Monday, December 2, 2013

Big Data Meets Employment Law

New ImageMoneyball was, of course, about a kind of personnel selection process, albeit in the exotic universe of picking baseball players, so it's not surprising that "big data"  has continued to develop in the employment setting.  If you haven't been following this stuff, a good place to start is a recent article in the Atlantic, They're Watching You at Work.

As the scare title suggests, some of the developments continue the seemingly inexorable erosion of employee privacy. For example, electronic "badges" that collect data on employee interactions at a pretty deep level -- length, tone of voice, how much people interrupt, demonstration of empathy, etc.  Team performance, apparently, can be predicted to a remarkable degree merely by the number of exchanges.  And more refined data can identify "charismatic connectors" (maybe we used to call them "supervisors"?).

But privacy issues aside, Big Data has the potential to shift the criteria by which employers hire, and maybe not in obvious ways.  One company thinks "one solid predictor of strong coding is an affinity for a particular Japanese manga site."  And another uses video games (Wasabi Waiter, for one) "to suss out human potential."  You might want to rethink telling Junior to put the iPad down and pick up a book.

Of course, in one way we've been here before, as the article stresses. "Scientific" human resources is not new, but this time, unlike prior fads, the approaches may in fact be scientific.  In other words, the terabytes of data now available may allow a present day employer to have far more confidence that a successful Wasabi Waiter player will perform well on the job than an employer in the past could have expected from someone who passed the Wonderlic test with flying scores.

If so, we may  see massive changes in the way employees are selected and rewarded, and not so very far in the future.  Not all of which may be bad: the article stresses that such techniques may ameliorate the discriminatory effects of cognitive bias and the inequality concerns with current use of university/GPA as rough screens for probable performance. 

But the legal implications remain to be worked out. We may be looking at yet another round of testing litigation, although this time the "test" being challenged might be Wasabi Waiter. (Oh, if you're wondering, the goal is to deliver the right sushi order to the right customer in an increasingly crowded restaurant.)

I don't really know enough to assess this brave new world, and I do well recall that earlier "advancements" promised similar results with very little success. Still, it's something to keep an eye on. 

Hat tip to Liz Tippett for sending me the article. 


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