90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
The High-Tech Hiring Market Of Today

They see you when you’re sleeping. They know when you’re awake. Employers move to digital assessment in hiring, firing and promotion. We’ll check in.

In this Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 file photo, Luis Mendez, 23, left, and Maurice Mike, 23, wait in line at a job fair held by the Miami Marlins, at Marlins Park in Miami. Increasingly, potential employers are turning to digital content as a way to judge job-seekers before they even apply. (AP)

In this Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 file photo, Luis Mendez, 23, left, and Maurice Mike, 23, wait in line at a job fair held by the Miami Marlins, at Marlins Park in Miami. Increasingly, potential employers are turning to digital content as a way to judge job-seekers before they even apply. (AP)

Old-school hiring and promotion could boil down to some pretty basic stereotypes. A firm handshake and a go-getter attitude. New-school hiring and promotion looks a lot more like baseball’s Moneyball approach.  Show me the stats.  Never mind the handshake, maybe even the job interview.  Show me the data.  The proof of performance.  The statistical indicators that this person will succeed at the job.  Big data is all around us now.  We understand it and its consequences in the realm of credit scores.  You may soon have a number on your “hirability.” This hour On Point:  the data-driven hire.

– Tom Ashbrook


Don Peck, deputy editor of The Atlantic Magazine. Author of “Pinched: How The Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures And What We Can Do About It.”

Teri Morse, vice president of Human Resources and recruiting at Xerox Services.

Guy Halfteck, founder and CEO of Knack, a technology-startup that uses gaming to understand and analyze potential. (@GotKnack)

From Tom’s Reading List

The Atlantic: They’re Watching You at Work — “The application of predictive analytics to people’s careers—an emerging field sometimes called ‘people analytics’—is enormously challenging, not to mention ethically fraught. And it can’t help but feel a little creepy. It requires the creation of a vastly larger box score of human performance than one would ever encounter in the sports pages, or that has ever been dreamed up before. To some degree, the endeavor touches on the deepest of human mysteries: how we grow, whether we flourish, what we become. Most companies are just beginning to explore the possibilities. But make no mistake: during the next five to 10 years, new models will be created, and new experiments run, on a very large scale.”

Wall Street Journal: Meet the New Boss: Big Data — “For more and more companies, the hiring boss is an algorithm. The factors they consider are different than what applicants have come to expect. Jobs that were once filled on the basis of work history and interviews are left to personality tests and data analysis, as employers aim for more than just a hunch that a person will do the job well. Under pressure to cut costs and boost productivity, employers are trying to predict specific outcomes, such as whether a prospective hire will quit too soon, file disability claims or steal.”

The Economist: Robot recruiters — “The problem with human-resource managers is that they are human. They have biases; they make mistakes. But with better tools, they can make better hiring decisions, say advocates of ‘big data.’ Software that crunches piles of information can spot things that may not be apparent to the naked eye. In the case of hiring American workers who toil by the hour, number-crunching has uncovered some surprising correlations.”

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • TyroneJ

    My experience hiring people, both in startups and University settings, is that keeping HR as far away from the process as much as possible is the only way to insure quality. The reason is that all of these “analytic”, “algorithmic” & “big data” tools are designed to insure only mediocre candidates make it through. I’ve found that hiring works best if I see EVERY resume submitted, as the best & brightest are screened out by these tools more effectively than the low end candidates are. These “tools” are promoted by folks with financial interests to sell snake oil, and accepted by lazy HR & management people who want a facade of objectivity so they can’t be held accountable.

    • carl_christian

      Gee, Tyrone, I really want to agree with you completely but the fact that there are so many just plain bad managers in the workplace prevents me — even though I think you’re mostly right about the “tools” it’s a bit more of a continuum than your summation — I am afraid that laziness & CYA-attitudes are only part of the problem; many managers are bad because unfortunately our culture raises them that way. Competition, not cooperation; micro-focus, not macro-focus; linear systems without any proper feedback loops until it’s too late. Most of us tend to the ‘don’t force it, just get a bigger hammer’ approach instead of learning how to choose and use the appropriate tool in the first place.
      I think some of these ‘big data’ tools may well be useful but only in the hands of a good manager who is compassionately human first & last. We all need to figure out whether we want to make the world safer for computer algorithms or for people and frame our decisions based on that overall goal — never mind the short-term economic temptations (and perhaps the ‘fun’ in creating such tools).

      • TyroneJ

        A-players hire more A-players, while B-players hire C-players.

