Putting the H back into HR: Why This Data Boss Rejects the Big Data Approach to Hiring

I am a Data Boss. My business platforms are built on crunching algorithms to reveal trends, tastes, and desires. But when it comes to hiring, I shut my laptop and do it the old fashioned way; no questionnaires, no people analytics. Just down and dirty, person to person; back to the future. Why? 

Modern technology exists in large part to make it possible for us to avoid human contact. We hook up via dating sites, we shop without fingering the merchandise; my 15 year old texts me when we’re sitting next to each other. On every level, in what used to require person-to-person dealings, data’s taken over the role of intermediary, including how we hire for our businesses. A whole industry has sprung full-blown, like Athena from Zeus’ head, dedicated to turning insights into algorithms, and substituting them for interactions.

It’s so quick, so easy, so bloodless — and that’s the problem. Every time you use data to probe a human question, something essential is lost in translation. That’s why I, the head of a data-driven company in a data-driven world — use no data analytics at all in my hiring process. Before you grab your pitchforks — or light up Twitter — let me explain my reasoning, and make my case for a return to human interaction in the hiring process.

Let’s start with one irrefutable fact: People make a company. You’re hiring a human to be a human, to interact with others and bring his or her specific set of strengths, quirks, and insights into play with the people you’ve already got. In the real world as opposed to the world of data, you’re dealing day to day with personality, behavior, mindsets — a whole person — and there is no machine in the world (yet) that can look into a human’s eyes and connect with who they are like another person can.

Why don’t I trust data with this job? Humans who have their own sets of prejudices write algorithms, and what’s important to them may not be important to me. Granted, if you’re a huge company that gets hundreds or thousands of resumes in response to a job post, computerized vetting tools can come in handy to winnow that stack down to a manageable number. But at that point, turn off your laptop and interact.

How do I hire? (And I’ll talk more about this in April in the spring.) Experience trumps all: I don’t honestly care what school you went to. If I get a resume from a Harvard cum laude grad with minimal experience in my field, and one from a state school grad with 15 years under his belt — I choose the experience over the diploma every time.

I hire for skill sets; what can they bring to the table that we need? You can discern a lot about their abilities by listening to them talk about the work they’ve done in the past, their success, and failures.

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What was the last book they read for pleasure? What was their favorite movie? What do they do in their time off? Most of us spend more time at work than we do at home. The person I hire will be bringing her personality, her loves, and her interests into my environment, and I want to know that she’s a good fit.

I’ll look at the prospective hire’s social media, too, to get a clearer perspective on their personality and judgment. I tell my kids, “If you moon someone out of a car window, that picture will come back to haunt you when you’re running for Prime Minister.” It’s not a question of right or wrong, but of fitting in with the core values of our company; personal integrity, thinking big, lead, never follow, and empowering those around you aren’t just pretty phrases, but ways of thinking that influence how you live your life. I want to see how their lives line up with those values.

I’m not interested in curated data that purports to give me insight into someone’s head, because I don’t think that any amount of gigs can measure emotional characteristics and the inner soul of a human. From where I sit, it’s mostly a hustle.

And at the end of the day, if I can’t tell more about a person in a half-hour interview than I can from a data-generated profile, maybe I’m not the leader I need to be.

With more than 20 years’ experience, Corrine Sandler has established a reputation for unparalleled consumer understanding and insight development. She has worked with some of the world’s finest companies and their market-leading products and brands to develop innovative, sustainable, and profitable consumer, brand, corporate, and trade strategies for diverse industries and product categories. She is a visionary in her field, constantly pushing boundaries in product development to enhance the industry she is so passionate about. She is the modern day Sun Tzu; her dogmatic approach to winning all business battles, is based on the art of war -- intelligence first. Her book Wake Up or Die is a powerful, exceptionally written treatise on the use of Intelligence in business today. She explains how to apply ancient military tactics in a modern business economy – to win every battle without waging war. Her fundamental philosophy is no war has been won without intelligence and never will.



8 Comments on “Putting the H back into HR: Why This Data Boss Rejects the Big Data Approach to Hiring

  1. Corrine, I really can’t agree with the point of view you outlined. A good starting point for you to learn more about the use of predictive testing would be the recently published academic study from NBER titled “Discretion in Hiring”. You’ll see that Harvard, Yale and the University of Toronto found that employees hired by the use of a validated assessment had a 15% higher retention rate. And that when hiring managers went with their own “instincts” turnover skyrocketed by more than 50%.

    Most managers are selected for their positions because of the ability to get certain things accomplished. Hiring is not typically something they’ve been measured against or in many times – even properly trained to do. So while your sentiments sounds well intentioned, perhaps it truly is time to listen to the data here too?

    1. Hi Sean. No candidate will ever give you a bad reference contact. I only use references for more junior roles to ascertain skill set and qualify Job functions

      1. I don’t mean peer references…I mean the person that they reported to at previous companies…their manager. I don’t expect to get their current manger if the manager doesn’t know they are looking at other opportunities.

        But manager references..do you speak with them?

        1. Well, then your statement “No candidate will ever give you a bad reference contact” is incorrect or you simply have not called on enough people.

          My point here is this… if you are going to base your hiring decisions on conversations and your intuition…those conversations you have need to include prior managers. Otherwise, you are hiring on the candidate’s ability to interview and not their ability to do their job.

          The best recruiters/hiring managers I’ve worked with over the years almost always do backdoor references.

          1. Sean I understand your point of view as a recruiter you have to do your due diligence. In my opinion back door references as you call them are only useful for more junior positions. If you are hiring a senior person and have spent enough time with them you should not need to call on prior managers. We use case study evaluations which I find are excellent. Give a potential hire a use case scenario and ask them to solve it, skill set and ability will shine through very quickly. I do think speaking to subordinates if the candidate can be important to understand their management style. We all have our different opinions – mine is face time vs data crunching. Thanks for the great discussion and merry Xmas.

  2. Stuart thanks for the comment. I have spent many years in designing predictive analytics methodologies, so I do understand the significance of these types of tests and I will definitely read the NBER, so thank you. I have to say that all published articles that compare validated assessments to instinctive assessments, don’t really qualify the “instinctive” part. So I wouldn’t hang my hat on that data. I do agree data can play a role and I believe In a hybrid role to some degree. You made a very good point about most managers not being trained to hire or interview properly, that certainly is true however in large enterprises that should not be their role. They should supply the skill set and job function and meet the final candidate for a personality work fit.
    Happy holidays and again great comment

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