The Right Way to Answer “What’s Your Greatest Weakness?” – by David Reese

Thomas Jefferson once said that “honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom”. Though truth-telling abounds in grade school platitudes, it seems scarcer the older we get. But this decline in honesty — let’s call it dishonesty — isn’t necessarily innate. Dishonesty can be taught. In my experience, I’ve noticed that, of all culprits, college career centers are exceptional traffickers of such miseducation. In the process, they’re hurting their brightest students’ chances of making it in the world of startups by convincing them to give dishonest answers to tough interview questions.

Full disclosure: I work at a startup, and it’s my job to quickly build a team of the right people. Throughout my earlier career in larger companies, honesty and being self-critical have always been obvious qualities to look for in candidates, but it wasn’t until I joined Medallia that I realized their special significance for startups. Brandon Ballinger’s now famous blog post about his experience with Y Combinator’s Paul Graham shows why. To cut a long story short, Graham told Ballinger (to his face) that his startup idea sucked — a tough-love approach Ballinger now extols. Why? Well, in a startup, it’s much more comfortable to be a “team player” than “the bad guy,” as Ballinger describes it. The real hard work in a startup, however, is being able to openly admit that the current strategy is just not working — no matter how uncomfortable it is, or how much has been invested in getting to that point.

In other words: one of the biggest dangers for a young company is that a roomful of smart people who aren’t being honest could easily be steering their rocket ship into the ground.

And yet college career centers continue to operate in a 20th century world in which top talent was funneled into careers in mature, staid organizations and industries. These are cultures where people are much more likely to divulge their net worth than a weakness. While a mature organization might have once been able to get by with a “don’t stick your neck out” culture, that attitude is simply lethal to startups.

Nonetheless, the importance of this simple truth seems to still be elusive for the Office of Career Services at many of the nation’s top colleges and universities. Besides guidance on basic items like resumes, cover letters, how to dress, and how to eat, many of these schools are providing either no advice or bad advice on how to adequately answer important questions. Take a very common question that I always like to ask, for example:

What is your greatest weakness?

Even if you’ve only had just one professional interview in your life, then you’ve probably still been asked some version of this question. Do you remember how you answered? Did you say that you work too hard? That you have perfectionist tendencies? Or that you’re too passionate? Be honest.

The truth of that matter is that a quick search of career center websites indicates that students are being encouraged to apply this type of spin to their answers. Even for those that advocating for honesty, there’s often still the contradiction that one’s answers must always be positive. The result of which? Answers that focus on lesser skills (but still skills) rather than actual problems or challenges. One school goes as far as to call it an “angelic weakness.” And if you’re pressed to give a real answer about a flaw, nearly every career center in the universe has apparently decided that “public speaking” is an appropriate response.

Others are more direct at giving the advice that everyone seems familiar with — to make weaknesses into strengths (and vice versa). Northwestern tells grad students, “Turn a negative into a positive.” Boston College advises students to “Turn your weakness into a positive (for example) ‘Because I tend to procrastinate, I have learned to work well under pressure in order to always get work done on time.’”

This is terrible advice. Responses like these tell me little about how a candidate faces challenges and immediately implies a lack of sincerity. It doesn’t demonstrate to me how they think — beyond their ability to creatively avoid being honest or self-critical. It indicates to me that they’re not willing to stand up and say what’s not working — the opposite of what a startup needs. That’s why my recent interviews with college graduates have all started to follow the same pattern. I start with two sentences: “Forget what your career center has taught you about interviews. I want to have a real conversation with real answers, and I promise to do the same.” The candidates take a minute to evaluate whether I’m somehow tricking them. If they lean into their discomfort and take me at my word, the level of conversation improves dramatically — we have a great time getting to know one another in an authentic way. I’m not really looking to find out whether their organizational skills could use improvement, or that they struggle with presenting to large groups or even leading large teams. I’m trying to find out whether they have self-awareness; whether they are able to be critical; and most importantly, whether they’re able to tell the truth — when it’s difficult.

For those candidates who don’t buy in, however, I spend the majority of the interview trying to pry off their layers of canned responses. I leave the interview wondering:Who are you? And what’s worse — I’ll never know. Because they’ll never get the job.


David Reese leads people and culture at Medallia. He came to Medallia from Caesars Entertainment, where he was Senior Vice President of Human Resources. Prior to that, he was a Senior Manager in HR at Macy’s, a board member of the nonprofit ITN, and an Adjunct Professor at Nevada State College.

One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees? – by Frederick Herzberg

Ask workers what makes them unhappy at work, and you’ll hear about an annoying boss, a low salary, an uncomfortable work space, or stupid rules. Managed badly, environmental factors make people miserable, and they can certainly be demotivating. But even if managed brilliantly, they don’t motivate anybody to work much harder or smarter. People are motivated, instead, by interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility. These intrinsic factors answer people’s deep-seated need for growth and achievement.

Herzberg’s work influenced a generation of scholars and managers—but his conclusions don’t seem to have fully penetrated the American workplace, if the extraordinary attention still paid to compensation and incentive packages is any indication.

How many articles, books, speeches, and workshops have pleaded plaintively, “How do I get an employee to do what I want?”

The psychology of motivation is tremendously complex, and what has been unraveled with any degree of assurance is small indeed. But the dismal ratio of knowledge to speculation has not dampened the enthusiasm for new forms of snake oil that are constantly coming on the market, many of them with academic testimonials. Doubtless this article will have no depressing impact on the market for snake oil, but since the ideas expressed in it have been tested in many corporations and other organizations, it will help—I hope—to redress the imbalance in the aforementioned ratio.

“Motivating” with KITA

In lectures to industry on the problem, I have found that the audiences are usually anxious for quick and practical answers, so I will begin with a straightforward, practical formula for moving people.

What is the simplest, surest, and most direct way of getting someone to do something? Ask? But if the person responds that he or she does not want to do it, then that calls for psychological consultation to determine the reason for such obstinacy. Tell the person? The response shows that he or she does not understand you, and now an expert in communication methods has to be brought in to show you how to get through. Give the person a monetary incentive? I do not need to remind the reader of the complexity and difficulty involved in setting up and administering an incentive system. Show the person? This means a costly training program. We need a simple way.

Every audience contains the “direct action” manager who shouts, “Kick the person!” And this type of manager is right. The surest and least circumlocuted way of getting someone to do something is to administer a kick in the pants—to give what might be called the KITA.

There are various forms of KITA, and here are some of them:

Negative Physical KITA.

This is a literal application of the term and was frequently used in the past. It has, however, three major drawbacks: 1) It is inelegant; 2) it contradicts the precious image of benevolence that most organizations cherish; and 3) since it is a physical attack, it directly stimulates the autonomic nervous system, and this often results in negative feedback—the employee may just kick you in return. These factors give rise to certain taboos against negative physical KITA.

In uncovering infinite sources of psychological vulnerabilities and the appropriate methods to play tunes on them, psychologists have come to the rescue of those who are no longer permitted to use negative physical KITA. “He took my rug away”; “I wonder what she meant by that”; “The boss is always going around me”—these symptomatic expressions of ego sores that have been rubbed raw are the result of application of:

Negative Psychological KITA.

This has several advantages over negative physical KITA. First, the cruelty is not visible; the bleeding is internal and comes much later. Second, since it affects the higher cortical centers of the brain with its inhibitory powers, it reduces the possibility of physical backlash. Third, since the number of psychological pains that a person can feel is almost infinite, the direction and site possibilities of the KITA are increased many times. Fourth, the person administering the kick can manage to be above it all and let the system accomplish the dirty work. Fifth, those who practice it receive some ego satisfaction (one-upmanship), whereas they would find drawing blood abhorrent. Finally, if the employee does complain, he or she can always be accused of being paranoid; there is no tangible evidence of an actual attack.

Now, what does negative KITA accomplish? If I kick you in the rear (physically or psychologically), who is motivated? I am motivated; you move! Negative KITA does not lead to motivation, but to movement. So:

Positive KITA.

Let us consider motivation. If I say to you, “Do this for me or the company, and in return I will give you a reward, an incentive, more status, a promotion, all the quid pro quos that exist in the industrial organization,” am I motivating you? The overwhelming opinion I receive from management people is, “Yes, this is motivation.”

I have a year-old schnauzer. When it was a small puppy and I wanted it to move, I kicked it in the rear and it moved. Now that I have finished its obedience training, I hold up a dog biscuit when I want the schnauzer to move. In this instance, who is motivated—I or the dog? The dog wants the biscuit, but it is I who want it to move. Again, I am the one who is motivated, and the dog is the one who moves. In this instance all I did was apply KITA frontally; I exerted a pull instead of a push. When industry wishes to use such positive KITAs, it has available an incredible number and variety of dog biscuits (jelly beans for humans) to wave in front of employees to get them to jump.

Myths About Motivation

Why is KITA not motivation? If I kick my dog (from the front or the back), he will move. And when I want him to move again, what must I do? I must kick him again. Similarly, I can charge a person’s battery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a generator of one’s own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it.

With this in mind, we can review some positive KITA personnel practices that were developed as attempts to instill “motivation”:

1. Reducing Time Spent at Work.

This represents a marvelous way of motivating people to work—getting them off the job! We have reduced (formally and informally) the time spent on the job over the last 50 or 60 years until we are finally on the way to the “6½-day weekend.” An interesting variant of this approach is the development of off-hour recreation programs. The philosophy here seems to be that those who play together, work together. The fact is that motivated people seek more hours of work, not fewer.

2. Spiraling Wages.

Have these motivated people? Yes, to seek the next wage increase. Some medievalists still can be heard to say that a good depression will get employees moving. They feel that if rising wages don’t or won’t do the job, reducing them will.

3. Fringe Benefits.

Industry has outdone the most welfare-minded of welfare states in dispensing cradle-to-the-grave succor. One company I know of had an informal “fringe benefit of the month club” going for a while. The cost of fringe benefits in this country has reached approximately 25% of the wage dollar, and we still cry for motivation.

People spend less time working for more money and more security than ever before, and the trend cannot be reversed. These benefits are no longer rewards; they are rights. A 6-day week is inhuman, a 10-hour day is exploitation, extended medical coverage is a basic decency, and stock options are the salvation of American initiative. Unless the ante is continuously raised, the psychological reaction of employees is that the company is turning back the clock.

When industry began to realize that both the economic nerve and the lazy nerve of their employees had insatiable appetites, it started to listen to the behavioral scientists who, more out of a humanist tradition than from scientific study, criticized management for not knowing how to deal with people. The next KITA easily followed.

4. Human Relations Training.

More than 30 years of teaching and, in many instances, of practicing psychological approaches to handling people have resulted in costly human relations programs and, in the end, the same question: How do you motivate workers? Here, too, escalations have taken place. Thirty years ago it was necessary to request, “Please don’t spit on the floor.” Today the same admonition requires three “pleases” before the employee feels that a superior has demonstrated the psychologically proper attitude.