        Bad managers don’t hire good people because of these “tools”. These tools just give bad managers an excuse as to why a bad hire wasn’t their fault. The “System” made the hire, not them. It’s no different than a CEO claiming credit when things go well, but then disavowing knowledge of things when the company is caught doing things it shouldn’t. (e.g. Jamie Dimon & the London Whale fiasco.)

        • carl_christian

          I still think that’s too binary an analysis — my definition of an A-player would be the manager who can hire the B’s & C’s and turn them into A-players or at least get them very far along the path. But for that to happen, the typical corporate structure has to be a very different kind of environment than the current hierarchical model where the fame & dollars accrue to the top (regardless of the facts thanks to friendly BOD’s) & the blame & pennies are pushed to the bottom. There are plenty of so-called successful managers who I would have cleaning the washrooms until humility found its way into their persona; without humility & an authentic respect for the other person, there’s no way anyone can be a good manager. (Cleverly parsing spreadsheets as an organizing tool just ain’t enough in the world I want to inhabit.)

          • The poster formerly known as t

            The nature of many organizations is authoritarian and authoritarian organizations don’t tend to have an ” an authentic respect “for individuals all that much.

  • Leonard Bast

    The guest just said this is both exhilarating and creepy. Creepy I get. Exhilarating is lost on me.

    • ToyYoda

      Well let me take a guess. Perhaps it’s exhilarating because of the possibility of disposing the HR hiring manager. And you get to interview directly with the people you’ll be working with and who actually have immediate stakes in who gets hired.

  • ToyYoda

    As a software engineer, I worked at a division of Lucent in the late 90′s when they did this to programmers. They use to measure productivity by counting how many lines of code you checked in per unit time. This is like grading a poem by words counting.

    Statistics is merely a tool. You can correlate all the numbers you want to productivity, but what is the concept “productive”? If someone is schmoozing with clients and not closing the deal, well that’s a fat zero in sales, but maybe that someone is building a good will for a much bigger deal in the future, and a long term engagement with a new loyal customer. A programmer may write a page of code instead of an epitome, but that page allows all other programmers around him double their “productivity”. This happens all the time in my field.

  • Yar

    Remember the beach scene in the movie The Firm, that “Blackmail” video was part of the interview process. If Lilly Leadbetter had filed her emploment discrimination in the six month window as established by the Supreme Court, the company profile department would have known she wasn’t the type of employee they wanted.

  • RolloMartins

    Never underestimate the incompetence of CEOs, *and* corporate algorithm-makers.

  • ToyYoda

    Great, I need to buy elevator shoes for a raise, but at least I can write it off as a tax deduction! :)

  • Anne in VT

    Creepy is a great word to describe the big data snooping on every aspect of a potential employee’s life. George Orwell’s day has dawned. I bet the NSA is already using this.

    • The poster formerly known as t

      Some people are naturally nosy and are suspicious of people who value privacy.

  • jefe68

    HR works for management. THey are looking for ways to keep people in line and for better ways to fire people without incident.
    This is all about management’s control, and not about workers rights.

  • adks12020

    As someone that has sent out hundreds of resumes in the past year with only a few interviews (the traditional kind) and a few follow up interviews I would almost welcome the analytics as a part of the hiring process. I know I would do well at those types of tests. The constant tracking while working at a company creeps me out.

  • Leonard Bast

    How convenient for Teri Morse, a vice president who exists at the top of the heap, that this will not apply to her (for whatever reason). Same old crap. The laws of the jungle apply to everyone except the ones that make the laws of the jungle.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    So if I choose not to waste my time with a Facebook account, I am hurting my chances of getting a job? Pretty sad.

    • jefe68

      That and a Twitter account.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    Your degree from Harvard 20 years on means nothing. What you have accomplished since then should bear the weight.

  • John_Hamilton

    We’re in the brave, new world. There are a couple of factors to consider. One is that employers need employees, and they are going to hire someone, or someones. The amount of people hired or not hired will not change because of increased employer access to information about prospective hires.

    The other factor, which I have mentioned previously, is that OnPoint, specifically Tom Ashbrook, is incapable of looking at phenomena in context. We live in a world of total information awareness, which amounts to little actual awareness, and in a predicament of unsustainability of our economic system and impending climate change breakdown of the biosphere.

    So the real question here is can Tom Ashbrook ask a question that goes beyond the simple, isolated confines of one aspect of a large, synergistic web of realtaionships, human and planetary? So far there is no evidence that he can.

