Case Study: Should an Algorithm Tell You Who to Promote? - Analytics in HR

Case Study: Should an Algorithm Tell You Who to Promote?

Aliyah Jones was having trouble paying attention to the farewell toasts. Although she was sad to see her longtime colleague, Anne Bank, go, she was more...

Aliyah Jones was having trouble paying attention to the farewell toasts. Although she was sad to see her longtime colleague, Anne Bank, go, she was more consumed with trying to figure out who should replace her.

As a VP of sales and marketing for Becker-Birnbaum International, a global consumer products company, Aliyah knew she needed a talented marketing director to support her division’s portfolio of 34 products.

After working with HR to narrow down the list of candidates, she had two finalists, both internal: Molly Ashworth, a brand manager on her team in the cleaning division, and Ed Yu, a rising star from BBI’s beauty division.

Aliyah liked Molly and respected her work. Two years earlier, Molly had spearheaded a new subscription service for BBI cleaning products, which had, despite a slow start, shown strong growth in the past two quarters.

Customers seemed to love the convenience, and the R&D, marketing, and executive teams had gotten excited about the service as a platform to test new offerings.

Having mentored Molly through the pitch and launch of the service, Aliyah was intimately familiar with her protégé’s strengths and weaknesses and was certain that she was ready for the next challenge.

But soon after the position had been posted, Christine Jenkins, a corporate VP of HR, had come to Aliyah with Ed’s résumé. Like Molly, he’d joined BBI right out of business school and been quickly tapped as a high potential.

He also had his own BBI success story: As a brand manager in the beauty group, he had revived its 20-year-old FreshFace makeup-removal product line, increasing sales 60% in three years.

Perhaps more important to Christine, he’d been recommended as a 96% match for the job by HR’s new people-analytics system, which she had championed. (Molly had been an 83% match, according to the algorithm.)

The goal of the HR initiative was to use data analytics to inform hiring, promotion, and compensation decisions. Ed was flagged not just because of his stellar performance but also because of his interest in transferring from New York to BBI’s headquarters in London.

Aliyah was happy to have two insiders in contention — she had come up the ranks herself at BBI — but that made the decision more difficult.

As the COO made another well-deserved toast to Anne, Aliyah thought back to her interviews with Ed and Molly.

Meeting Ed Yu

“I’m sorry I’m so late,” Ed said, looking a little discombobulated. “My Uber driver insisted he knew a shortcut from Heathrow — but he was wrong.”

It was hard not to draw an immediate comparison to Molly, who was always buttoned up and calm, but Aliyah reminded herself to keep an open mind.

“No problem,” she said. “Shall we get started?”

“Absolutely,” Ed said eagerly.

“Tell me what interests you about this job.”

Ed explained that while he was proud of the growth FreshFace had experienced under his leadership, he was ready for a new challenge.

He’d enjoyed diving deep into one product, but felt his skills were better suited for a position that would allow him to work across programs and direct a larger portfolio.

Sharp, clear answer, Aliyah thought. “What have you learned in beauty that would apply here in cleaning?” she asked.

This was an important question. BBI’s executive team had issued an imperative that the divisions share more best practices and improve collaboration. In fact, she was getting pressure from her boss to spend more time with her counterparts in other divisions.

Ed explained how he thought the approach his division had taken to in-field customer research, which he credited with boosting FreshFace sales, could work in cleaning. Partnering with anthropologists was something Aliyah’s team had talked about but hadn’t yet tried out.

He also asked about the new subscription program, referencing a recent white paper on trends in subscription business models. He’d clearly done his homework, was smart and ambitious, knew BBI’s business well, and seemed eager to learn.

But his answers and even questions seemed a bit rehearsed, stiff even. Aliyah didn’t sense the dynamism or entrepreneurial mindset that she knew Molly had. Maybe he’s nervous, she told herself. Or maybe that’s just who he is.

Aliyah didn’t doubt he could do the job. But she didn’t feel excited about hiring him.

Molly’s “Interview”

Setting Molly’s interview up for the same day as Ed’s seemed like a great idea when she’d suggested it to Christine and, given the noon time-slot, it had been only natural to meet at their usual lunch spot near the office.

But as soon as Aliyah walked into the café, she realized how unfair these back-to-backs were to Ed.

It was impossible not to hug Molly hello and ask for a quick update on her projects and family. They even ordered the same thing: curried egg salad on rocket.

But as soon as the waitress left, Molly got down to business: “I know we e-mail 10 times a day and have lunch often, but I’d like to treat this as a formal interview.”

Aliyah smiled. “Of course.”

As Christine had advised her to do, she asked questions that were the same or at least similar to the ones she’d asked Ed.

“Tell me why you’re interested in this job,” she started. It was awkward. Aliyah knew the answer to that already, but to Molly’s credit, she proceeded as if they weren’t close colleagues.

With each response, Aliyah was reminded of the potential she’d always seen in her. She demonstrated deep knowledge of the business and had good suggestions for collaborating across marketing programs and building on the success of the subscription program.

She was as polished and thoughtful as Ed, but she also seemed more warm and self-aware.

Knocked it out of the park, Aliyah thought, as they walked back to the office. She almost said it out loud but stopped herself. The decision wasn’t made yet. But looking at the smile on Molly’s face, Aliyah knew her protégé was feeling confident that it might go in her favor.

The Algorithm

The day after Anne’s farewell party, Aliyah met with Christine and Brad Bibson, a data scientist on the people analytics team.

“I know you were leaning toward Molly after we debriefed the interviews,” Christine said, “but we wanted to share some more data.”

Brad handed over two colorful diagrams…

Click here to continue reading Jeffrey T. Polzer’s article.

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