The failure of human relations training to produce motivation led to the conclusion that supervisors or managers themselves were not psychologically true to themselves in their practice of interpersonal decency. So an advanced form of human relations KITA, sensitivity training, was unfolded.

5. Sensitivity Training.

Do you really, really understand yourself? Do you really, really, really trust other people? Do you really, really, really, really cooperate? The failure of sensitivity training is now being explained, by those who have become opportunistic exploiters of the technique, as a failure to really (five times) conduct proper sensitivity training courses.

With the realization that there are only temporary gains from comfort and economic and interpersonal KITA, personnel managers concluded that the fault lay not in what they were doing, but in the employee’s failure to appreciate what they were doing. This opened up the field of communications, a new area of “scientifically” sanctioned KITA.

6. Communications.

The professor of communications was invited to join the faculty of management training programs and help in making employees understand what management was doing for them. House organs, briefing sessions, supervisory instruction on the importance of communication, and all sorts of propaganda have proliferated until today there is even an International Council of Industrial Editors. But no motivation resulted, and the obvious thought occurred that perhaps management was not hearing what the employees were saying. That led to the next KITA.

7. Two-Way Communication.

Management ordered morale surveys, suggestion plans, and group participation programs. Then both management and employees were communicating and listening to each other more than ever, but without much improvement in motivation.

The behavioral scientists began to take another look at their conceptions and their data, and they took human relations one step further. A glimmer of truth was beginning to show through in the writings of the so-called higher-order-need psychologists. People, so they said, want to actualize themselves. Unfortunately, the “actualizing” psychologists got mixed up with the human relations psychologists, and a new KITA emerged.

8. Job Participation.

Though it may not have been the theoretical intention, job participation often became a “give them the big picture” approach. For example, if a man is tightening 10,000 nuts a day on an assembly line with a torque wrench, tell him he is building a Chevrolet. Another approach had the goal of giving employees a “feeling” that they are determining, in some measure, what they do on the job. The goal was to provide a sense of achievement rather than a substantive achievement in the task. Real achievement, of course, requires a task that makes it possible.

But still there was no motivation. This led to the inevitable conclusion that the employees must be sick, and therefore to the next KITA.

9. Employee Counseling.

The initial use of this form of KITA in a systematic fashion can be credited to the Hawthorne experiment of the Western Electric Company during the early 1930s. At that time, it was found that the employees harbored irrational feelings that were interfering with the rational operation of the factory. Counseling in this instance was a means of letting the employees unburden themselves by talking to someone about their problems. Although the counseling techniques were primitive, the program was large indeed.

The counseling approach suffered as a result of experiences during World War II, when the programs themselves were found to be interfering with the operation of the organizations; the counselors had forgotten their role of benevolent listeners and were attempting to do something about the problems that they heard about. Psychological counseling, however, has managed to survive the negative impact of World War II experiences and today is beginning to flourish with renewed sophistication. But, alas, many of these programs, like all the others, do not seem to have lessened the pressure of demands to find out how to motivate workers.

Since KITA results only in short-term movement, it is safe to predict that the cost of these programs will increase steadily and new varieties will be developed as old positive KITAs reach their satiation points.

Hygiene vs. Motivators

Let me rephrase the perennial question this way: How do you install a generator in an employee? A brief review of my motivation-hygiene theory of job attitudes is required before theoretical and practical suggestions can be offered. The theory was first drawn from an examination of events in the lives of engineers and accountants. At least 16 other investigations, using a wide variety of populations (including some in the Communist countries), have since been completed, making the original research one of the most replicated studies in the field of job attitudes.

The findings of these studies, along with corroboration from many other investigations using different procedures, suggest that the factors involved in producing job satisfaction (and motivation) are separate and distinct from the factors that lead to job dissatisfaction. (See Exhibit 1, which is further explained below.) Since separate factors need to be considered, depending on whether job satisfaction or job dissatisfaction is being examined, it follows that these two feelings are not opposites of each other. The opposite of job satisfaction is not job dissatisfaction but, rather, no job satisfaction; and similarly, the opposite of job dissatisfaction is not job satisfaction, but no job dissatisfaction.

Stating the concept presents a problem in semantics, for we normally think of satisfaction and dissatisfaction as opposites; i.e., what is not satisfying must be dissatisfying, and vice versa. But when it comes to understanding the behavior of people in their jobs, more than a play on words is involved.

Two different needs of human beings are involved here. One set of needs can be thought of as stemming from humankind’s animal nature—the built-in drive to avoid pain from the environment, plus all the learned drives that become conditioned to the basic biological needs. For example, hunger, a basic biological drive, makes it necessary to earn money, and then money becomes a specific drive. The other set of needs relates to that unique human characteristic, the ability to achieve and, through achievement, to experience psychological growth. The stimuli for the growth needs are tasks that induce growth; in the industrial setting, they are the job content. Contrariwise, the stimuli inducing pain-avoidance behavior are found in the job environment.

The growth or motivator factors that are intrinsic to the job are: achievement, recognition for achievement, the work itself, responsibility, and growth or advancement. The dissatisfaction-avoidance or hygiene (KITA) factors that are extrinsic to the job include: company policy and administration, supervision, interpersonal relationships, working conditions, salary, status, and security.

A composite of the factors that are involved in causing job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction, drawn from samples of 1,685 employees, is shown in Exhibit 1. The results indicate that motivators were the primary cause of satisfaction, and hygiene factors the primary cause of unhappiness on the job. The employees, studied in 12 different investigations, included lower level supervisors, professional women, agricultural administrators, men about to retire from management positions, hospital maintenance personnel, manufacturing supervisors, nurses, food handlers, military officers, engineers, scientists, housekeepers, teachers, technicians, female assemblers, accountants, Finnish foremen, and Hungarian engineers.

They were asked what job events had occurred in their work that had led to extreme satisfaction or extreme dissatisfaction on their part. Their responses are broken down in the exhibit into percentages of total “positive” job events and of total “negative” job events. (The figures total more than 100% on both the “hygiene” and “motivators” sides because often at least two factors can be attributed to a single event; advancement, for instance, often accompanies assumption of responsibility.)

To illustrate, a typical response involving achievement that had a negative effect for the employee was, “I was unhappy because I didn’t do the job successfully.” A typical response in the small number of positive job events in the company policy and administration grouping was, “I was happy because the company reorganized the section so that I didn’t report any longer to the guy I didn’t get along with.”

As the lower right-hand part of the exhibit shows, of all the factors contributing to job satisfaction, 81% were motivators. And of all the factors contributing to the employees’ dissatisfaction over their work, 69% involved hygiene elements.

Eternal Triangle.

There are three general philosophies of personnel management. The first is based on organizational theory, the second on industrial engineering, and the third on behavioral science.

Organizational theorists believe that human needs are either so irrational or so varied and adjustable to specific situations that the major function of personnel management is to be as pragmatic as the occasion demands. If jobs are organized in a proper manner, they reason, the result will be the most efficient job structure, and the most favorable job attitudes will follow as a matter of course.

Industrial engineers hold that humankind is mechanistically oriented and economically motivated and that human needs are best met by attuning the individual to the most efficient work process. The goal of personnel management therefore should be to concoct the most appropriate incentive system and to design the specific working conditions in a way that facilitates the most efficient use of the human machine. By structuring jobs in a manner that leads to the most efficient operation, engineers believe that they can obtain the optimal organization of work and the proper work attitudes.

Behavioral scientists focus on group sentiments, attitudes of individual employees, and the organization’s social and psychological climate. This persuasion emphasizes one or more of the various hygiene and motivator needs. Its approach to personnel management is generally to emphasize some form of human relations education, in the hope of instilling healthy employee attitudes and an organizational climate that is considered to be felicitous to human values. The belief is that proper attitudes will lead to efficient job and organizational structure.

There is always a lively debate concerning the overall effectiveness of the approaches of organizational theorists and industrial engineers. Manifestly, both have achieved much. But the nagging question for behavioral scientists has been: What is the cost in human problems that eventually cause more expense to the organization—for instance, turnover, absenteeism, errors, violation of safety rules, strikes, restriction of output, higher wages, and greater fringe benefits? On the other hand, behavioral scientists are hard put to document much manifest improvement in personnel management, using their approach.

The motivation-hygiene theory suggests that work be enriched to bring about effective utilization of personnel. Such a systematic attempt to motivate employees by manipulating the motivator factors is just beginning. The term job enrichment describes this embryonic movement. An older term, job enlargement, should be avoided because it is associated with past failures stemming from a misunderstanding of the problem. Job enrichment provides the opportunity for the employee’s psychological growth, while job enlargement merely makes a job structurally bigger. Since scientific job enrichment is very new, this article only suggests the principles and practical steps that have recently emerged from several successful experiments in industry.

Job Loading.

In attempting to enrich certain jobs, management often reduces the personal contribution of employees rather than giving them opportunities for growth in their accustomed jobs. Such endeavors, which I shall call horizontal job loading (as opposed to vertical loading, or providing motivator factors), have been the problem of earlier job enlargement programs. Job loading merely enlarges the meaninglessness of the job. Some examples of this approach, and their effect, are:

  • Challenging the employee by increasing the amount of production expected. If each tightens 10,000 bolts a day, see if each can tighten 20,000 bolts a day. The arithmetic involved shows that multiplying zero by zero still equals zero.
  • Adding another meaningless task to the existing one, usually some routine clerical activity. The arithmetic here is adding zero to zero.
  • Rotating the assignments of a number of jobs that need to be enriched. This means washing dishes for a while, then washing silverware. The arithmetic is substituting one zero for another zero.
  • Removing the most difficult parts of the assignment in order to free the worker to accomplish more of the less challenging assignments. This traditional industrial engineering approach amounts to subtraction in the hope of accomplishing addition.

These are common forms of horizontal loading that frequently come up in preliminary brainstorming sessions of job enrichment. The principles of vertical loading have not all been worked out as yet, and they remain rather general, but I have furnished seven useful starting points for consideration in Exhibit 2.

A Successful Application.

An example from a highly successful job enrichment experiment can illustrate the distinction between horizontal and vertical loading of a job. The subjects of this study were the stockholder correspondents employed by a very large corporation. Seemingly, the task required of these carefully selected and highly trained correspondents was quite complex and challenging. But almost all indexes of performance and job attitudes were low, and exit interviewing confirmed that the challenge of the job existed merely as words.

A job enrichment project was initiated in the form of an experiment with one group, designated as an achieving unit, having its job enriched by the principles described in Exhibit 2. A control group continued to do its job in the traditional way. (There were also two “uncommitted” groups of correspondents formed to measure the so-called Hawthorne effect—that is, to gauge whether productivity and attitudes toward the job changed artificially merely because employees sensed that the company was paying more attention to them in doing something different or novel. The results for these groups were substantially the same as for the control group, and for the sake of simplicity I do not deal with them in this summary.) No changes in hygiene were introduced for either group other than those that would have been made anyway, such as normal pay increases.

