When looking for workers to staff its call centers, Xerox Corp. (XRX) used to pay lots of attention to applicants who had done the job before. Then, a computer program told the printer and outsourcing company that experience doesn’t matter.
The software said that what does matter in a good call-center worker—one who won’t quit before the company recoups its $5,000 investment in training—is personality. Data show that creative types tend to stick around for the necessary six months. Inquisitive people often don’t.
“Some of the assumptions we had weren’t valid,” said Connie Harvey, Xerox’s chief operating officer of commercial services.
After a half-year trial that cut attrition by a fifth, Xerox now leaves all hiring for its 48,700 call-center jobs to software that asks applicants to choose between statements like: “I ask more questions than most people do” and “People tend to trust what I say.”
For more and more workers, this is what’s going to be standing between them and a job offer. Unfair?
For more and more companies, the hiring boss is an algorithm. The factors they consider are different than what applicants have come to expect. Jobs that were once filled on the basis of work history and interviews are left to personality tests and data analysis, as employers aim for more than just a hunch that a person will do the job well. Under pressure to cut costs and boost productivity, employers are trying to predict specific outcomes, such as whether a prospective hire will quit too soon, file disability claims or steal.
Personality tests have a long history in hiring. What’s new is the scale. Powerful computers and more sophisticated software have made it possible to evaluate more candidates, amass more data and peer more deeply into applicants’ personal lives and interests.
Some companies are screening for such variables as attitudes toward alcohol use or the distance an applicant lives from the job. The process could get companies into legal trouble if it ends up excluding minorities or the disabled. Even if it doesn’t, it might come off as unfair, or even creepy.
“The public gets less comfortable when you’re using extrinsic or personal factors,” said Dennis Doverspike, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio.
The new hiring tools are part of a broader effort to gather and analyze employee data. Globally, spending on so-called talent-management software rose to $3.8 billion in 2011, up 15% from 2010, according to research firm Gartner.