the early 1950s. ;
While such transparency will punish employees who aren’t quite
living up to their reputations, it will benefit those who are truly
providing value. More important, it will help companies operate
more efficiently, which will in turn provide benefits to us
all. ; ;

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Moneyball in the Workplace

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