The changes for the achieving unit were introduced in the first two months, averaging one per week of the seven motivators listed in Exhibit 2. At the end of six months the members of the achieving unit were found to be outperforming their counterparts in the control group and, in addition, indicated a marked increase in their liking for their jobs. Other results showed that the achieving group had lower absenteeism and, subsequently, a much higher rate of promotion.

Exhibit 3 illustrates the changes in performance, measured in February and March, before the study period began, and at the end of each month of the study period. The shareholder service index represents quality of letters, including accuracy of information, and speed of response to stockholders’ letters of inquiry. The index of a current month was averaged into the average of the two prior months, which means that improvement was harder to obtain if the indexes of the previous months were low. The “achievers” were performing less well before the six-month period started, and their performance service index continued to decline after the introduction of the motivators, evidently because of uncertainty after their newly granted responsibilities. In the third month, however, performance improved, and soon the members of this group had reached a high level of accomplishment.

Exhibit 4 shows the two groups’ attitudes toward their job, measured at the end of March, just before the first motivator was introduced, and again at the end of September. The correspondents were asked 16 questions, all involving motivation. A typical one was, “As you see it, how many opportunities do you feel that you have in your job for making worthwhile contributions?” The answers were scaled from 1 to 5, with 80 as the maximum possible score. The achievers became much more positive about their job, while the attitude of the control unit remained about the same (the drop is not statistically significant).

How was the job of these correspondents restructured? Exhibit 5 lists the suggestions made that were deemed to be horizontal loading, and the actual vertical loading changes that were incorporated in the job of the achieving unit. The capital letters under “Principle” after “Vertical Loading” refer to the corresponding letters in Exhibit 2. The reader will note that the rejected forms of horizontal loading correspond closely to the list of common manifestations I mentioned earlier.

Steps for Job Enrichment

Now that the motivator idea has been described in practice, here are the steps that managers should take in instituting the principle with their employees:

1. Select those jobs in which a) the investment in industrial engineering does not make changes too costly, b) attitudes are poor, c) hygiene is becoming very costly, and d) motivation will make a difference in performance.

2. Approach these jobs with the conviction that they can be changed. Years of tradition have led managers to believe that job content is sacrosanct and the only scope of action that they have is in ways of stimulating people.

3. Brainstorm a list of changes that may enrich the jobs, without concern for their practicality.

4. Screen the list to eliminate suggestions that involve hygiene, rather than actual motivation.

5. Screen the list for generalities, such as “give them more responsibility,” that are rarely followed in practice. This might seem obvious, but the motivator words have never left industry; the substance has just been rationalized and organized out. Words like “responsibility,” “growth,” “achievement,” and “challenge,” for example, have been elevated to the lyrics of the patriotic anthem for all organizations. It is the old problem typified by the pledge of allegiance to the flag being more important than contributions to the country—of following the form, rather than the substance.

6. Screen the list to eliminate any horizontal loading suggestions.

7. Avoid direct participation by the employees whose jobs are to be enriched. Ideas they have expressed previously certainly constitute a valuable source for recommended changes, but their direct involvement contaminates the process with human relations hygiene and, more specifically, gives them only a sense of making a contribution. The job is to be changed, and it is the content that will produce the motivation, not attitudes about being involved or the challenge inherent in setting up a job. That process will be over shortly, and it is what the employees will be doing from then on that will determine their motivation. A sense of participation will result only in short-term movement.

8. In the initial attempts at job enrichment, set up a controlled experiment. At least two equivalent groups should be chosen, one an experimental unit in which the motivators are systematically introduced over a period of time, and the other one a control group in which no changes are made. For both groups, hygiene should be allowed to follow its natural course for the duration of the experiment. Pre- and post-installation tests of performance and job attitudes are necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of the job enrichment program. The attitude test must be limited to motivator items in order to divorce employees’ views of the jobs they are given from all the surrounding hygiene feelings that they might have.

9. Be prepared for a drop in performance in the experimental group the first few weeks. The changeover to a new job may lead to a temporary reduction in efficiency.

10. Expect your first-line supervisors to experience some anxiety and hostility over the changes you are making. The anxiety comes from their fear that the changes will result in poorer performance for their unit. Hostility will arise when the employees start assuming what the supervisors regard as their own responsibility for performance. The supervisor without checking duties to perform may then be left with little to do.

After successful experiment, however, the supervisors usually discover the supervisory and managerial functions they have neglected, or which were never theirs because all their time was given over to checking the work of their subordinates. For example, in the R&D division of one large chemical company I know of, the supervisors of the laboratory assistants were theoretically responsible for their training and evaluation. These functions, however, had come to be performed in a routine, unsubstantial fashion. After the job enrichment program, during which the supervisors were not merely passive observers of the assistants’ performance, the supervisors actually were devoting their time to reviewing performance and administering thorough training.

What has been called an employee-centered style of supervision will come about not through education of supervisors, but by changing the jobs that they do.

• • •Job enrichment will not be a one-time proposition, but a continuous management function. The initial changes should last for a very long period of time. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The changes should bring the job up to the level of challenge commensurate with the skill that was hired.
  • Those who have still more ability eventually will be able to demonstrate it better and win promotion to higher level jobs.
  • The very nature of motivators, as opposed to hygiene factors, is that they have a much longer-term effect on employees’ attitudes. It is possible that the job will have to be enriched again, but this will not occur as frequently as the need for hygiene.

Not all jobs can be enriched, nor do all jobs need to be enriched. If only a small percentage of the time and money that is now devoted to hygiene, however, were given to job enrichment efforts, the return in human satisfaction and economic gain would be one of the largest dividends that industry and society have ever reaped through their efforts at better personnel management.

The argument for job enrichment can be summed up quite simply: If you have employees on a job, use them. If you can’t use them on the job, get rid of them, either via automation or by selecting someone with lesser ability. If you can’t use them and you can’t get rid of them, you will have a motivation problem.

Frederick Herzberg, Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, was head of the department of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland when he wrote this article. His writings include the book Work and the Nature of Man (World, 1966).

They’re Watching You at Work – by Don Peck

What happens when Big Data meets human resources? The emerging practice of “people analytics” is already transforming how employers hire, fire, and promote.

Peter Yang

In 2003, thanks to Michael Lewis and his best seller Moneyball, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, became a star. The previous year, Beane had turned his back on his scouts and had instead entrusted player-acquisition decisions to mathematical models developed by a young, Harvard-trained statistical wizard on his staff. What happened next has become baseball lore. The A’s, a small-market team with a paltry budget, ripped off the longest winning streak in American League history and rolled up 103 wins for the season. Only the mighty Yankees, who had spent three times as much on player salaries, won as many games. The team’s success, in turn, launched a revolution. In the years that followed, team after team began to use detailed predictive models to assess players’ potential and monetary value, and the early adopters, by and large, gained a measurable competitive edge over their more hidebound peers.

That’s the story as most of us know it. But it is incomplete. What would seem at first glance to be nothing but a memorable tale about baseball may turn out to be the opening chapter of a much larger story about jobs. Predictive statistical analysis, harnessed to big data, appears poised to alter the way millions of people are hired and assessed.

Yes, unavoidably, big data. As a piece of business jargon, and even more so as an invocation of coming disruption, the term has quickly grown tiresome. But there is no denying the vast increase in the range and depth of information that’s routinely captured about how we behave, and the new kinds of analysis that this enables. By one estimate, more than 98 percent of the world’s information is now stored digitally, and the volume of that data has quadrupled since 2007. Ordinary people at work and at home generate much of this data, by sending e-mails, browsing the Internet, using social media, working on crowd-sourced projects, and more—and in doing so they have unwittingly helped launch a grand new societal project. “We are in the midst of a great infrastructure project that in some ways rivals those of the past, from Roman aqueducts to the Enlightenment’s Encyclopédie,” write Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier in their recent book, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. “The project is datafication. Like those other infrastructural advances, it will bring about fundamental changes to society.”

Some of the changes are well known, and already upon us. Algorithms that predict stock-price movements have transformed Wall Street. Algorithms that chomp through our Web histories have transformed marketing. Until quite recently, however, few people seemed to believe this data-driven approach might apply broadly to the labor market.

But it now does. According to John Hausknecht, a professor at Cornell’s school of industrial and labor relations, in recent years the economy has witnessed a “huge surge in demand for workforce-analytics roles.” Hausknecht’s own program is rapidly revising its curriculum to keep pace. You can now find dedicated analytics teams in the human-resources departments of not only huge corporations such as Google, HP, Intel, General Motors, and Procter & Gamble, to name just a few, but also companies like McKee Foods, the Tennessee-based maker of Little Debbie snack cakes. Even Billy Beane is getting into the game. Last year he appeared at a large conference for corporate HR executives in Austin, Texas, where he reportedly stole the show with a talk titled “The Moneyball Approach to Talent Management.” Ever since, that headline, with minor modifications, has been plastered all over the HR trade press.

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. Will this be a good development or a bad one—for the economy, for the shapes of our careers, for our spirit and self-worth? Earlier this year, I decided to find out.

Ever since we’ve had companies, we’ve had managers trying to figure out which people are best suited to working for them. The techniques have varied considerably. Near the turn of the 20th century, one manufacturer in Philadelphia made hiring decisions by having its foremen stand in front of the factory and toss apples into the surrounding scrum of job-seekers. Those quick enough to catch the apples and strong enough to keep them were put to work.

In those same times, a different (and less bloody) Darwinian process governed the selection of executives. Whole industries were being consolidated by rising giants like U.S. Steel, DuPont, and GM. Weak competitors were simply steamrolled, but the stronger ones were bought up, and their founders typically were offered high-level jobs within the behemoth. The approach worked pretty well. As Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School, has written, “Nothing in the science of prediction and selection beats observing actual performance in an equivalent role.”

By the end of World War II, however, American corporations were facing severe talent shortages. Their senior executives were growing old, and a dearth of hiring from the Depression through the war had resulted in a shortfall of able, well-trained managers. Finding people who had the potential to rise quickly through the ranks became an overriding preoccupation of American businesses. They began to devise a formal hiring-and-management system based in part on new studies of human behavior, and in part on military techniques developed during both world wars, when huge mobilization efforts and mass casualties created the need to get the right people into the right roles as efficiently as possible. By the 1950s, it was not unusual for companies to spend days with young applicants for professional jobs, conducting a battery of tests, all with an eye toward corner-office potential. “P&G picks its executive crop right out of college,” BusinessWeeknoted in 1950, in the unmistakable patter of an age besotted with technocratic possibility. IQ tests, math tests, vocabulary tests, professional-aptitude tests, vocational-interest questionnaires, Rorschach tests, a host of other personality assessments, and even medical exams (who, after all, would want to hire a man who might die before the company’s investment in him was fully realized?)—all were used regularly by large companies in their quest to make the right hire.

The process didn’t end when somebody started work, either. In his classic 1956 cultural critique, The Organization Man, the business journalist William Whyte reported that about a quarter of the country’s corporations were using similar tests to evaluate managers and junior executives, usually to assess whether they were ready for bigger roles. “Should Jones be promoted or put on the shelf?” he wrote. “Once, the man’s superiors would have had to thresh this out among themselves; now they can check with psychologists to see what the tests say.”

