Can big data reduce crime? Yes it can. This is a great TED Talk by Anne Milgram about using analytics to improve the criminal justice system. The talk from October 2013 describes how Milgram successfully attempted to “moneyball” policing and the work of judges in her role as attorney general of New Jersey. Hers is a great story, and has many features in common with the Moneyball book and movie.
The speaker describes how she built a team, created raw data, analyzed it, and produced simple and meaningful tools. Her most impressive outcome is a risk assessment tool that helps judges identify the likelihood a defendant will re-offend, not show up in court, or commit a violent act. She and her team have successfully reduced crime.
Baseball players and police officers alike have a culture of bravado and confidence which may be critical when handling conflict, intimidation, and credibility. Yet what police officers and baseball players often need is a safe space to question their assumptions, assess whether they could do better, and decide that they will do better. These types of vulnerable moments don’t play out well when a player is at bat, or when an officer is handling complaints from the perpetrators.
In Milgram’s talk, where others see cool math tricks, I see a change in mindset and demeanor. The speaker expresses curiosity about the information, enthusiasm for unexpected findings, modesty about baseline effectiveness, a lack of blame, and a can-do attitude about trying to do more and do better.
It’s a great metaphor for business. In those workplaces where managers fiercely claw their way to the top, there may be a reduced willingness to talk about shortcomings in a manner that requires trust and collaboration. Yet making exceptional decisions require that leaders choose an entirely different mood and posture while they explore an uncharted area, allow information to out-rank instinct, and aspire to a more subtle kind of greatness. Put posture aside, and just do good work. The way things are changing, those are the only kinds of people who will stay on top.
Does life get in the way of your workplace productivity? Typically, it’s the opposite. Your personal life determines how you show up. When colleagues talk about life, and make their work meaningful to their lives, that’s when they become a team.
This is a great story from a colleague of mine from graduate school. Alyssa Burkus describes the time she was working on a project for an organization (Actionable.co), and started seriously to consider an offer to work for them full-time. During a team check-in about people’s weekend she announced to team members that she had achieved a milestone anniversary in surviving cancer. There was an outpouring of sympathy and support. She felt it. She had found her tribe.
If you listen closely in your own workplace, you might hear other moments like these. Some moments are better than others. When people “have a specialist appointment” how much time do we give them? When people have a death in the family, do they tell us, and do we have their back? When two people talk about their kids having learning disabilities, how long are they allowed to talk? At my current employer I had to delay my start date because there was a minor complication with a scheduled surgery.
The reason these scenarios are powerful is that many personal topics are simply more important than work. As an employer you don’t so much own people, you just borrow some of their time. When employees develop a sense of self-respect and a pride in their contributions, they willingly rise above what is expected from them in the job description. I love going above and beyond for people whom I respect, and who have respect for me. This feeling is stronger when employees forget about their salary, which is the dream of every well-informed compensation team.
The ability to have these conversations is part of a healthy workplace culture. It turns up in employee surveys as a determinant of workplace engagement. It drives turnover statistics and the amount of steam people put into discretionary effort. Missteps in these areas are often at the root of conflict, harassment, and grievances. When an employee expresses physical or emotional discomfort, the degree to which others care and take action is a major factor in accident claims, absenteeism, and long-term disability costs. With equity and inclusion the emerging practice is to bypass categories and go deeper into individual perspectives. With employee communications, people mostly read the personal stories. And the best source of information for leadership development inthe eyes of the employees who are following your lead.
I do a lot of math about workforce analytics and I can confirm for you that according to my calculator, emotions are the boss.
I think the reason vulnerability and compassion are so powerful is that it’s really hard to fake it. You can tell when people mean it, and you can tell when people don’t. As Alyssa puts it, “…this isn’t a call-to-action to start creating ‘meaningful moments’ initiatives, where the word from the top is leaders need to be more personal, or where HR tracks ‘connection point KPIs.’” It’s about authenticity. Perhaps we need to develop metrics to guage that.
What if every critique you could make about the modern workforce was briefly disproven? I happened upon one shining example in a recent article in the New York Times.