    • carl_christian

      Seems a bit harsh to just blame Tom Ashbrook when across the media landscape it’s all pretty much lacking in imagination, critical thinking, and an attention span. It’s one of the reasons that after years of sending NPR, WBUR, et al. donations quite religiously, I’ve just about given up on hearing any sustained & critical analysis out of ‘intelligent’ talk radio. Unfortunately, it’s driven by the entertainment frame more than the Socratic ‘know thyself deeply’ frame that I would prefer (and believe vital in order for us to have a better society in the future).
      Lately, whatever money I have to donate is going to the smaller, decentralized organizations that sometimes do manage to feed the NPR/public media maw — like ProPublica or DemocracyNow. I’m hoping that their superior news & analysis will influence well-meaning hosts like Tom A. to ‘step out’ a bit more & ask deeper questions and to sustain focus on critical issues & themes for days instead of an hour every once in a while.

      • FrankensteinDragon

        KPFA in Berkley or KBOO in Portland

    • Labropotes

      The number of employees needed will be affected if an employer can effectively identify those that will be most productive.

  • carl_christian

    As a very capable tool-user (both real & virtual), I fully understand the exhilaration that ‘techies’ feel for solving the world’s social justice imbalance in the workplace with ‘big data’ & clever algorithms — but please let’s all slow down and begin listening to one another face to face and learn to relish the mystery and complexity that arises from interactions that are not about monetizing ourselves but simply accepting each other. Corporations could find many more diverse and extremely competent employees if they simply approached the task with respect for the dignity of individuals who are humans first, and then workers for the company. And that in turn might shift the directions & goals of the corporations which currently are taking human society toward a non-sustainable future.

    The last hour was mostly spent talking about a necessary but not very good solution to a broken economic system and now this hour is being spent trying to fix a different symptom — it’s the model of corporate capitalism which needs to be completely revamped, not the ways in which it tries to commoditize and optimize people as worker bees.

  • Yar

    Hire the innovator that proves your business is totally unnecessary. Do we need a test to prevent that?

  • Rick Evans

    This algorithmic filtering *might* work for nameless, faceless low level employees. For middle manager and higher jobs you will still have to look in the boss’ eye and shake hands. That’s when the gut makes the final cut.

  • Joe Attardi

    I find this trend disturbing. What are the implications for those with anxiety and depression, for example? Good workers don’t always fit an algorithmic mold.

    • The poster formerly known as t

      There’s always a mold, whether it’s an algorithm or a purely social one.

      • Joe Attardi

        So if someone has a mental illness, they shouldn’t be able to have a job?

        • The poster formerly known as t

          My point was, would you regularly socialize with or have sex with a mentally ill person, if you could avoid it?

          • Joe Attardi

            Are you for real?

            I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my whole life. It’s a constant battle. I definitely don’t fit the mold of a “model” employee. Due to my anxiety, I most likely will never make it into management. That’s fine with me.

            I’ve been a software engineer for 10 years, and have always gotten great performance reviews. I add value to my employer.

            But you’re saying that because I have a mental illness, people should avoid socializing with me, and I should be “weeded out” from my job.

            In my field particularly, there are a lot of quirky people. Personality issues, social awkwardness, and the like. But these are smart people.

          • The poster formerly known as t

            I’m working on my reasoning skills, so bear with me as I clarify. From what I’ve seen, people tend to marginalize people they see as defective and even the people being marginalized aren’t immune to this tendency. It’s like a human instinct. You’ve heard of the term “hammering the nail that sticks out”, right? Well, I think EVERYONE does it.

            “But you’re saying that because I have a mental illness, people should avoid socializing with me, and I should be “weeded out” from my job.” I didn’t say that. But if the roles were reversed, I’m uncertain that you wouldn’t , as an employer, discriminate against candidates based on arbitrary criteria, like personality. Smart, but socially awkward people can sometimes have superior judgement of what would make a great employee, but not always, because they’re still human.

  • Takashi Shimura

    Reminds me of a few things: 1) how Nazi Germany worked with IBM to create in part an efficient system of exterminating a whole race of human beings. These people were given a special color as well, yellow, and a shape, the star. 2) the dehumanized landscape of Phillip K. Dick’s novel that became the movie Bladerunner, where humans and cyborgs were easily tracked through data. 3) as well: Brave New World and 1984, which tell of classifying and total control of the masses.

    I found the guest throwing out ridiculous arguments for this “technology,” such as 1) “a full one fifth of people in the work force do not like their jobs.” Well, doesn’t this mean that 80% of people actually like their jobs? 2) He states that this will give more people a chance to get a good job, evening the field. This sounds good, but also fishy. SAT testing initially worked to somewhat level the playing field in education, but the rich gamed this system by sending their kids to Stanley Kaplan test taking schools.