Remarkably, this regime, so widespread in corporate America at mid-century, had almost disappeared by 1990. “I think an HR person from the late 1970s would be stunned to see how casually companies hire now,” Peter Cappelli told me—the days of testing replaced by a handful of ad hoc interviews, with the questions dreamed up on the fly. Many factors explain the change, he said, and then he ticked off a number of them: Increased job-switching has made it less important and less economical for companies to test so thoroughly. A heightened focus on short-term financial results has led to deep cuts in corporate functions that bear fruit only in the long term. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which exposed companies to legal liability for discriminatory hiring practices, has made HR departments wary of any broadly applied and clearly scored test that might later be shown to be systematically biased. Instead, companies came to favor the more informal qualitative hiring practices that are still largely in place today.

But companies abandoned their hard-edged practices for another important reason: many of their methods of evaluation turned out not to be very scientific. Some were based on untested psychological theories. Others were originally designed to assess mental illness, and revealed nothing more than where subjects fell on a “normal” distribution of responses—which in some cases had been determined by testing a relatively small, unrepresentative group of people, such as college freshmen. When William Whyte administered a battery of tests to a group of corporate presidents, he found that not one of them scored in the “acceptable” range for hiring. Such assessments, he concluded, measured not potential but simply conformity. Some of them were highly intrusive, too, asking questions about personal habits, for instance, or parental affection. Unsurprisingly, subjects didn’t like being so impersonally poked and prodded (sometimes literally).

For all these reasons and more, the idea that hiring was a science fell out of favor. But now it’s coming back, thanks to new technologies and methods of analysis that are cheaper, faster, and much-wider-ranging than what we had before. For better or worse, a new era of technocratic possibility has begun.

Consider Knack, a tiny start-up based in Silicon Valley. Knack makes app-based video games, among them Dungeon Scrawl, a quest game requiring the player to navigate a maze and solve puzzles, and Wasabi Waiter, which involves delivering the right sushi to the right customer at an increasingly crowded happy hour. These games aren’t just for play: they’ve been designed by a team of neuroscientists, psychologists, and data scientists to suss out human potential. Play one of them for just 20 minutes, says Guy Halfteck, Knack’s founder, and you’ll generate several megabytes of data, exponentially more than what’s collected by the SAT or a personality test. How long you hesitate before taking every action, the sequence of actions you take, how you solve problems—all of these factors and many more are logged as you play, and then are used to analyze your creativity, your persistence, your capacity to learn quickly from mistakes, your ability to prioritize, and even your social intelligence and personality. The end result, Halfteck says, is a high-resolution portrait of your psyche and intellect, and an assessment of your potential as a leader or an innovator.

When Hans Haringa heard about Knack, he was skeptical but intrigued. Haringa works for the petroleum giant Royal Dutch Shell—by revenue, the world’s largest company last year. For seven years he’s served as an executive in the company’s GameChanger unit: a 12-person team that for nearly two decades has had an outsize impact on the company’s direction and performance. The unit’s job is to identify potentially disruptive business ideas. Haringa and his team solicit ideas promiscuously from inside and outside the company, and then play the role of venture capitalists, vetting each idea, meeting with its proponents, dispensing modest seed funding to a few promising candidates, and monitoring their progress. They have a good record of picking winners, Haringa told me, but identifying ideas with promise has proved to be extremely difficult and time-consuming. The process typically takes more than two years, and less than 10 percent of the ideas proposed to the unit actually make it into general research and development.

When he heard about Knack, Haringa thought he might have found a shortcut. What if Knack could help him assess the people proposing all these ideas, so that he and his team could focus only on those whose ideas genuinely deserved close attention? Haringa reached out, and eventually ran an experiment with the company’s help.

Over the years, the GameChanger team had kept a database of all the ideas it had received, recording how far each had advanced. Haringa asked all the idea contributors he could track down (about 1,400 in total) to play Dungeon Scrawl and Wasabi Waiter, and told Knack how well three-quarters of those people had done as idea generators. (Did they get initial funding? A second round? Did their ideas make it all the way?) He did this so that Knack’s staff could develop game-play profiles of the strong innovators relative to the weak ones. Finally, he had Knack analyze the game-play of the remaining quarter of the idea generators, and asked the company to guess whose ideas had turned out to be best.

When the results came back, Haringa recalled, his heart began to beat a little faster. Without ever seeing the ideas, without meeting or interviewing the people who’d proposed them, without knowing their title or background or academic pedigree, Knack’s algorithm had identified the people whose ideas had panned out. The top 10 percent of the idea generators as predicted by Knack were in fact those who’d gone furthest in the process. Knack identified six broad factors as especially characteristic of those whose ideas would succeed at Shell: “mind wandering” (or the tendency to follow interesting, unexpected offshoots of the main task at hand, to see where they lead), social intelligence, “goal-orientation fluency,” implicit learning, task-switching ability, and conscientiousness. Haringa told me that this profile dovetails with his impression of a successful innovator. “You need to be disciplined,” he said, but “at all times you must have your mind open to see the other possibilities and opportunities.”

What Knack is doing, Haringa told me, “is almost like a paradigm shift.” It offers a way for his GameChanger unit to avoid wasting time on the 80 people out of 100—nearly all of whom look smart, well-trained, and plausible on paper—whose ideas just aren’t likely to work out. If he and his colleagues were no longer mired in evaluating “the hopeless folks,” as he put it to me, they could solicit ideas even more widely than they do today and devote much more careful attention to the 20 people out of 100 whose ideas have the most merit.

Haringa is now trying to persuade his colleagues in the GameChanger unit to use Knack’s games as an assessment tool. But he’s also thinking well beyond just his own little part of Shell. He has encouraged the company’s HR executives to think about applying the games to the recruitment and evaluation of all professional workers. Shell goes to extremes to try to make itself the world’s most innovative energy company, he told me, so shouldn’t it apply that spirit to developing its own “human dimension”?

“It is the whole man The Organization wants,” William Whyte wrote back in 1956, when describing the ambit of the employee evaluations then in fashion. Aptitude, skills, personal history, psychological stability, discretion, loyalty—companies at the time felt they had a need (and the right) to look into them all. That ambit is expanding once again, and this is undeniably unsettling. Should the ideas of scientists be dismissed because of the way they play a game? Should job candidates be ranked by what their Web habits say about them? Should the “data signature” of natural leaders play a role in promotion? These are all live questions today, and they prompt heavy concerns: that we will cede one of the most subtle and human of skills, the evaluation of the gifts and promise of other people, to machines; that the models will get it wrong; that some people will never get a shot in the new workforce.

It’s natural to worry about such things. But consider the alternative. A mountain of scholarly literature has shown that the intuitive way we now judge professional potential is rife with snap judgments and hidden biases, rooted in our upbringing or in deep neurological connections that doubtless served us well on the savanna but would seem to have less bearing on the world of work.

What really distinguishes CEOs from the rest of us, for instance? In 2010, three professors at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business asked roughly 2,000 people to look at a long series of photos. Some showed CEOs and some showed nonexecutives, and the participants didn’t know who was who. The participants were asked to rate the subjects according to how “competent” they looked. Among the study’s findings: CEOs look significantly more competent than non-CEOs; CEOs of large companies look significantly more competent than CEOs of small companies; and, all else being equal, the more competent a CEO looked, the fatter the paycheck he or she received in real life. And yet the authors found no relationship whatsoever between how competent a CEO looked and the financial performance of his or her company.

Examples of bias abound. Tall men get hired and promoted more frequently than short men, and make more money. Beautiful women get preferential treatment, too—unless their breasts are too large. According to a national survey by the Employment Law Alliance a few years ago, most American workers don’t believe attractive people in their firms are hired or promoted more frequently than unattractive people, but the evidence shows that they are, overwhelmingly so. Older workers, for their part, are thought to be more resistant to change and generally less competent than younger workers, even though plenty of research indicates that’s just not so. Workers who are too young or, more specifically, are part of the Millennial generation are tarred as entitled and unable to think outside the box.

“Some of our hiring managers don’t even want to interview anymore”—they just want to hire the people with the highest scores.

Malcolm Gladwell recounts a classic example inBlink. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, most professional orchestras transitioned one by one to “blind” auditions, in which each musician seeking a job performed from behind a screen. The move was made in part to stop conductors from favoring former students, which it did. But it also produced another result: the proportion of women winning spots in the most-prestigious orchestras shot up fivefold, notably when they played instruments typically identified closely with men. Gladwell tells the memorable story of Julie Landsman, who, at the time of his book’s publication, in 2005, was playing principal French horn for the Metropolitan Opera, in New York. When she’d finished her blind audition for that role, years earlier, she knew immediately that she’d won. Her last note was so true, and she held it so long, that she heard delighted peals of laughter break out among the evaluators on the other side of the screen. But when she came out to greet them, she heard a gasp. Landsman had played with the Met before, but only as a substitute. The evaluators knew her, yet only when they weren’t aware of her gender—only, that is, when they were forced to make not a personal evaluation but an impersonal one—could they hear how brilliantly she played.

We may like to think that society has become more enlightened since those days, and in many ways it has, but our biases are mostly unconscious, and they can run surprisingly deep. Consider race. For a 2004 study called “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?,” the economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Marianne Bertrand put white-sounding names (Emily Walsh, Greg Baker) or black-sounding names (Lakisha Washington, Jamal Jones) on similar fictitious résumés, which they then sent out to a variety of companies in Boston and Chicago. To get the same number of callbacks, they learned, they needed to either send out half again as many résumés with black names as those with white names, or add eight extra years of relevant work experience to the résumés with black names.

I talked with Mullainathan about the study. All of the hiring managers he and Bertrand had consulted while designing it, he said, told him confidently that Lakisha and Jamal would get called back more than Emily and Greg. Affirmative action guaranteed it, they said: recruiters were bending over backwards in their search for good black candidates. Despite making conscious efforts to find such candidates, however, these recruiters turned out to be excluding them unconsciously at every turn. After the study came out, a man named Jamal sent a thank-you note to Mullainathan, saying that he’d started using only his first initial on his résumé and was getting more interviews.

Perhaps the most widespread bias in hiring today cannot even be detected with the eye. In a recent survey of some 500 hiring managers, undertaken by the Corporate Executive Board, a research firm, 74 percent reported that their most recent hire had a personality “similar to mine.” Lauren Rivera, a sociologist at Northwestern, spent parts of the three years from 2006 to 2008 interviewing professionals from elite investment banks, consultancies, and law firms about how they recruited, interviewed, and evaluated candidates, and concluded that among the most important factors driving their hiring recommendations were—wait for it—shared leisure interests. “The best way I could describe it,” one attorney told her, “is like if you were going on a date. You kind of know when there’s a match.” Asked to choose the most-promising candidates from a sheaf of fake résumés Rivera had prepared, a manager at one particularly buttoned-down investment bank told her, “I’d have to pick Blake and Sarah. With his lacrosse and her squash, they’d really get along [with the people] on the trading floor.” Lacking “reliable predictors of future performance,” Rivera writes, “assessors purposefully used their own experiences as models of merit.” Former college athletes “typically prized participation in varsity sports above all other types of involvement.” People who’d majored in engineering gave engineers a leg up, believing they were better prepared.

