In Their Opinion...

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Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation, Clinton County, New York.

Paul Grasso: Scientific method applied to hiring

By: Paul Grasso, Just Sayin'

---- — “The times they are a-changin,” wrote Bob Dylan in 1964. That fact became very apparent to me last week when I participated in a conference call the topic of which was “Using predictive statistical analysis to hire talent and assess performance.” For the uninitiated, predictive analytics are used “to determine the future outcome of an event or the likelihood of a situation occurring.”

My friend, Amanda, a behavioral neuroscientist who lives in England, invited me to attend with the admonishment that I could listen but not speak. She always sets the bar high.

Armed with a large latte (double shot), I dialed in hoping the caffeine jolt would keep me awake, if not alert, for the duration of the call. I was quite surprised to find the conversation interesting and informative, when it wasn’t completely over my head.

The teleconference began with the participants, primarily behavioral scientists involved in finding more effective ways to recruit and hire people for positions requiring specific skill sets.

No argument there; hiring the best available talent is definitely a strategic competitive advantage. A recent survey of 250 executives in seven countries found “attracting and retaining skilled staff” was the one of the top issues facing businesses worldwide.

As a group, they challenged the conventional wisdom in recruiting. Their premise was that the traditional approach to hiring and promoting is subjective and flawed and that there is technology in the marketplace that can remove the “human bias from recruiting and promoting.”

The discussion focused on moving away from largely subjective means of assessing talent to more objective, empirical-based methods; challenging the conventional wisdom that the best talent is found among applicants from top schools with high grade point averages and experience at prestigious companies, and “poaching” from competitors is the best way to hire great people.

One of the participants cited two examples of how the manner in which companies judge professional potential is flawed with hidden biases. The first example took place in the 1970s when many professional orchestras began having “blind” auditions where the musician performed behind a screen and couldn’t be seen by the judges, a practice that continues to this day.

The goal was to stop conductors from “playing favorites.” It succeeded in doing that, but it also helped to increase by 500 percent the number of female musicians winning auditions.

She also spoke about the “not so hidden biases” related to ethnicity and cited several studies that showed applicants with identical resumes who had “white sounding names” were invited to interviews at twice the rate of those with African-American or Hispanic sounding names.

Being scientists, it didn’t surprise me that they agreed on the need to develop a “more scientific, non-traditional approach to hiring.” What did surprise me was learning that there are companies developing video games to augment, if not outright replace, the traditional job interview.

One company, Knack, created a video game, Wasabi Waiter. According to their website, Wasabi Waiter “simulates a restaurant in which the player is a server trying to wait on needy customers.”

As I understood it, the waiter has to read the emotions of the customer and serve them a dish that corresponds to their emotion based on facial expression. In 12-15 minutes, the game measures what did you serve to whom and whom did you ignore. The game collects multiple data points and from that data selects which candidate has the behavioral makeup to match the behavioral signature of “high performance.” Companies such as Shell Oil and NYU’s Langone Medical Center use Wasabi Waiter.

The teleconference was interesting, but I left unconvinced even though much of what I heard made sense; after all, most activities involving humans making choices includes some bias. But there is a lot more to assembling a team than a score on a test. You need the right set of skills and the right set of personalities. I’m not sure you can determine that from a score on a test.

I would be willing to bet there isn’t even a widely agreed upon definition of “high potential.” 

I left the teleconference still a supporter of the behavioral interview and in trusting my gut.

I’m interested to watch and see if this “scientific approach” really has legs or whether it’s just the next shiny disco ball that dazzles organizations for a brief period of time.

Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation of Plattsburgh.

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