Florence Nightingale to Amazon: The pros and cons of data driven hiring

A Florence Nightingale inspired event at London’s Old Operating Theatre Museum provides tips on using data to find the perfect employee

“You’re not going to change Bezos’s attitude in how he grows his business. You just find people that will enjoy and thrive in that environment,” Roger Philby, CEO of The Chemistry Group tells me.

I’m standing with Philby in the quietest corner we could find at the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London. Not too far away from us are glass cabinets with strange instruments like a bleeding bowl and scarificator blades.

Philby is giving me his opinion on the New York Times expose of life at Amazon that was published last year. The article shed an unflattering light on the treatment of Amazon’s employees, down to CEO Jeff Bezos’ data-driven management style.

Philby can comment on this because The Chemistry Group works with businesses like SAP, Accenture and Vodafone to define what ‘great’ looks like in workplaces. This involves working closely with employers to challenge management biases using data and then feeding that back to the employer to solve whatever problem it is trying to solve.

Philby continues on Amazon: “If that’s what great performance looks like in their company who am I to turn around and tell them that it isn’t? What we aren’t saying is that everywhere you work will be cool, fun, emphatic and a really nice environment.”

Philby recalls one amusing case he dealt with at a call centre with an over-bearing CEO. The CEO came to him because the call centre had a 98% attrition rate.

But it quickly became clear why.

“The CEO laid out rich tea biscuits one break-time. They weren’t chocolate digestives – he wasn’t exactly rolling the boat out. He found that people were taking two biscuits at a time so he wrote a two page email about it and withdrew the biscuits.”

In that instance, Philby quickly realised that the CEO didn’t want to change the culture, he just needed workers that could thrive in that sort of environment.

“Believe it or not there are people that like that control and like the structure. And are ok that there is no contribution from the employer to their well-being.”

So, what has this got to do with the Old Operating Theatre Museum?

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Well, in many ways, looking at ‘great’ performance within organisations has not changed all that much from the 19th century. And Philby gushes about Florence Nightingale, the statistician and founder of modern nursing who opened her first nursing academy here.

“Florence Nightingale was super-geeky, a mathematician and she really engaged people in her work and what she was doing,” Philby tells me. “If we went back 157 years and said to Nightingale, “Recruitment in the world is broken, how would you go about it?” She would go: “What’s the data telling us? How do I engage people in the process?”

So Philby decided to use Nightingale to set me and group of other invitees a task to find the ‘perfect’ nurse.  

We met various actors (played by members of staff at The Chemistry Group) to find the necessary ingredients for the perfect employee but the challenge lay in choosing between different traits. There were certain qualities that we all agreed on. Empathy and compassion was necessary to be a good nurse. But did the nurse also have to be motivated by personal growth? 

As we discussed, it became clear to me that we are all motivated by different things. What I find valuable might be completely different to another. This exercise was split across different groups but interestingly, everyone agreed on the same employee – and it turned out to be the right answer as the exercise used was the same one The Chemistry Group did for the NHS.

The NHS was concerned about a mid-stats report that showed the nurses weren’t properly caring for their patients in the way that they should. Phiby and his team found that it wasn’t because the nurses didn’t care about their patients – it was the environment that was created which bought out unexpected behaviour from the nurses.

“The personality might have been there but there was no room for anyone who was motivated by personal growth – it wasn’t valued. So we got an environment where the motivation shifted,” Philby told us.

Philby used this experiment to show us the kind of work The Chemistry Group do – although their work with the NHS is something they have applied from big businesses they work with every day.

Earlier this year, a report by the Higher Education Commission revealed how it wants UK universities to start collecting deeper data about students to provide better feedback from tutors and monitor how engaged the student is. The report struck me as almost prepping the students to become ‘Amazonian’ style data-driven machines.

Is this where we are heading, I pose to Philby.

Philby nods and says he’s noticed sales teams being given Fitbits so employers can understand if their best sales guys are the most active. At the Chemistry Group itself, Philby says employees see a nutritionist to ensure they have “the best opportunity to be brilliant”.

“I can look at the anonymised version of the group data and can see whether my business is in green, amber or red and I can directly correlate my business performance with a score of the group’s health and well-being. So I have changed the holiday policy to say take as many days as you need to improve. Without the data I wouldn’t have known that.”

In the future, Philby sees organisations capturing more data about their employees but he hopes that they hand it back to the individual and not use it “as a stick”. He sees the world of assessment changing too.

“Instead of me asking you questions, you will volunteer some information to me via your social profile for example and will make a suggestion for a job based on that data. You offer it up and I tell you whether you are right for my business,” Philby concludes.


Also read:

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’s “data-perfect” world is troubling

Amazon-style “data perfecting” at university to follow students for life?

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