Given this sort of clubby, insular thinking, it should come as no surprise that the prevailing system of hiring and management in this country involves a level of dysfunction that should be inconceivable in an economy as sophisticated as ours. Recent survey data collected by the Corporate Executive Board, for example, indicate that nearly a quarter of all new hires leave their company within a year of their start date, and that hiring managers wish they’d never extended an offer to one out of every five members on their team. A survey by Gallup this past June, meanwhile, found that only 30 percent of American workers felt a strong connection to their company and worked for it with passion. Fifty-two percent emerged as “not engaged” with their work, and another 18 percent as “actively disengaged,” meaning they were apt to undermine their company and co-workers, and shirk their duties whenever possible. These headline numbers are skewed a little by the attitudes of hourly workers, which tend to be worse, on average, than those of professional workers. But really, what further evidence do we need of the abysmal status quo?

Because the algorithmic assessment of workers’ potential is so new, not much hard data yet exist demonstrating its effectiveness. The arena in which it has been best proved, and where it is most widespread, is hourly work. Jobs at big-box retail stores and call centers, for example, warm the hearts of would-be corporate Billy Beanes: they’re pretty well standardized, they exist in huge numbers, they turn over quickly (it’s not unusual for call centers, for instance, to experience 50 percent turnover in a single year), and success can be clearly measured (through a combination of variables like sales, call productivity, customer-complaint resolution, and length of tenure). Big employers of hourly workers are also not shy about using psychological tests, partly in an effort to limit theft and absenteeism. In the late 1990s, as these assessments shifted from paper to digital formats and proliferated, data scientists started doing massive tests of what makes for a successful customer-support technician or salesperson. This has unquestionably improved the quality of the workers at many firms.

Teri Morse, the vice president for recruiting at Xerox Services, oversees hiring for the company’s 150 U.S. call and customer-care centers, which employ about 45,000 workers. When I spoke with her in July, she told me that as recently as 2010, Xerox had filled these positions through interviews and a few basic assessments conducted in the office—a typing test, for instance. Hiring managers would typically look for work experience in a similar role, but otherwise would just use their best judgment in evaluating candidates. In 2010, however, Xerox switched to an online evaluation that incorporates personality testing, cognitive-skill assessment, and multiple-choice questions about how the applicant would handle specific scenarios that he or she might encounter on the job. An algorithm behind the evaluation analyzes the responses, along with factual information gleaned from the candidate’s application, and spits out a color-coded rating: red (poor candidate), yellow (middling), or green (hire away). Those candidates who score best, I learned, tend to exhibit a creative but not overly inquisitive personality, and participate in at least one but not more than four social networks, among many other factors. (Previous experience, one of the few criteria that Xerox had explicitly screened for in the past, turns out to have no bearing on either productivity or retention. Distance between home and work, on the other hand, is strongly associated with employee engagement and retention.)

When Xerox started using the score in its hiring decisions, the quality of its hires immediately improved. The rate of attrition fell by 20 percent in the initial pilot period, and over time, the number of promotions rose. Xerox still interviews all candidates in person before deciding to hire them, Morse told me, but, she added, “We’re getting to the point where some of our hiring managers don’t even want to interview anymore”—they just want to hire the people with the highest scores.

The online test that Xerox uses was developed by a small but rapidly growing company based in San Francisco called Evolv. I spoke with Jim Meyerle, one of the company’s co‑founders, and David Ostberg, its vice president of workforce science, who described how modern techniques of gathering and analyzing data offer companies a sharp edge over basic human intuition when it comes to hiring. Gone are the days, Ostberg told me, when, say, a small survey of college students would be used to predict the statistical validity of an evaluation tool. “We’ve got a data set of 347,000 actual employees who have gone through these different types of assessments or tools,” he told me, “and now we have performance-outcome data, and we can split those and slice and dice by industry and location.”

Evolv’s tests allow companies to capture data about everybody who applies for work, and everybody who gets hired—a complete data set from which sample bias, long a major vexation for industrial-organization psychologists, simply disappears. The sheer number of observations that this approach makes possible allows Evolv to say with precision which attributes matter more to the success of retail-sales workers (decisiveness, spatial orientation, persuasiveness) or customer-service personnel at call centers (rapport-building). And the company can continually tweak its questions, or add new variables to its model, to seek out ever stronger correlates of success in any given job. For instance, the browser that applicants use to take the online test turns out to matter, especially for technical roles: some browsers are more functional than others, but it takes a measure of savvy and initiative to download them.

There are some data that Evolv simply won’t use, out of a concern that the information might lead to systematic bias against whole classes of people. The distance an employee lives from work, for instance, is never factored into the score given each applicant, although it is reported to some clients. That’s because different neighborhoods and towns can have different racial profiles, which means that scoring distance from work could violate equal-employment-opportunity standards. Marital status? Motherhood? Church membership? “Stuff like that,” Meyerle said, “we just don’t touch”—at least not in the U.S., where the legal environment is strict. Meyerle told me that Evolv has looked into these sorts of factors in its work for clients abroad, and that some of them produce “startling results.” Citing client confidentiality, he wouldn’t say more.

Meyerle told me that what most excites him are the possibilities that arise from monitoring the entire life cycle of a worker at any given company. This is a task that Evolv now performs for Transcom, a company that provides outsourced customer-support, sales, and debt-collection services, and that employs some 29,000 workers globally. About two years ago, Transcom began working with Evolv to improve the quality and retention of its English-speaking workforce, and three-month attrition quickly fell by about 30 percent. Now the two companies are working together to marry pre-hire assessments to an increasing array of post-hire data: about not only performance and duration of service but also who trained the employees; who has managed them; whether they were promoted to a supervisory role, and how quickly; how they performed in that role; and why they eventually left.

The potential power of this data-rich approach is obvious. What begins with an online screening test for entry-level workers ends with the transformation of nearly every aspect of hiring, performance assessment, and management. In theory, this approach enables companies to fast-track workers for promotion based on their statistical profiles; to assess managers more scientifically; even to match workers and supervisors who are likely to perform well together, based on the mix of their competencies and personalities. Transcom plans to do all these things, as its data set grows ever richer. This is the real promise—or perhaps the hubris—of the new people analytics. Making better hires turns out to be not an end but just a beginning. Once all the data are in place, new vistas open up.

For a sense of what the future of people analytics may bring, I turned to Sandy Pentland, the director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory at MIT. In recent years, Pentland has pioneered the use of specialized electronic “badges” that transmit data about employees’ interactions as they go about their days. The badges capture all sorts of information about formal and informal conversations: their length; the tone of voice and gestures of the people involved; how much those people talk, listen, and interrupt; the degree to which they demonstrate empathy and extroversion; and more. Each badge generates about 100 data points a minute.

Pentland’s initial goal was to shed light on what differentiated successful teams from unsuccessful ones. As he described last year in the Harvard Business Review, he tried the badges out on about 2,500 people, in 21 different organizations, and learned a number of interesting lessons. About a third of team performance, he discovered, can usually be predicted merely by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members. (Too many is as much of a problem as too few.) Using data gathered by the badges, he was able to predict which teams would win a business-plan contest, and which workers would (rightly) say they’d had a “productive” or “creative” day. Not only that, but he claimed that his researchers had discovered the “data signature” of natural leaders, whom he called “charismatic connectors” and all of whom, he reported, circulate actively, give their time democratically to others, engage in brief but energetic conversations, and listen at least as much as they talk. In a development that will surprise few readers, Pentland and his fellow researchers created a company, Sociometric Solutions, in 2010, to commercialize his badge technology.

Pentland told me that no business he knew of was yet using this sort of technology on a permanent basis. His own clients were using the badges as part of consulting projects designed to last only a few weeks. But he doesn’t see why longer-term use couldn’t be in the cards for the future, particularly as the technology gets cheaper. His group is developing apps to allow team members to view their own metrics more or less in real time, so that they can see, relative to the benchmarks of highly successful employees, whether they’re getting out of their offices enough, or listening enough, or spending enough time with people outside their own team.

Whether or not we all come to wear wireless lapel badges, Star Trek–style, plenty of other sources could easily serve as the basis of similar analysis. Torrents of data are routinely collected by American companies and now sit on corporate servers, or in the cloud, awaiting analysis. Bloomberg reportedly logs every keystroke of every employee, along with their comings and goings in the office. The Las Vegas casino Harrah’s tracks the smiles of the card dealers and waitstaff on the floor (its analytics team has quantified the impact of smiling on customer satisfaction). E‑mail, of course, presents an especially rich vein to be mined for insights about our productivity, our treatment of co-workers, our willingness to collaborate or lend a hand, our patterns of written language, and what those patterns reveal about our intelligence, social skills, and behavior. As technologies that analyze language become better and cheaper, companies will be able to run programs that automatically trawl through the e-mail traffic of their workforce, looking for phrases or communication patterns that can be statistically associated with various measures of success or failure in particular roles.

When I brought this subject up with Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at MIT’s Sloane School of Management, he told me that he believes people analytics will ultimately have a vastly larger impact on the economy than the algorithms that now trade on Wall Street or figure out which ads to show us. He reminded me that we’ve witnessed this kind of transformation before in the history of management science. Near the turn of the 20th century, both Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford famously paced the factory floor with stopwatches, to improve worker efficiency. And at mid-century, there was that remarkable spread of data-driven assessment. But there’s an obvious and important difference between then and now, Brynjolfsson said. “The quantities of data that those earlier generations were working with,” he said, “were infinitesimal compared to what’s available now. There’s been a real sea change in the past five years, where the quantities have just grown so large—petabytes, exabytes, zetta—that you start to be able to do things you never could before.”

It’s in the inner workings of organizations, says Sendhil Mullainathan, the economist, where the most-dramatic benefits of people analytics are likely to show up. When we talked, Mullainathan expressed amazement at how little most creative and professional workers (himself included) know about what makes them effective or ineffective in the office. Most of us can’t even say with any certainty how long we’ve spent gathering information for a given project, or our pattern of information-gathering, never mind know which parts of the pattern should be reinforced, and which jettisoned. As Mullainathan put it, we don’t know our own “production function.”

The prospect of tracking that function through people analytics excites Mullainathan. He sees it not only as a boon to a business’s productivity and overall health but also as an important new tool that individual employees can use for self-improvement: a sort of radically expanded The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, custom-written for each of us, or at least each type of job, in the workforce.

Perhaps the most exotic development in people analytics today is the creation of algorithms to assess the potential of all workers, across all companies, all the time.

This past summer, I sat in on a sales presentation by Gild, a company that uses people analytics to help other companies find software engineers. I didn’t have to travel far: Atlantic Media, the parent company of The Atlantic, was considering using Gild to find coders. (No sale was made, and there is no commercial relationship between the two firms.)

