Recruiting Better Talent With Brain Games And Big Data

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With the technology to conduct more nuanced tests, some companies say they can provide more useful detail about how people think in dynamic situations. (Getty Images/Ikon Images)
With the technology to conduct more nuanced tests, some companies say they can provide more useful detail about how people think in dynamic situations. (Getty Images/Ikon Images)

The job interview hasn't changed much over the years. There are the resumes, the face-to-face meetings, the callbacks — and the agonizing wait, as employers decide based on a hunch about who's best suited for the job.

Some companies are selling the idea that new behavioral science techniques can give employers more insight into hiring.

For most of her life, Frida Polli assumed she'd be an academic. She got her Ph.D, toiled in a research lab and started a post-doctorate program before she realized she'd been wrong.

Polli didn't want to study neuropsychology — she wanted to use it in business.

"People have always wanted to find a way to assess someone's cognitive and emotional traits in an objective way that might give them a sense of: What is this person really ideally suited for?" she says.

The Knack app has users play games that gauge their playing style to determine how they think and work.
The Knack app has users play games that gauge their playing style to determine how they think and work.

So Polli co-founded Pymetrics, which uses brain games to measure things like attention to detail and risk tolerance — factors that she says can help determine a good job fit. Polli says her own results were accurate.

"It told me that I was a little bit impulsive — which I'm definitely impulsive. And entrepreneurship was my top match, so I was pretty happy about that. It was a relief because, you know, otherwise I'd have to consider a different job," she says.

Tests for intelligence and personality traits have been around for a century. But with big data and the technology to conduct more nuanced tests, some firms say they can provide more useful detail about people's innate abilities. They say a better gauge of personality traits can help increase productivity and reduce turnover.

The science of these claims isn't yet clear.

Frederick Morgeson, an organizational psychology expert at Michigan State University, says some tests do predict job performance.

But, he says, "whether the claims that these companies are making are in fact true and they're measuring what they say they're measuring — that is a question that can really only be answered by research."

And very little independent research exists.

Still, I wondered what these tests might say about my fit with the one and only career I've ever had. So I tried RoundPegg, which asks its users to select values that are most and least important to them — qualities like "decisiveness" or "being supportive."

Natalie Baumgartner, a psychologist and RoundPegg's founder, says the goal is to reveal your inner archetype.

"When you are required to function in a way that's really misaligned with your wiring, it becomes very exhausting and over time we tend to not want to do it," she says.

Having Baumgartner interpret my results feels a bit like a palm reading. I'm less invested in structure or collaboration, she says. "Military would not be a great route for you."

I'm also not cut out for project management. I'm an explorer, she says, who values autonomy and creativity.

"If I put my real psychological hat on, that's a great combination for being a reporter," Baumgartner adds.

Other behavioral tests rely less on self-assessment and try to tap into the subconscious. A company called Knack claims to do this by tracking how people play their cellphone games.

In my test, I'm hurling water balloons in the style of Angry Birds. But it's hard to tell whether there's any strategy in this game.

But behind the scenes, Knack is collecting thousands of data points about how I play. Guy Halfteck, the company's founder and CEO, says gameplay correlates with how people think and work.

"Level of pressure, intensity, level of challenge — we look at all those behaviors," he says.

The results say I'm optimistic, introspective and resilient. But it also says I have spatial skills consistent with an engineer. That, I tell Halfteck, seems dead wrong.

"It's kind of tricky to rely just on your personal experience or your own self-perception," he says. "And that's the purpose of Knack, to provide that insight, to help people uncover what thing that they might not be aware of."

Andy Boyd went from skeptic to believer of these tests. He manages sales for a firm called Agility Recovery, which, until several years ago, retained only a quarter of its salespeople every year.

Boyd started using RoundPegg on job candidates and found it changed not only who they hired, but how they trained them.

"We begin to group our people based on how they're wired and teach them strategies based on the way that they work, instead of the way we want them to work," Boyd says.

