Careful: Big Data Is Watching You at Work

Different companies have different predictors of employee performance

view over the shoulder of a...
Shutterstock / Sebastian Gauert
Ever feel uncomfortable at work, like people were watching over your shoulder? You know it has to happen. Companies pay employees and, as a result, want to feel that the money is going to good use.

If you haven't liked the monitoring and measurements to say nothing of the resulting coaching sessions, better brace yourself. It's all going to get much worse thanks to a set of technologies collectively called Big Data. Companies are trying to massage buckets of information to find out how to operate more effectively, efficiently and cheaply. And the data mining and number crunching probably have you in the crosshairs. Fortunately, time may be on your side.

As The Atlantic points out, a great analogy is the book "Moneyball" that describes how the Oakland Athletics under general manager Billy Beane and Harvard economics grad Paul DePodesta used statistics to pick its ball players. The team's record was matched only by the Yankees, which had spent three times as much on talent.

What made the numerical approach work so effectively is that few had paid attention to the mass of player data available in baseball. Scouts and managers who traditionally chose team rosters based decisions on gut feelings and assumptions they had learned as they came up in the game. But close analysis showed that certain types of traits and skills ignored by the "experts" better predicted who would win.

It was an early example of so-called Big Data, which allows organizations and PhDs in math to rummage through mountains of information. They look for patterns that help in making decisions and possibly predict what the outcomes of particular actions and choices would be. The techniques have been put to use in picking stocks and better targeting online ads to your browsing habits.

Now Big Data is being turned to such questions as who are the best people to hire for particular positions and how much should they be paid. As the Atlantic says, it's in part a reaction to the seat-of-the-pants approach to hiring that so many companies have developed when it turned out that "scientific" psychological testing used for years was ultimately useless.

Like baseball, companies don't know why some people do better than others or what a business can do to improve staff performance, as consultant Josh Bersin wrote at As an example, one of his clients in financial services thought the best performers were those people who got good grades at well-known schools.

After analyzing performance and turnover, the company found a number of factors that did correlate to good performers, including getting some degree from college, experience in selling cars or real-estate, time management skills, and no typos or grammatical errors on their resumes. What didn't matter? Good grades or the school they went to.

For the last 30 years we have captured demographic information, performance information, educational history, job location, and many other factors about our employees. Are we using this data scientifically to make people decisions? Not yet.

That's why many companies have decided to use that data to build profiles of what people work best for them, signs that someone will be a superior employee versus an ordinary one, models of how to structure compensation to get the best performance at the lowest cost, and so on.

As Outsource Magazine wrote: "We are coming into a dream world where ... HR data can now join the big league of information that has the ability to enable true innovation in business."

The danger, according to candidate selection expert Dr. Wendell Williams in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, is that past performance can be an unreliable tease. There is often no way to tell exactly what caused improved performance. "Somewhat like discovering shark attacks are correlated with ice-cream sales at a beach, they both might happen in the same season, but one does not cause the other," Williams said. Job seekers and employees could find themselves embraced or written off because they were in the right or wrong place.

But don't despair, because it's unclear how long it might take before companies actually implement these techniques. As Bersin also wrote, a study his firm did on 480 large companies found that only 4 percent can perform the analytics necessary to make Big Data work in hiring. By the time most get around to it, you might find you've already retired.

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Love the starting point of the article <>. Big Data, for all its advantages, is yet to be fully understood from privacy issues' perspective. Looking for some forward-looking companies to be proactive in addressing consumer concerns. Some more comments of mine in this blog >>

December 15 2013 at 1:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Marvin Douglas

the question is whew and what is behind this ,Big Data. and what is it the sub human bondage the apartheid system .what I think best to do is to elevate your self above the one tenth percent brain that scientist claim the world is using. to think ,there is not much inspiration in this brain hemisphere . it is left side brain hemisphere
,consider the chines with the yin and the yang system Indians with Hinduism and African Egyptian with the unchet and urchet the's are about brain hemisphere not the all seen eye it about human insight .the society is lock moral and spiritual consciousness all the

December 05 2013 at 12:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Ease up now. Your boss may have power over your job. But the government has power over your life, and they're keeping an even closer watch on you.

December 01 2013 at 4:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If yuor office has something as simple as a burglar alarm on it -- the employee responsible for opening up in the morning should know that by remote control, his supervisor can contact the alarm directly to find out what time in the morning it was shut off. It can't be shut off before the guy gets there, and it has to be shut off for him to come inside.

Anything computerized is guaranteed to be NOT private, period. Even your "private" emails on your own compuer at home.

December 01 2013 at 1:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That's OK. They are being watched too. In this existence there is NOTHING that we say or do, or leave unsaid or undone, that does NOT go without being witnessed. I personally can assure you of that fact. If more could sense and "see" as some are able to do, this world would be a much different place.

December 01 2013 at 12:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You monitor people 24/7 then you should pay 24/7..Social Media being brought into the job and other nonsense me hourly on and off the job and you can pry all you want.

November 30 2013 at 11:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sincerely, Management.

November 30 2013 at 11:38 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Stop being a wage-slave. Work for yourself.

November 30 2013 at 9:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I had the opportunity to work for two of the most progressive companies in the world, at least it is my opinion, and they are world class companies. The management did monitor my work function often, I was even provided with special testing before and after being hired to make obvious my strengths. I was targeted to get the most productivity as a result of those tests. I could not read until I was 12. Really. I was beat out of the highschool sports teams because of my inablity to compete at the level of my class mates? I did not go to college persay but attended a junior business school. I hung around with others like me, we were considerd the least likely to succeed and were told that by the guidance counselors during the yearly reviews that we received?? At 66 the last count is I own outright 5 homes, and two businesses, and sold two businesses. My wife is a very accomplished technical person, and our adult children are international level doing business all over the world for major companies. The valdictorian of my class is dead from a drug overdose, and a large number of the academic students of my highschool class are married 2 or 3 times (I am married 47 years to the same lady), many of them are obeise, and smoke even with the health warnings. What went wrong?? dam if I can figure it out. LMAO It is called WORK, no hand outs, but hands on, no easy way, fail and start over, live in a kill or be killed business environment, when i bleed I dont let it show and still smile, no vacations, and always invest funs to work for me, meaning no vacations, limited toys for pleasure, and 15 year old cars as a rule. Last week i gave two months mortgate payment to a high school academic friend of mine to pay his mortgage on his home as he is out of work?? WHAT WENT WRONG? My wife attends a garden party twice a year at the country club we are members of and she was told she was lucky to have me as her husband and then was told i was lucky to be so successful. She responded yes she was luchy to have me but that I was lucky also that I was not lazy. LMAO My moto is like Larry the Cable Guy, Get-er-Done. I still can't understand WHAT WENT WRONG??? When i get upset with a business situation and find my self in a meeting i quietly excuse myself and walk away, saying I will return in 10 minutes and i walk outside and sit in my 90K luxury car and turn on the radio and just remind my self, all the rub does not matter now, as i turn on the radio in the 90K vehicle that is paid for. Well I wonder what is next on the agenda for this afternoon will it be a tax review or figuring out what to do with the next quarters profits????

November 30 2013 at 9:20 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to nmastri's comment

How about taking a nice vacation somewhere like the Carib and enjoy a little of life?

December 01 2013 at 12:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

While I was typing this, I had to keep looking over my shoulders to see if the 27 paranoids were still watching.

November 30 2013 at 8:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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