In a small conference room, we were shown a digital map of Northwest Washington, D.C., home to The Atlantic. Little red pins identified all the coders in the area who were proficient in the skills that an Atlantic Media job announcement listed as essential. Next to each pin was a number that ranked the quality of each coder on a scale of one to 100, based on the mix of skills Atlantic Media was looking for. (No one with a score above 75, we were told, had ever failed a coding test by a Gild client.) If we’d wished, we could have zoomed in to see how The Atlantic’s own coders scored.

The way Gild arrives at these scores is not simple. The company’s algorithms begin by scouring the Web for any and all open-source code, and for the coders who wrote it. They evaluate the code for its simplicity, elegance, documentation, and several other factors, including the frequency with which it’s been adopted by other programmers. For code that was written for paid projects, they look at completion times and other measures of productivity. Then they look at questions and answers on social forums such as Stack Overflow, a popular destination for programmers seeking advice on challenging projects. They consider how popular a given coder’s advice is, and how widely that advice ranges.

The algorithms go further still. They assess the way coders use language on social networks from LinkedIn to Twitter; the company has determined that certain phrases and words used in association with one another can distinguish expert programmers from less skilled ones. Gild knows these phrases and words are associated with good coding because it can correlate them with its evaluation of open-source code, and with the language and online behavior of programmers in good positions at prestigious companies.

Here’s the part that’s most interesting: having made those correlations, Gild can then score programmers who haven’t written open-source code at all, by analyzing the host of clues embedded in their online histories. They’re not all obvious, or easy to explain. Vivienne Ming, Gild’s chief scientist, told me that one solid predictor of strong coding is an affinity for a particular Japanese manga site.

Why would good coders (but not bad ones) be drawn to a particular manga site? By some mysterious alchemy, does reading a certain comic-book series improve one’s programming skills? “Obviously, it’s not a causal relationship,” Ming told me. But Gild does have 6 million programmers in its database, she said, and the correlation, even if inexplicable, is quite clear.

Gild treats this sort of information gingerly, Ming said. An affection for a Web site will be just one of dozens of variables in the company’s constantly evolving model, and a minor one at that; it merely “nudges” an applicant’s score upward, and only as long as the correlation persists. Some factors are transient, and the company’s computers are forever crunching the numbers, so the variables are always changing. The idea is to create a sort of pointillist portrait: even if a few variables turn out to be bogus, the overall picture, Ming believes, will be clearer and truer than what we could see on our own.

Gild’s CEO, Sheeroy Desai, told me he believes his company’s approach can be applied to any occupation characterized by large, active online communities, where people post and cite individual work, ask and answer professional questions, and get feedback on projects. Graphic design is one field that the company is now looking at, and many scientific, technical, and engineering roles might also fit the bill. Regardless of their occupation, most people leave “data exhaust” in their wake, a kind of digital aura that can reveal a lot about a potential hire. Donald Kluemper, a professor of management at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has found that professionally relevant personality traits can be judged effectively merely by scanning Facebook feeds and photos. LinkedIn, of course, captures an enormous amount of professional data and network information, across just about every profession. A controversial start-up called Klout has made its mission the measurement and public scoring of people’s online social influence.

These aspects of people analytics provoke anxiety, of course. We would be wise to take legal measures to ensure, at a minimum, that companies can’t snoop where we have a reasonable expectation of privacy—and that any evaluations they might make of our professional potential aren’t based on factors that discriminate against classes of people.

But there is another side to this. People analytics will unquestionably provide many workers with more options and more power. Gild, for example, helps companies find undervalued software programmers, working indirectly to raise those people’s pay. Other companies are doing similar work. One called Entelo, for instance, specializes in using algorithms to identify potentially unhappy programmers who might be receptive to a phone call (because they’ve been unusually active on their professional-networking sites, or because there’s been an exodus from their corner of their company, or because their company’s stock is tanking). As with Gild, the service benefits the worker as much as the would-be employer.

Big tech companies are responding to these incursions, and to increasing free agency more generally, by deploying algorithms aimed at keeping their workers happy. Dawn Klinghoffer, the senior director of HR business insights at Microsoft, told me that a couple of years ago, with attrition rising industry-wide, her team started developing statistical profiles of likely leavers (hires straight from college in certain technical roles, for instance, who had been with the company for three years and had been promoted once, but not more than that). The company began various interventions based on these profiles: the assignment of mentors, changes in stock vesting, income hikes. Microsoft focused on two business units with particularly high attrition rates—and in each case reduced those rates by more than half.

Over time, better job-matching technologies are likely to begin serving people directly, helping them see more clearly which jobs might suit them and which companies could use their skills. In the future, Gild plans to let programmers see their own profiles and take skills challenges to try to improve their scores. It intends to show them its estimates of their market value, too, and to recommend coursework that might allow them to raise their scores even more. Not least, it plans to make accessible the scores of typical hires at specific companies, so that software engineers can better see the profile they’d need to land a particular job. Knack, for its part, is making some of its video games available to anyone with a smartphone, so people can get a better sense of their strengths, and of the fields in which their strengths would be most valued. (Palo Alto High School recently adopted the games to help students assess careers.) Ultimately, the company hopes to act as matchmaker between a large network of people who play its games (or have ever played its games) and a widening roster of corporate clients, each with its own specific profile for any given type of job.

Knack and Gild are very young companies; either or both could fail. But even now they are hardly the only companies doing this sort of work. The digital trail from assessment to hire to work performance and work engagement will quickly discredit models that do not work—but will also allow the models and companies that survive to grow better and smarter over time. It is conceivable that we will look back on these endeavors in a decade or two as nothing but a fad. But early evidence, and the relentlessly empirical nature of the project as a whole, suggests otherwise.

When I began my reporting for this story, I was worried that people analytics, if it worked at all, would only widen the divergent arcs of our professional lives, further gilding the path of the meritocratic elite from cradle to grave, and shutting out some workers more definitively. But I now believe the opposite is likely to happen, and that we’re headed toward a labor market that’s fairer to people at every stage of their careers. For decades, as we’ve assessed people’s potential in the professional workforce, the most important piece of data—the one that launches careers or keeps them grounded—has been educational background: typically, whether and where people went to college, and how they did there. Over the past couple of generations, colleges and universities have become the gatekeepers to a prosperous life. A degree has become a signal of intelligence and conscientiousness, one that grows stronger the more selective the school and the higher a student’s GPA, that is easily understood by employers, and that, until the advent of people analytics, was probably unrivaled in its predictive powers. And yet the limitations of that signal—the way it degrades with age, its overall imprecision, its many inherent biases, its extraordinary cost—are obvious. “Academic environments are artificial environments,” Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, told The New York Times in June. “People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment,” which is often quite different from the workplace.

One of the tragedies of the modern economy is that because one’s college history is such a crucial signal in our labor market, perfectly able people who simply couldn’t sit still in a classroom at the age of 16, or who didn’t have their act together at 18, or who chose not to go to graduate school at 22, routinely get left behind for good. That such early factors so profoundly affect career arcs and hiring decisions made two or three decades later is, on its face, absurd.

But this relationship is likely to loosen in the coming years. I spoke with managers at a lot of companies who are using advanced analytics to reevaluate and reshape their hiring, and nearly all of them told me that their research is leading them toward pools of candidates who didn’t attend college—for tech jobs, for high-end sales positions, for some managerial roles. In some limited cases, this is because their analytics revealed no benefit whatsoever to hiring people with college degrees; in other cases, and more often, it’s because they revealed signals that function far better than college history, and that allow companies to confidently hire workers with pedigrees not typically considered impressive or even desirable. Neil Rae, an executive at Transcom, told me that in looking to fill technical-support positions, his company is shifting its focus from college graduates to “kids living in their parents’ basement”—by which he meant smart young people who, for whatever reason, didn’t finish college but nevertheless taught themselves a lot about information technology. Laszlo Bock told me that Google, too, is hiring a growing number of nongraduates. Many of the people I talked with reported that when it comes to high-paying and fast-track jobs, they’re reducing their preference for Ivy Leaguers and graduates of other highly selective schools.

This process is just beginning. Online courses are proliferating, and so are online markets that involve crowd-sourcing. Both arenas offer new opportunities for workers to build skills and showcase competence. Neither produces the kind of instantly recognizable signals of potential that a degree from a selective college, or a first job at a prestigious firm, might. That’s a problem for traditional hiring managers, because sifting through lots of small signals is so difficult and time-consuming. (Is it meaningful that a candidate finished in the top 10 percent of students in a particular online course, or that her work gets high ratings on a particular crowd-sourcing site?) But it’s completely irrelevant in the field of people analytics, where sophisticated screening algorithms can easily make just these sorts of judgments. That’s not only good news for people who struggled in school; it’s good news for people who’ve fallen off the career ladder through no fault of their own (older workers laid off in a recession, for instance) and who’ve acquired a sort of professional stink that is likely undeserved.

Ultimately, all of these new developments raise philosophical questions. As professional performance becomes easier to measure and see, will we become slaves to our own status and potential, ever-focused on the metrics that tell us how and whether we are measuring up? Will too much knowledge about our limitations hinder achievement and stifle our dreams? All I can offer in response to these questions, ironically, is my own gut sense, which leads me to feel cautiously optimistic. But most of the people I interviewed for this story—who, I should note, tended to be psychologists and economists rather than philosophers—share that feeling.

Scholarly research strongly suggests that happiness at work depends greatly on feeling a sense of agency. If the tools now being developed and deployed really can get more people into better-fitting jobs, then those people’s sense of personal effectiveness will increase. And if those tools can provide workers, once hired, with better guidance on how to do their jobs well, and how to collaborate with their fellow workers, then those people will experience a heightened sense of mastery. It is possible that some people who now skate from job to job will find it harder to work at all, as professional evaluations become more refined. But on balance, these strike me as developments that are likely to make people happier.

Nobody imagines that people analytics will obviate the need for old-fashioned human judgment in the workplace. Google’s understanding of the promise of analytics is probably better than anybody else’s, and the company has been changing its hiring and management practices as a result of its ongoing analyses. (Brainteasers are no longer used in interviews, because they do not correlate with job success; GPA is not considered for anyone more than two years out of school, for the same reason—the list goes on.) But for all of Google’s technological enthusiasm, these same practices are still deeply human. A real, live person looks at every résumé the company receives. Hiring decisions are made by committee and are based in no small part on opinions formed during structured interviews.

One only has to look to baseball, in fact, to see where this all may be headed. In their forthcoming book, The Sabermetric Revolution, the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist and the mathematician Benjamin Baumer write that the analytical approach to player acquisition employed by Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s has continued to spread through Major League Baseball. Twenty-six of the league’s 30 teams now devote significant resources to people analytics. The search for ever more precise data—about the spin rate of pitches, about the muzzle velocity of baseballs as they come off the bat—has intensified, as has the quest to turn those data into valuable nuggets of insight about player performance and potential. Analytics has taken off in other pro sports leagues as well. But here’s what’s most interesting. The big blind spots initially identified by analytics in the search for great players are now gone—which means that what’s likely to make the difference again is the human dimension of the search.