It’s opposite land in Moraine, Ohio. A Chinese glassmaker named Fuyao put a half-billion dollars into an abandoned General Motors plant and created over 1,500 jobs producing windshields for the North American auto sector. The investment narrowed the physical distance between the investor and clients, which presumably lightened the load on the environment. The plant has been unionized by the United Auto Workers who would normally think of this as their turf. Health and safety conditions fall squarely under US law. There are more visible minorities in executive positions.
Some people have a problem with all of this. White male executives lost jobs to make space for Chinese managers who were brought in, triggering at least one lawsuit. The drive to unionize was successful but really difficult. There is a debate about how hard the employees should work. The investor is operating just one inch inside the law on health and safety, spurred into action by a hefty fine. (Who knew that kind of thing worked?) On Weibo, a popular microblogging site in China, someone called out the owner as a traitor for out-sourcing jobs to the US.
I can barely think of what to say. It’s just one of those things you hope would happen, until you realize you are suddenly deprived of any legitimate reason to complain or criticize. Maybe we should decide we don’t have to chase reassuring opinions, and get comfortable with contradiction?
Human resources departments and those who handle their data are expected to guard the best secrets. But one of the biggest secrets is ironically an anti-secret. Did you know you’re allowed to talk openly about your own pay? Don’t tell HR. It’s embarrassing (for them).
This article in Atlantic.com by Jonathan Timm from July 2014 draws attention to the dubious practice of pay secrecy. I’m not talking about the employer’s obligation to keep your pay information confidential. Rather it’s an article about employees being obliged to keep their pay a secret from one another. These obligations are referred to as “gag rules.”
For the uninitiated, there is no meaningful moral obligation for employees to refrain to talking about their salary with each other. On the contrary, in the United States there are regulations that protect employees’ rights to discuss working conditions with one another. It’s on the edges of the legislation that allows employees to collectively discuss their lot in life, bargain for improvements, and possibly unionize.
In that context the moral judgement should be obvious. Those handling the file at human resources desks are not allowed to advance anti-union behavior, and as professionals they should always advise against such policies.
The article describes personal experiences of people struggling with these fake rules. What is notable is how people presume these gag rules are legitimate, employers and employees alike. Gag rules create a sense of guilt about whether we should put ourselves ahead of the employer. They make us self-consciousness about whether we’re being greedy. We’re embarrassed to talk about whether we’re losers for being the lowest paid person. Raising the topic with colleagues is “akin to asking about their sex life.”
These emotions are powerful stuff. But then, that’s how bullying is done, isn’t it?
Above and beyond beef-and-taters union issues, gag rules are also wrapped up in discriminatory pay practices. That is, it is easier to under-pay women and visible minorities or play favorites if employees don’t talk about their pay. A woman named Lilly Ledbetter complied with the gag rule at Goodyear for nearly three decades and ultimately found out she was under-paid. Ms. Ledbetter sued and lost because she did not complain about being under-paid within the first 180 days of her first paycheck.
Ironically, employers share pay information with each other all the time. They’re called compensation surveys. They happen on an annual basis (if not monthly), and they are delivered through specialized consulting services. The work is done under careful checks and balances that ensure data privacy and keep the whole process fair and legal. Those who have worked on such surveys are proud of their work. I used to do compensation surveys myself, and I was good at it.
One of the reasons why compensation professionals love doing this work is because it helps make pay fair and equitable. Looking down from the ivory tower, human resources people know that perceived unfairness in pay creates discord. So “good” employers put some work into getting it right, behind the scenes, in a kind of lab environment where social justice is organized by experts. But really we’re just trying to stay one step ahead of the riff-raff.
Let’s face it, employees and the social justice movements they created are the rightful owner of this dialogue. Gag rules and compensation surveys are just the cultural appropriation of working class politics.
How much can we talk about people without talking about people data? Not very much, it appears. Those dealing with employees of all types must know more about their hearts and souls than ever before. And if you make one false move with a data point, your most brilliant philosophical insights can be taken sideways.