    This is not moneyball as relates to baseball, but the commodification of working class people everywhere. These personal hiring algorhythms can only further dis-empower the common man, and add to the already perverse power of the super rich.

  • FrankensteinDragon

    people don’t behave in video games as they do in real life. your approach is just stupid. What you are are going to find is a bunch of losers who spend all their time like robots playing a very stupid game.

    you call it perseverance. I call it depression and wasting time playing a stupid video game when they could be taking action in their life.

    It clear to me the corporate world wants robots–no surprise as the corporate world is the bOrg.

    • The poster formerly known as t

      While the structure and nature of most work in civilized society is authoritarian, some employers don’t always want robots. Sometimes, they use the Human Resources department as a way to screen the population for new friends and lovers.

  • Jack

    The problem with these types of tests is I doubt very seriously they will ever be updated, just as tests already in use in business are rarely, if ever, updated. For example, I once had to take a typing test for a job that I applied for; the goal was to type a certain number of words per minute without errors. Needless to say, I did very poorly. I was quite confused, until I found out the way the test worked: every time I made an incorrect entry, that was an error; if I backspaced to correct the error, that was an error, too. Obviously, such a test had relevance when the majority of typing was done on manual typewriters, but the irony is that there are probably no manual typewriters left in the building where I would have worked. If we do not evolve our metrics, they will become obsolete, and yet there is a certain level of stasis in these types of tests, for a multitude of reasons. So, someday, some person will not get a job because a test no longer accurately measures the way in which a job is performed, but no one will think to change the test.

  • Vic Volpe

    The new age physiognomists.

  • Talent Analytics

    Enjoyed the podcast and guests, thanks Tom. It was especially interesting to hear Don Peck’s comments highlighting the amazing evidence of dysfunction in today’s hiring system, such as 20% of hiring decisions being regretted. As Don said, analytics offers the potential for a better and more fair system that matches people into better roles where they’ll be happier. However, given the importance of hiring, it’s important to work with stable data that won’t change in 6 months.

  • Regular_Listener

    Another fascinating show, thanks. This looks like it has two sides to me. On the one hand, it could lead to more fair hiring and promotion, and to greater meritocracy. On the other, it could create an environment where certain test scores are given too much weight, and the human element is weakened. And it could lead to new forms of discrimination also. What if, e.g., people get turned down because the analytics show they are too loud, or too introverted – would they then be in a position to sue? And what will the benchmarks be, and who gets to decide what is fair in that regard? I am sure we will be hearing more about these things as time goes by.

    Also, Tom was right to raise the point of what effect things like this could have on a person’s hireability to more than one employer. Already we live in a world where having one minor black mark on a person’s record can derail their career. What if there were to be tests that all applicants or graduates had to take, like the SATs? I am sure employers would like this – make the applicants take a standardized test at their expense and submit the scores as part of a job application.

Sep 17, 2014
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson watches from the sidelines against the Oakland Raiders during the second half of a preseason NFL football game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. (AP/Ann Heisenfelt)

The NFL’s Adrian Peterson and the emotional debate underway about how far is too far to go when it comes to disciplining children.

Sep 17, 2014
Bob Dylan and Victor Maymudes at "The Castle" in LA before the 1965 world tour. Lisa Law/The Archive Agency)

A new take on the life and music of Bob Dylan, from way inside the Dylan story. “Another Side of Bob Dylan.”

Sep 16, 2014
From "Rich Hill"

“Rich Hill,” a new documentary on growing up poor, now, in rural America. The dreams and the desperation.

Sep 16, 2014
Jasmin Torres helps classmate Brianna Rameles with a worksheet at the Diloreto Magnet School in New Britain, Conn., Wednesday Feb. 22, 2012. (AP/Charles Krupa)

More parents are “red-shirting” their children in kindergarten—holding them back for a year, hoping they’ll have an edge. Does it work? We look.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Our Week In The Web: September 12, 2014
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

In which you had varied reactions to the prospect of a robotic spouse.

More »
Beverly Gooden on #WhyIStayed
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

Beverly Gooden — who originated the #WhyIStayed hashtag that has taken off across Twitter — joined us today for our discussion on domestic violence.

More »
1 Comment
Tierney Sutton Plays LIVE For On Point
Friday, Sep 5, 2014

We break out Tierney Sutton’s three beautiful live tracks from our broadcast today for your listening pleasure.

More »