We're Counting on You

Bob Goldman
Posted: Dec 19, 2013 12:01 AM
We're Counting on You

It was a dark day indeed when businesses started thinking about their employees as people and not numbers. Being a number was wonderful, even if your number was zero! A number is anonymous. A number has no feelings. A number doesn't mind being squished into a tiny cubicle in some isolated office outpost, being ignored completely for years. A number simply cashes its paycheck and gets on with it.

But then management had to ruin it all by deciding that we had to be treated as human beings, individuals. That's when the workplace psychologists came into the picture, and into the cubicles. That's when the human resources department saw its power soar to previously unimaginable heights. After all, a "Number Resource" department hardly sounds important, but who could doubt the moral necessity of a department of human resources.

Fortunately, this caring and sensitive era of employer behavior has come to a hard stop. Having seen that treating us like people at work does not work, employers are back to thinking of us as numbers -- numbers they can analyze, evaluate and, of course, subtract.

This good news was delivered to me by Andrew Leonard, a staff writer for Salon. In the recent article "Your Boss Wants to be Nate Silver," Leonard rings a tocsin over what he considers to be a negative development in the workplace -- the rise of "people analytics." Using famed statistical prognosticator Nate Silver as an example of numbers gone bad, the reporter finds that "the assessment of whether particular workers are suitable for particular kinds of employment or performing well at jobs is booming like never before. Everything that can be measured about us, via personality tests, biometrics, or the big-data trails we leave in the cloud as we go about our work, is being captured and analyzed."

Yes, the "stats geeks" have taken over for the HR geeks, and we are "powerless before the remorseless tale told by our digits."

Even though we should definitely embrace being returned to number status, I must admit the new technology being employed by our employers may have a distinct downside. There is nothing wrong with being judged by a statistic as long as it's the right statistic. Output per hour is not a good metric for us. But measuring the output we produce compared to the minuscule amount of effort we put in would show us to be superstars.

It is a sorry commentary on modern business life, but the fact that we produce so little could be worrying to our managers. What shows us to be remarkable employees is that considering all the time we spend online shopping and goofing off, we don't produce anything at all!

One place where mad testing has really taken hold is in the hiring process. Today, potential employees must jump through a variety of statistical hoops. According to one expert Leonard interviewed, about "75 million assessments tests are performed every year."

Some companies take testing even further; they actually wire up potential employees with electronic sensors "to analyze the unique blend of chemical reactions, electrical impulses, reflexes and behaviors that make you who you are."

This is indeed scary. Would you have been hired if your manager could have analyzed your personal blend of chemicals and learned that your impulses were bad, your reflexes sluggish and your behaviors inappropriate? I think not.

It's not just the newbies who are being tested. Evolv, a technology startup, can now provide ongoing measurement of your performance at work with its "artificially intelligent machine learning engine." Since your intelligence is totally artificial, you may be OK in this brave new workplace world, but just in case, here's some intelligent advice: If your boss wants you to plug in, it's time to jump out.

All this analyzing has produced surprising results, like the fact that "people with criminal backgrounds stay longer on the job and perform better at entry-level hourly jobs." And you thought your policy of pilfering your co-workers' sandwiches from the break room fridge was something to hide.

A final conclusion of author Leonard is music to my ears. Even assuming all this statistical nonsense does result in the selection of the best workers, "might we not actually be better off if even the bad workers have jobs, too?"

For Leonard, the argument is based on the positive economics of total employment, but we know better. For us, our entire economic outlook is based on the ability of bad employees to get work.