He says his company is hiring talent from places it might have otherwise overlooked. His team is not only more diverse — the majority of them now stick around.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's start this hour with a look at an innovation in something that's gone unchanged, it seems, forever - the job interview. There's the resume, the face-to-face meetings, the callbacks and the agonizing wait as employers decide based on a hunch about who's best-suited for the job. Now, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, some companies are selling the idea that new behavioral science techniques can help pick the right candidate.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: For most of her life, Frida Polli assumed she'd be an academic. She got her PhD, toiled in a research lab and started a post-doctorate program before she realized she'd been wrong. Polli didn't want to study neuropsychology; she wanted to use it in business.

FRIDA POLLI: People have always wanted to find a way to assess someone's cognitive and emotional traits in an objective way that might give them a sense of what is this person really ideally suited for.

NOGUCHI: So Polli co-founded Pymetrics, which uses brain games to measure things like attention to detail and risk tolerance, which she says can help determine good job fit. Polli says her own results were accurate.

POLLI: It told me that I was a little bit impulsive, which I'm definitely impulsive. And entrepreneurship was my top match, so I was pretty happy about that. It was a relief because, you know, (laughter) otherwise, I'd have to consider a different job.

NOGUCHI: Tests for intelligence and personality traits have been around for a century. But with big data and the technology to conduct more nuanced tests, some firms say they can provide more useful detail about people's innate abilities. They say a better gauge of personality traits can help increase productivity and reduce turnover. The science of these claims isn't yet clear. Frederick Morgeson, an organizational psychology expert at Michigan State, says some tests do predict job performance, but...

FREDERICK MORGESON: Whether the claims that these companies are making are in fact true and they're measuring what they say they're measuring, that is a question that really can only be answered by research.

NOGUCHI: And very little independent research exists. Still, I wondered what these tests might say about my fit with the one and only career I've ever had. RoundPegg asks its users to select values that are most and least important to them, qualities like decisiveness or being supportive. Natalie Baumgartner is a psychologist and RoundPegg's founder. She says the goal is to reveal your inner archetype.

NATALIE BAUMGARTNER: When you are required to function in a way that's really misaligned with your wiring, it becomes very exhausting. And over time, we tend to not want to do it.

NOGUCHI: Having her interpret my results feels a bit like a palm reading. I'm less invested in structure or collaboration, she says.

BAUMGARTNER: Military would not be a great route for you.

NOGUCHI: I'm also not cut out for project management. I'm an explorer, she says, who values autonomy and creativity.

BAUMGARTNER: If I put my real psychological hat on, that's a great combination for being a reporter.

NOGUCHI: Other behavioral tests rely less on self-assessment and try to tap into the subconscious. Knack claims to do this by tracking how people play their cell phone games.

So I'm hurling these water balloons in the style of Angry Birds. It's hard to tell whether there's any strategy in this game.

But behind the scenes, Knack is collecting thousands of data points about how I play. Guy Halfteck, the company's founder and CEO, says game play correlates with how people think and work.

GUY HALFTECK: Level of pressure, intensity, level of challenge, we look at all those behaviors.

NOGUCHI: The results say I'm optimistic, introspective and resilient. But it also says I have spatial skills consistent with an engineer. That, I tell Halfteck, seems dead wrong.

HALFTECK: It's kind of tricky to rely just on your personal experience or your own self-perception. And that's part of the purpose of Knack, to provide that insight, to help people uncover what things that they may not be aware of.

NOGUCHI: Andy Boyd went from skeptic to believer of these tests. He manages sales for a firm called Agility Recovery, which until several years ago, retained only a quarter of its salespeople every year. Boyd started using RoundPegg on job candidates and found it changed not only who they hired but how they then trained them.

ANDY BOYD: We began to group our people based on how they're wired and teach them strategies based on the way that they work instead of the way we want them to work.

NOGUCHI: He says the company's hiring talent from places it might've otherwise overlooked. His team is not only more diverse; the majority of them now stick around. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.