My Lunch With the HR Change-Makers

What would you like first: the good news or the bad news?

When the topic is hiring, both are in abundant supply.

I got interested in the hiring process because I didn’t like what I saw: Too many arbitrary decisions, a chaotic process that pleased no one, not the candidates, not the hiring managers, not the HR pros.

Here’s the good news: I’m not the only one who wants the process to change. Today’s innovative companies are reimagining talent recruitment, and the whole field of HR. A few weeks ago, I invited some key players to lunch: Lisa Lee, director of diversity at Pandora, the online music source with close to 80 million subscribers; Jo Dennis, who heads HR at digital health care solution pioneer Omada Health (and spent 20+ years in HR at HP), and even a people scientist from a consumer services company valued in the tens of billions.

What’s a people scientist, you ask? That’s more good news. Instead of trying to guess what makes a team effective or why top employees quit, forward-thinking companies are using the new science of people analytics, leveraging data to understand and influence workplace dynamics. With $4 trillion a year spent on payroll around the world, this evolution is well overdue: studies show that gut feelings often lead to poor decisions, yet when you clear away the window-dressing, that’s what too many employers still rely on.

All of us at lunch agreed that both managers and employees win when objective data shapes the workplace, and that hiring in particular needs a data-driven make-over. It’s no coincidence that the companies whose breakthrough technologies enhance our most elemental human needs and desires — access to our music, or maintaining good health — are also at the forefront of reinventing the hiring process. After all, work is an elemental need too, and if you’ve ever hired someone or been hired yourself, you’ll surely agree there’s room for improvement.

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So — what’s the bad news? As the tech boom winds down, one of my lunch guests observed, the hiring frenzy that’s gripped the Bay Area is bound to cool. Is that all bad news? Not necessarily. Consider the word “frenzy.” It doesn’t bring to mind a deliberative, data-driven process likely to yield an optimal outcome. In fact, Omada Health’s Jo Dennis made an important point: as the economy slows, smart companies will transition from chasing the fast hire to finding the right hire.

In response, Pandora’s Lisa Lee was quick to point out that even when organizations talk about making the “right hire,” this tends to be more aspiration than reality. Many hiring managers end up hiring people who are similar to themselves instead of digging deep into the skills and potential the candidate can bring. But as organizations realize that skills, competencies, and values are what define the right hire, and use hiring platforms that replace gut reactions with data, they will move ahead of their competition. In a cooling economy, who can afford high turnover, poor performance, and team member disaffection — the frequent results of suboptimal hiring?

That’s good news for underrepresented candidates, too.  My impromptu HR think tank was struck by the irony: even as the hiring market tightens, the companies that respond by improving how they select new employees will open more doors to women and people of color. Because it’s not lack of talent that bars the way, it’s broken hiring processes.

Laura Mather, PhD, is a leading voice on reinventing hiring for the Fortune 1000. Having sold her cyber security company SilverTail for hundreds of millions in 2012, Mather built Unitive to disrupt unconscious bias and capture the human insight essential to successful talent activation. Operating like a navigation system, Unitive guides hiring managers along the fastest route to the ultimate destination: improved organizational performance. 

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