Corporate America is changing its hiring practices, and Google is at the forefront. In the rush to hire talent, innovative companies like Google are abandoning traditional employment practices. With research showing that grades and interviews are not reliable predictors of success, the use of “biodata” is becoming more prevalent. This new trend has serious implications for human resource departments and employment law attorneys as there will inevitably be a surge of discrimination claims arising from the use of biodata as these innovative practices potentially test the limits of established law.
Biodata is the term used in industrial and organizational psychology for biographical data. Biodata probes deep into an individual’s background and consists of a person’s life and work experiences, as well as beliefs, values, opinions and attitudes. This information is then presumed to be related to personality structure, personal adjustment or success in social, educational or occupational pursuits. Employers are now using biodata as a means of obtaining a more scientific approach to the interview process.
Google’s prior method for selecting its own employees consisted of the traditional model: hiring candidates from top schools with outstanding grades. That model is now considered outdated. Today, instead of reviewing transcripts, Google uses an algorithm that selects employees who are better fits for the company, and it accomplishes this selection faster.
Google reportedly hires over 100 people per week and with that figure expected to double next year, Google has determined that biodata is the most efficient way to predict performance.
While no one can say with certainty whether the use of biodata is better than the traditional interview process, it does seem to work for Google, which purports to have less than 4 percent employee turnover. Google’s system, as the leading model of this new wave, deserves closer examination. Google created an automated system that collects biodata from the 100,000 job applications it receives each month. The system asks job applicants to fill out an elaborate online survey that examines their personality, behavior, attitudes and other personal details going back to high school. The survey covers a massive range of topics including whether the applicants like to work alone or in groups, if they like dogs, if they ever published a book, started a club in school or set a world record.
Google’s army of mathematicians created a set of formulas that computes the applicant’s responses and scores each applicant on a scale of 0 to 100. The score is designed to predict how well the person will fit into Google’s corporate culture. Although Google is an innovator, it is not the only company jumping into the biodata arena.
Although biodata surveys have been around for decades, mainly in government agencies, during the 1960s the tests spread to the private sector. However, they fell out of favor after passage of the Civil Rights Act, as companies feared they could have a disparate impact and therefore be discriminatory.[FOOTNOTE 2] A survey[FOOTNOTE 3] of 348 companies conducted in 1988 found that only 6 percent of companies had used biodata. A similar study of human resource specialists by the Bureau of National Affairs reported that only 4 percent used biodata. Notably, 40 percent of respondents said that privacy concerns prevented them from using biodata and some cited fear of litigation. Currently, the use of biographical surveys similar to Google’s new system is on the rise.
In the past few years companies have realized that increased competition makes efficient hiring of productive employees imperative. In 2002, Proctor & Gamble contracted with the Performance Assessment Network Inc., to provide a biodata-based hiring system for the company’s prospective employees. The biodata system was integrated throughout Proctor & Gamble’s offices in Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America. Other large companies have followed suit, including SER Solutions Inc., a communications company in Dulles, Va., which also utilizes the personal assessment tests as a more effective means to finding the right employees. There is no doubt that corporate America is using biodata-based surveys. The question for employment lawyers is whether U.S. laws can balance a company’s need to quickly and accurately select suitable employees and also prevent discrimination.