In December 2016, author Simon Sinek was interviewed on Inside Quest on the topic of Millennials. I am a big fan of Sinek, having changed my approach to work based on his influential TED talk on how to Start With Why. The Inside Quest interview (20 minutes long) is also great because it covers many key topics.
Sinek posted a follow-up video days later to clarify much of what he had to say. There was a dramatic change in body language. In the first video he seemed calm and knowledgeable. However, in the follow-up video (from what appears to be his dining-room) he is a little sheepish, making clarifications, imploring people to keep the conversation alive with constructive criticism. The first interview had gone a tad viral and he got a lot of feedback.
During the Inside Quest interview he made piercing social criticism and attributed a lot of what was happening in society to the experience and context of millennials. In what should be described as “a good problem to have,” he understated the importance of his critique. You see, the things he said were true for many of us regardless of generation.
His critique? We must learn to wait. We must put time and years into our greatest accomplishments. We are lonely because we are embarrassed to talk about our disappointments and frustrations. We need to talk through our difficulties. We must aspire to engage in sincere conversations. We must help others. Look up from your phone and be human.
In my opinion these are all massive issues for workplace culture. Managers are struggling to learn how to compel their staff to work hard without being coercive or demeaning. Everyone who takes benefits costs seriously is now hyper-sensitive to whether employees can talk openly about mental health and wellbeing. Executives worried about people quitting are stumbling onto growing evidence that people want to thrive and grow. And still, the dream persists that we can all succeed.
I think that these topics entered the mainstream concurrent with the rise of the millennial workforce, not necessarily because of them. The analytics that identify turnover trends happened largely because of emerging technology; the de-stigmatization of mental illness was popularized by baby-boomer medical professionals; smart phones have been improving for decades; and teachers have been pushing anti-bullying efforts for some time. These things came sharply into focus when millennials first started to speak their minds in the workplace.
Based on his dining-room talk, it appears that Sinek’s feedback came from many non-millennials who want in on the broader discussion. This is important from a social perspective. But the social perspective is the flip-side of a data issue. That is because he got tripped up by a data-labelling error. You see, he casually referred to millennials has having been born approximately 1984 and after. He didn’t specify a 20-year generational cohort. He left it open-ended, like there was an unlimited supply of this generation being born every day. This is problematic because we need good definitions to determine if there are clear differences between clear categories. If the definition is muddy, then the identification of differences will be muddy as well.
I have had the pleasure of working with clearly defined data where I described millennials as those born from 1976 to 1995. By getting specific about date of birth, you will find that each year you look at the data the findings can shift. Age and generation are not the same things, and if you look at the two separately you might find, for example, that millennials as a generation do not have different quit rates. Or you might find that concerns about career advancement are widespread (more on that in a future post).
For me this is an excellent example of how workplace analytics and workplace culture are never that far from one another. To love humans is to wish the very best for them and their data.
Is your workplace having a hard time chasing down suitable talent? It’s a hard game to play, chasing after that one strong candidate who is ready to stay in place. Employers have had challenges with hard-to-fill positions for some time. Businesses in North America struggled to fill (and retain staff in) “hot skills” areas since the late nineties.
If someone has the hot skill they disrupt business because they can simply choose to work as a contractor, charging more. When money is not the issue, skilled workers just decide for themselves the location and conditions of their work. I once worked in an office that abandoned standard business attire because the Information Technology staff refused to wear ties.
There are skills shortages in parts of India, according to this recent article. In India’s law enforcement sector, there is the perception that government officials are not placing a high priority on filling job vacancies. This implies a large-scale manager error. The defence sector notes that people are leaving their sector to work in other parts of the economy where they are treated better. In healthcare, professionals are declining to work in rural areas where there is relatively little infrastructure. In the education sector, professors are declining to work outside of major cities, so rural and small town job postings stay vacant.
What is noteworthy is that the situation in India persists in a land of 1.2 billion people. When hiring managers seek out talent to fill vacancies they will often encounter a feast or famine of job applicants. It’s a double bind. In a society that struggles with the personal and political turmoil of unemployment and economic hardship, employers must also struggle to find a single qualified applicant.
In this rodeo, employers might think they are the cowboy. But sometimes they are the calf.