Are we just “numbers”? No! But behind this provocative question where most people would agree on the answer, there are many others whose response will not please everyone. These are the three questions on HR analytics that I think are important: Are we more complex than numbers? (Yes, of course), Should we use numbers to evaluate people? (Yes, I strongly recommend it), Are we treated like numbers? (Yes, sometimes).
I decided to write this article for one main reason. Many people do not understand what HR/People Analytics is, or how complex it is to select the right person for a position. A few years ago, I was delivering an executive education module on talent assessment and was speaking about the use of psychometrics. I remember that one of the participants, the COO of a big restaurant chain, told me that he had not anticipated the process of selection to be so quantitative. He thought that recruiting the right person required a sense of “psychology and intuition.”
My students also sometimes tell me, “but we cannot know someone just by numbers and test scores.” People analytics is about quantifying the potential of employees for companies. Am I going too far? Should I step back, forget numbers and let my intuition speak? No, I don’t think so. Here is why.
Are we more complex than numbers?
Yes, we cannot summarize a person with a series of test scores and numbers. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you know that someone scores very high on the dimension of conscientiousness, average in openness to experience, average in agreeableness and low in extraversion and neuroticism… you know very little about a person. The problem is that many laypeople use this idea to declare that no decision can be made by these numbers. For sure, these numbers will not tell you everything you might want to know about a person – but they can give enough information to judge to what extent a person might fit in a job.
Many studies have indeed shown that test scores predict an important variety of outcomes in life: academic achievement, job performance, intention to quit a job, divorce, etc. Discarding this source of information on the sole reason that they do not depict the whole person is then irrational and dangerous.
Should we use numbers to evaluate people?
I would say a big YES. Laypeople declare very often that the only way to know someone is to observe him/her and that our impressions of others are far more accurate than test scores. Interacting with a candidate will probably increase our confidence that it is the right or the wrong person for the job. But confidence does not equate all the time with accuracy.
It is not because we have met a candidate face to face and discussed one or two hours with him/her that our judgment will be more accurate. Of course, you can learn interesting facts about a person and the reasons why he/she acted in a certain way in some situations. But do these new pieces of information help to make talent decisions? Maybe yes, maybe no.
I have in mind a study that showed that interviewers who had met with a student were less able to predict his/her future GPA, whereas people who had only access to previous GPA (but got less information than the first group) did far better. These results mean that in a job interview you make impressions about others on thousands of pieces of information, but not all of them are relevant.
Test scores and numbers will never tell you if the person makes good jokes, or prefers Roger Federer to Rafael Nadal, but is this information important? For that reason, I recommend recruiters and managers to make talent decisions with data and numbers. Not because they are correct all the time (no selection device can ever be), but because the test scores are immune to gender, age, or good-looking biases (at least, if they respect some quality standards) and will only provide information on the aspects that seem important about a job.
If a candidate scores high in extraversion, it means that he/she is more comfortable surrounded by others, more active and more risk-taking which might make him a good candidate for the positions that require these characteristics.
Are employees treated like numbers?
Yes, this is unfortunately what happens in some companies. Leaders do not know their subordinates, their competences and do not care about their well-being. I do not mean that they do so intentionally. Very often, they do not have the time to do so. One important aspect that employees expect from their leaders is to be humane, to recognize the good work which is done. It is one of the major problems nowadays. Employees feel that they do not receive enough recognition and feel like “numbers.” It is a pity, particularly when their leaders avoid numbers as much as possible and prefer to stick to their intuition and first impressions.
My takeaway for leaders is this one: don’t treat your people like numbers but make important decisions with them by using HR analytics (performance evaluations, promotions or selection decisions). Decisions with numbers will be more legally defensive and objective than decisions without numbers.