The A’s made the playoffs again this year, despite a small payroll. Over the past few years, the team has expanded its scouting budget. “What defines a good scout?,” Billy Beane asked recently. “Finding out information other people can’t. Getting to know the kid. Getting to know the family. There’s just some things you need to find out in person.”

DON PECK is the deputy editor of The Atlantic magazine and the author of Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.

Inside the Recruiter’s Head: What He’s Really Asking You During the Interview- by Jayne Mattson

Jayne Mattson is Senior Vice President at Keystone Associates, a leading career management and transition services consulting firm in Boston, Massachusetts. Mattson specializes in helping mid-to-senior level individuals in new career exploration, networking strategies and career decisions based on corporate culture fit.
You applied for a new job, and you’ve been called in for an interview. During the interview process, there are three main questions that need to be answered to help the HR person determine if you’re the right fit for the job:
  • Can this person do the job?
  • Will he do the job?
  • Will he fit in with the company culture?

By asking what I call “the question behind the question,” hiring managers have a better chance to making the right hiring decision. As job seekers, your task is to answer them honestly and fully. Here are 10 top questions that the interviewer might ask, along with the hidden agenda behind each one. Tread carefully — the way you approach the answer might tell more than what you actually say.

1. As you reflect back at your last position, what was missing that you are looking for in your next role?

This question gets at the heart of why you’re leaving the current job or, in the case of a reduction in workforce, it helps the interviewer understand what was missing. If you answer with, “I didn’t have access to my boss, which made it difficult to get questions answered,” then the interviewer might follow up with, “Can you give me a specific example where you had to make a decision on your own because your boss was not available?” This follow-up question will help the interviewer determine your level of decision making and how much access to the manager you’ll need.

2. What qualities of your last boss did you admire, and what qualities did you dislike?

This is precarious territory because your answer needs to have a balance of positive and negative feedback. It will show if you are tactful in answering a tricky question and if your leadership style is congruent with the admired or disliked ones. If you name a trait the interviewer dislikes or that’s not in line with company culture, then you might not be a fit for the position.

3. How would you handle telling an employee his position is being eliminated after working for the company for 25 years, knowing they would be emotional?

This question is not unrealistic in today’s job market, since companies continue to downsize as a way of conducting business. Knowing that you might have to deal with this situation, the interviewer wants to know how you would tell the long-term employee the bad news. Would you tell the business reason why the company is downsizing, and would you thank the person in a genuine, heartfelt way for years of service?

4. How do you like to be rewarded for good performance?

As simple as this question is, it helps the interviewer get a sense of what motivates you — is it money, time off or more formal recognition? If you’re interviewing for a management role, the follow-up question could be: How do you reward the good performance of employees who work for you? Are you a “do as I say, not as I do” type of manager? The interviewer is looking for congruency in behaviors, because if you don’t practice what you preach, then it might not be a cultural fit.

5. Can you give me an example of when your relationship with your manager went off track and how you handled it?

The interviewer is listening for the reasons why the relationship went off track. Are you taking responsibility for your own actions first or placing blame on the manager? The interviewer wants to learn more about your communication style and how you approach conflict.

6. When a person says “I have integrity,” what does that mean to you?

The follow-up question is: “How have you demonstrated integrity in your work?” Integrity is broad, and most people think they have it, but can you really articulate what it looks and sounds like? The interviewer is looking for congruency of words and actions with this question.

7. Can you tell me about your experience working with the generation X or Y? What are the three qualities you admire about them?

There’s been much talk about the work habits of various generations. At a startup, you’ll likely be working with younger people, and employers want to know how you will integrate with this population. And young people will be working with baby boomers at bigger companies, like Dell and Apple. The interviewer will be looking for ways you’ve collaborated with workers of all ages and used each others’ talents to achieve a goal — do you have the energy, drive and attitude to work well with others?

8. Do you think age discrimination exists in the job market and if so, why?

Some job seekers use “age discrimination” or “I make too much money” as the reasons why they did not get the interview or the job. In reality, they have applied for a job for which they are overqualified. They have too many skills for this particular job and the employer can find someone who has the exact skill and salary that commensurate with the job. Don’t make that mistake.

9. Can you convince me you are the most qualified person for this role based on what we have discussed?

The interviewer wants to make sure you clearly understand what the problems are and what would be expected of you in the event of your hire. This is the opportunity for you to sell yourself effectively for the job.

10. As you look at your previous companies, can you describe in detail which company culture did you excel in the most and why?

The interviewer is looking for a culture fit, which is one of the essential criteria for job satisfaction. They want to hire someone who will do his best work for you, so do your research before you go in for the interview.

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JAYNE MATTSONJayne Mattson is Senior Vice President of Keystone Associates, specializes in helping mid-to-senior level individuals in new career exploration, networking strategies and career decisions based on corporate culture fit

Encourage Your Employees to Talk About Other Job Offers – by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh

Why can’t employees speak honestly about their career goals with their managers? It’s because of the reasonable belief that doing so is risky and career-limiting if the employee’s aspirations do not perfectly match up with the manager’s existing views and time horizons. It seems safer to wait until another job offer is in hand, so that if one’s manager reacts badly to one’s ideas, there’s no danger of being passed over for on-going professional development, or worse, left unemployed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: once an employee has gone far down the road with another potential employer, it’s hard for her to maintain a positive relationship with her current company.

Neither manager nor employee necessarily wants the current employment relationship to end, but because of the lack of trust and honesty, that’s precisely what becomes likely to happen with talented employees.

If you want to forge a high-trust alliance with your workforce, take a page from a popular clause in founder employment agreements — the “Right Of First Refusal” (ROFR). When a founder wants to sell stock in the company and has an offer to purchase some or all of the shares, the company has the right to exercise its ROFR and buy the stock at the offered price. This compromise reassures the founder (or employee) that the company can’t block the sale of stock while allowing the company to make sure it isn’t saddled with investors it doesn’t want.

We believe that an equivalent compromise can help improve the employer-employee relationship: the “Right of First Conversation” (ROFC). If an employee decides she wants to explore other career options, she commits to talking with her current manager first, so that the company, if it so desires, has the opportunity to define a more appealing job or role. This doesn’t mean that the employee informs her manager every time she receives a call from a headhunter—this kind of disclosure would be onerous for both employee and manager. Rather, the employee should initiate a conversation when she is seriously considering alternate job offers or career paths. Similarly, the employee should also approach the manager if she felt strongly that her current tour of duty no longer fits, and that without a change, she would feel obligated to start looking for another employer.

As with other aspects of the employer-employee alliance, the ROFC isn’t a binding legal contract. It’s an understanding between manager and employee that carries moral weight if violated.

Because the employer typically holds the power in the relationship, it’s up to the company to take the first step towards building the necessary trust. Managers need to say, “We don’t fire people for talking honestly about their career goals,” and truly mean it. Once employees believe that the company will live up to those words, managers can point out the benefits to the employee of granting them the Right of First Conversation.

First, an employee can benefit from frank career advice from a manager on specific industry opportunities. In a high trust relationship, a manager will not reactively denigrate competitors or “say anything” to keep an employee.

Second, perhaps the current company can upgrade the quality of the employee’s existing tour of duty. An employee who provides advance notice allows the company the time necessary to explore and develop more possible options and offers. If the company has weeks to match or exceed an offer from a rival, it has a much better chance of pulling together a counter than if it only had twenty-four hours to respond.

Finally, even if the company can’t present a compelling counter or the employee chooses to switch firms, the ROFC helps preserve the long-term relationship. The split can be made amicably, and on a timetable that works for both parties, honoring the mutual obligations and investment they have made in each other.

As a manager, would you rather manage a planned separation from an employee who has completed her final tour of duty? Or would you rather scramble to perform damage control on a sudden departure?

As an employee, would you rather depart amicably and become a valued member of the company’s alumni network? Or would you prefer to depart under a cloud of acrimony?

The Right of First Conversation represents a major departure from business as usual, but that’s precisely the point. The lack of trust between employer and employee is costing both parties. Adopting the ROFC helps both parties build trust and a longer, more fruitful relationship.

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Reid Hoffman is cofounder and Executive Chairman of LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network, and partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock. He is a co-author of The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.

 

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Ben Casnocha is an award-winning entrepreneur and bestselling co-author, with Reid Hoffman, of The Start-up of You. He is a frequent speaker on talent management, and is a co-author of The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.

 

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Chris Yeh is an entrepreneur, writer, and mentor. He helps interesting people do interesting things as VP of Marketing at PBworks and general partner at Wasabi Ventures. He is a co-author of The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.

Why Recruiting Isn’t Over When an Employee Accepts Your Offer – by Mark Suster

Recruiting. It is the bane of every startups existence because it takes up so much time, it is so competitive to sign people and it feels like unproductive time because it’s not moving the ball forward on product, engineering, sales, marketing, biz dev, fund raising. It consumes time and energy and the payoff doesn’t come for a long time.

But of course great teams build great companies and great startup leaders know that they must always be recruiting.

Yet most startup companies I’ve ever worked with or observed make one crucial mistake: They assume that their recruitment process for a candidate is over when that person accepts his or her offer. The truth is the process isn’t over until after the employee starts with the company, updates her LinkedIn profile and emails all her friends.

In fact, it’s worse than that. The moment your future head of sales, marketing, product or even junior developer says “yes” is the moment you’re most vulnerable of losing them. I’ve written about this before relating to any sales process – You’re Most Vulnerable After You’ve Won a Deal – and the same is true in recruiting.

Recruitment is war and the enemy (people competing for talent) won’t accept defeat easily. Don’t fight 90% of the war. You must win.

Here’s specifically what happens:

  • The employee gives you a verbal commitment, an email accept or in some cases even a signed offer letter
  • You high-five your team for all the hard work, the hard fought persuasion and the new superstar that will soon come help solve your problems
  • If they are as good as you think it is highly likely her existing employer will work hard to keep her. So the moment she notifies her boss is the moment that the other side is pursuing a full-court press while you are celebrating and getting back to work.
  • If the person knew she was going to leave her employer and was talking to multiple companies to be sure the next company was the right fit, the moment she notifies the other companies that she’s not accepting their offer they, too, will begin an assault of persuasion
  • So ironically at the moment it seems everything is all sunshine for you is the moment you’re completely vulnerable

So what to do?

1. Acknowledge that recruiting doesn’t stop until the employee has joined your company

2. The moment you get an “accept” you should have all of your key employees email, call or even grab lunch/drinks/coffee with the new recruit to welcome her to the team. Your goal is to create emotional bonds with the company and also to think twice about the perception that will be formed of her for accepting and then backing out (which in case you didn’t know is more common than it should be)

3. I like to create an even stronger emotional tie by making public announcements where possible. I’d want to secure permission from the employee to issue a press release. It’s a combination of the pride you take in this new recruit and it’s a way to lower the odds that they bail on you. Yes, you could get egg on your face if she still backs out afterwards but you’ve now massively lowered the risk she backs out. The candidate will look worse for backing out than you will. Obviously press releases only work if the employee isn’t junior. But it doesn’t really matter if the press wasn’t big enough for TechCrunch – it just matters that it’s in the public sphere and gets amplified through social channels.

4. I also like to give some evening homework to the new employees. To the extent she starts problem solving on your behalf and working as part of your team she will feel more commitment to you, more excitement about the new role and, again, a stronger emotional bond to not backing out.

5. Finally, if possible get your investors involved if it’s a reasonably senior position. Set up calls for VCs to welcome her to the team. The more people she has spoken with about joining the more emotional bond and the less likely of her backing out.

Summary

Recruiting is brutal. If you put in a Herculean effort to get employees and then lose them after you’ve crossed the finish line you will waste enormous energy. It’s a shame that you have to launch a welcoming committee to bear hug your incoming hire and to run an external communication plan because an acceptance should be final but reality is reality. Trust me – I’ve seen it happen time again.

You’re never done til you’re done.

And follow on reading. You’re really not even done then. If you don’t look out for your top people they, too, stay in jeopardy. It’s why I remind people – never roll out the red carpet when your best employees are on their way out the door.

What tactics do you use to make sure employees don’t bail after the offer?

Why You Hate Work – by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath

THE way we’re working isn’t working. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job, you’re probably not very excited to get to the office in the morning, you don’t feel much appreciated while you’re there, you find it difficult to get your most important work accomplished, amid all the distractions, and you don’t believe that what you’re doing makes much of a difference anyway. By the time you get home, you’re pretty much running on empty, and yet still answering emails until you fall asleep.

Increasingly, this experience is common not just to middle managers, but also to top executives.

Our company, The Energy Project, works with organizations and their leaders to improve employee engagement and more sustainable performance. A little over a year ago, Luke Kissam, the chief executive of Albemarle, a multibillion-dollar chemical company, sought out one of us, Tony, as a coach to help him deal with the sense that his life was increasingly overwhelming. “I just felt that no matter what I was doing, I was always getting pulled somewhere else,” he explained. “It seemed like I was always cheating someone — my company, my family, myself. I couldn’t truly focus on anything.” Mr. Kissam is not alone. Srinivasan S. Pillay, a psychiatrist and an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School who studies burnout, recently surveyed a random sample of 72 senior leaders and found that nearly all of them reported at least some signs of burnout and that all of them noted at least one cause of burnout at work.

More broadly, just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work, according to a 2013 report by Gallup. Around the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of employees who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent. For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it’s getting worse.

Demand for our time is increasingly exceeding our capacity — draining us of the energy we need to bring our skill and talent fully to life.

Increased competitiveness and a leaner, post-recession work force add to the pressures. The rise of digital technology is perhaps the biggest influence, exposing us to an unprecedented flood of information and requests that we feel compelled to read and respond to at all hours of the day and night.

Curious to understand what most influences people’s engagement and productivity at work, we partnered with the Harvard Business Review last fall to conduct a survey of more than 12,000 mostly white-collar employees across a broad range of companies and industries. We also gave the survey to employees at two of The Energy Project’s clients — one a manufacturing company with 6,000 employees, the other a financial services company with 2,500 employees. The results were remarkably similar across all three populations.

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

THE more effectively leaders and organizations support employees in meeting these core needs, the more likely the employees are to experience engagement, loyalty, job satisfaction and positive energy at work, and the lower their perceived levels of stress. When employees have one need met, compared with none, all of their performance variables improve. The more needs met, the more positive the impact.

Engagement — variously defined as “involvement, commitment, passion, enthusiasm, focused effort and energy” — has now been widely correlated with higher corporate performance. In a 2012 meta-analysis of 263 research studies across 192 companies, Gallup found that companies in the top quartile for engaged employees, compared with the bottom quartile, had 22 percent higher profitability, 10 percent higher customer ratings, 28 percent less theft and 48 percent fewer safety incidents.

A 2012 global work force study of 32,000 employees by the consulting company Towers Watson found that the traditional definition of engagement — the willingness of employees to voluntarily expend extra effort — is no longer sufficient to fuel the highest levels of performance.

Willing, it turns out, does not guarantee able. Companies in the Towers Watson study with high engagement scores measured in the traditional way had an operating margin of 14 percent. By contrast, companies with the highest number of “sustainably engaged” employees had an operating margin of 27 percent, nearly three times those with the lowest traditional engagement scores.

Put simply, the way people feel at work profoundly influences how they perform. What our study revealed is just how much impact companies can have when they meet each of the four core needs of their employees.

Renewal: Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. They also report a nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being. The more hours people work beyond 40 — and the more continuously they work — the worse they feel, and the less engaged they become. By contrast, feeling encouraged by one’s supervisor to take breaks increases by nearly 100 percent people’s likelihood to stay with any given company, and also doubles their sense of health and well-being.

Value: Feeling cared for by one’s supervisor has a more significant impact on people’s sense of trust and safety than any other behavior by a leader. Employees who say they have more supportive supervisors are 1.3 times as likely to stay with the organization and are 67 percent more engaged.

Focus: Only 20 percent of respondents said they were able to focus on one task at a time at work, but those who could were 50 percent more engaged. Similarly, only one-third of respondents said they were able to effectively prioritize their tasks, but those who did were 1.6 times better able to focus on one thing at a time.

Purpose: Employees who derive meaning and significance from their work were more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations — the highest single impact of any variable in our survey. These employees also reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and they were 1.4 times more engaged at work.

We often ask senior leaders a simple question: If your employees feel more energized, valued, focused and purposeful, do they perform better? Not surprisingly, the answer is almost always “Yes.” Next we ask, “So how much do you invest in meeting those needs?” An uncomfortable silence typically ensues.

How to explain this odd disconnect? The most obvious answer is that systematically investing in employees, beyond paying them a salary, didn’t seem necessary until recently. So long as employees were able to meet work demands, employers were under no pressure to address their more complex needs. Increasingly, however, employers are recognizing that the relentless stress of increased demand — caused in large part by digital technology — simply must be addressed.

Still, the forces of habit and inertia remain powerful obstacles to better meeting employee needs. Several years ago, we did a pilot program with 150 accountants in the middle of their firm’s busy tax season.

Historically, employees work extremely long hours during these demanding periods, and are measured and evaluated based on how many hours they put in.

Recognizing the value of intermittent rest, we persuaded this firm to allow one group of accountants to work in a different way — alternating highly focused and uninterrupted 90-minute periods of work with 10-to- 15-minute breaks in between, and a full one-hour break in the late afternoon, when our tendency to fall into a slump is higher. Our pilot group of employees was also permitted to leave as soon as they had accomplished a designated amount of work.

With higher focus, these employees ended up getting more work done in less time, left work earlier in the evenings than the rest of their colleagues, and reported a much less stressful overall experience during the busy season. Their turnover rate was far lower than that of employees in the rest of the firm. Senior leaders were aware of the results, but the firm didn’t ultimately change any of its practices. “We just don’t know any other way to measure them, except by their hours,” one leader told us.

Recently, we got a call from the same firm. “Could you come back?” one of the partners asked. “Our people are still getting burned out during tax season.” Partly, the challenge for employers is trust. For example, our study found that employees have a deep desire for flexibility about where and when they work — and far higher engagement when they have more choice. But many employers remain fearful that their employees won’t accomplish their work without constant oversight — a belief that ironically feeds the distrust of their employees, and diminishes their engagement.

A truly human-centered organization puts its people first — even above customers — because it recognizes that they are the key to creating long-term value. Costco, for example, pays its average worker $20.89 an hour, Businessweek reported last year, about 65 percent more than Walmart, which owns its biggest competitor, Sam’s Club. Over time, Costco’s huge investment in employees — including offering benefits to part-time workers — has proved to be a distinct advantage.

Costco’s employees generate nearly twice the sales of Sam’s Club employees. Costco has about 5 percent turnover among employees who stay at least a year, and the overall rate is far lower than that of Walmart.

In turn, the reduced costs of recruiting and training new employees saves Costco several hundred million dollars a year. Between 2003 and 2013, Costco’s stock rose more than 200 percent, compared with about 50 percent for Walmart’s. What will prompt more companies to invest more in their employees? Pain is one powerful motivator. Often companies seek out our services when they’ve begun losing valued employees, or a C.E.O. recognizes his own exhaustion, or a young, rising executive suddenly drops dead of a heart attack — a story we’ve been told more than a half dozen times in just the past six months.

In a numbers-driven world, the most compelling argument for change is the growing evidence that meeting the needs of employees fuels their productivity, loyalty and performance. Our own experience is that more and more companies are taking up this challenge — most commonly addressing employees’ physical needs first, through wellness and wellbeing programs. Far less common is a broader shift in the corporate mindset from trying to get more out of employees to investing more in meeting their needs, so they’re both capable of and motivated to perform better and more sustainably.

THE simplest way for companies to take on this challenge is to begin with a basic question: “What would make our employees feel more energized, better taken care of, more focused and more inspired?” It costs nothing, for example, to mandate that meetings run no longer than 90 minutes, or to set boundaries around when people are expected to answer email and how quickly they’re expected to respond. Other basic steps we’ve seen client companies take is to create fitness facilities and nap rooms, and to provide healthy, high-quality food free, or at subsidized prices, as many Silicon Valley companies now do.

It also makes a big difference to explicitly reward leaders and managers who exhibit empathy, care and humility, and to hold them accountable for relying on anger or other demeaning emotions that may drive short-term results but also create a toxic climate of fear over time — with enormous costs. Also, as our study makes clear, employees are far more engaged when their work gives them an opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.

The energy of leaders is, for better or worse, contagious. When leaders explicitly encourage employees to work in more sustainable ways — and especially when they themselves model a sustainable way of working — their employees are 55 percent more engaged, 53 percent more focused, and more likely to stay at the company, our research with the Harvard Business Review found.

Mr. Kissam, the Albemarle chief executive Tony first met more than a year ago, has taken up the challenge for himself and his employees. He began by building breaks into his days — taking a walk around the block — and being more fully focused and present during time with his family. He now sets aside at least one morning on his calendar every week for reflection and thinking longer term. He has also made it a practice to send out handwritten notes of appreciation to people inside and outside the company.

Mr. Kissam has also championed a comprehensive rethinking of his organization’s practices around meetings, email, flexible work arrangements, conflict resolution and recognition. By the end of 2014 more than 1,000 of his leaders and managers will have gone through a program aimed at helping them more skillfully meet their own needs, and the needs of those they oversee.

“I can already see it’s working,” Mr. Kissam told us. “Our safety record has improved significantly this year, because our people are more focused.

We’re trusting them to do their jobs rather than telling them what to do, and then we’re appreciating them for their efforts. We’re also on the right path financially. A year from now it’s going to show up in our profitability.

I saw what happened when I invested more in myself, and now we’re seeing what happens when we invest in our employees.” Tony Schwartz is the chief executive of The Energy Project, a consulting firm. Christine Porath is an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and a consultant to The Energy Project.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 1, 2014, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Why You Hate Work.

© 2014 The New York Times Company