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Stop Hiring Data Scientists if you’re not ready for Data Science


Greta Roberts, CEO, Talent Analytics, Corp.

mathematics-1509559_1920I had yet another call today with a brilliant data scientist working inside of a Human Resources Department of a major business. This HR data scientist has both a strong analytics and predictive analytics background. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Statistics and a Master’s Degree in Predictive Analytics. She excels in R, math, predictive modeling, machine learning and all things quantitative. She is also excited about applying data science from other domains, to solve interesting workforce optimization challenges.

She applied for a quantitative HR role that promised to let her use her skills and interest in solving difficult employee-based challenges.  She was hired for this role. What’s the problem you ask? HR won’t let her do Data Science.

Over and over again she has suggested a data science approach to help solve employee focused challenges that have plagued the organization for years, and cost many millions to the organization’s bottom line. Over and over again she is denied the ability to move forward.

Her comment is that HR seems to be scared or hesitant in moving forward to a new way of solving solutions.  The real concern is that the “reason” was not fully discussed so she could learn.

Instead, she is asked to work on generating monthly or weekly reports that the organization has grown addicted to. When she is allowed to solve an interesting problem using analytics, and  brilliantly does so, the executive HR leadership won’t give it executive visibility or implement it in production. Results are found “interesting” but not deployed.  Then, she’s back to generating reports.

She isn’t alone. And, this blog isn’t about one unique HR Data Scientist.  Not by a long shot. I hear this all the time – thus this blog.  As a result, I also see brilliant HR data scientists jumping from one company to another. I can see it on LinkedIn updates as brilliant HR Data Scientists move from one company to the other. I hear it in the conversations I have with them about why they left and their angst before they leave.

My plea to HR (and any other department hiring a Data Scientist)?  Stop hiring real Data Scientists until you’re ready to do real data science.

I think I understand some of the problem. Perhaps the pressure on HR to begin using an analytical approach has led them to hire data scientists, but when it comes to actually using this approach it’s too foreign, or scary or “not what we’ve done before”. HR needs to learn from these brilliant people they’re bringing into their domain or stop hiring them to begin with.

Anyone can hire a Data Scientist. Not every HR department or organization is ready for data science.  Generating reports are not analytics – even if they’re prettier or faster reports. Dashboards are not analytics even if they’re really pretty dashboards. More than anyone, HR should understand the devastating impact of changing job description on someone that’s been hired.

Ironically, the Data Scientist hire is perhaps one of the most brilliant and strategic hires your HR Department has ever made — perhaps ever. But only if they let her do what she was hired to do.  HR Data Scientists can help move HR from being tactical to strategic, using an analytics approach to highlight never seen before patterns, make decisions based on data and the like.

Tips on letting that brilliant HR Data Scientist you hired be one of your most brilliant hires:

  1. Assign Reporting to someone else. It’s a very important task, but it doesn’t require a Data Scientist. Reporting will quickly bore them to tears and they’ll resign.
  2. Don’t block them from talking directly to your business areas. (I often hear they have to go through the HR Business Partner who protects the business leader and blocks them from access).  Working with the HR Business Partner of course makes sense. Being blocked by the HR Business Partner doesn’t.
  3. Task HR Business Partners with finding either high turnover roles or low performance roles that your Data Scientist can work to help with. These are great projects for your Data Scientist.
  4. Have them focus first on solving business challenges (like Financial Advisor turnover) not HR challenges like Compliance Issues. This will give visibility to the great work they do and introduce HR’s new expertise to solving business challenges that affect the bottom line.
  5. When they complete an analytics project, give them a chance to talk and present the results, regardless of the outcomes. Did it help or not help? Don’t keep the results inside of HR.
  6. Admit that you’re a little nervous about what they do. They’re nervous about what you do too.
  7. Trust your Data Scientist. Stop being scared. You hired them because they have an area of expertise traditional HR doesn’t. Embrace their area of expertise.  You need to trust their advice and approach, or yes, they’ll leave.

And mostly, don’t hire a Data Scientist if you’re not ready for Data Science. If you thought you were and you find out later you really aren’t, let them know and let them go. Be honest.  Don’t put them in a different role and block them as they keep trying to be successful.

Greta Roberts is the CEO & Co-founder of Talent Analytics, Corp. Follow her on twitter @gretaroberts.




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5 Responses to “Stop Hiring Data Scientists if you’re not ready for Data Science”

  1. Meta Brown Says:

    July 28th, 2015 at 8:39 am

    Yuk. I recall stinky jobs from the start of my career, that still were not this stinky. What a waste of an education!

  2. Bob Hatcher Says:

    July 29th, 2015 at 10:37 am

    “Big data”, “Analytics” and all the other buzz words that are hot today do a real disservice to many. A lot of CEOs and senior managers will read an article and think it sounds cool and say “get me one of those guys!” and they go out and hire them. Then, as Greta points out they have nothing to do.

    But, I fault this woman Greta refers to also. Shame on her for not getting a real job description and negotiating a 90- 180-day plan. If she had done that then she’d not have these problems (but, she’d also probably not have a job either!)

  3. Art the Geek Says:

    August 3rd, 2015 at 10:48 am

    This is, unfortunately, not a ‘new’ problem. Those working in data-, and evidenced-based HR practices (e.g., Industrial/Organizational psychologists and practitioners) have been facing this challenge for YEARS. I worked in this realm for over 10 years. For example, I was personally asked to leave a job when working for one employer when I suggested that the HR database currently used to make important personnel decisions needed significant cleaning and reformatting. I was told I was not a team player and shown the door. Many HR departments employees’ have risen through the ranks of administrative services and seem focused only on replicating pre-existing processes and procedures. ‘Don’t rock the boat’ is often the mantra in HR, while lip service is paid to being strategic partners.

    I had an older mentor who was a leader in the field of valuing HR (i.e., now commonly referred to as ‘ROI for HR’). With another prestigious academic, he developed a model that is still cited in I/O psychology textbooks as a prime example of the practice. Our class asked him to come speak at our university. At the end of his presentation, we asked if his now famous model was adopted by the company that sponsored the research. He intimated that the senior executives of that organization (who asked him to develop the mode) stated that they didn’t trust his financial estimates, and refused to implement it. Since I’ve been in the business world I’ve come to realize that many financial estimates are used in business planning; I’ve never understood why those attempting to use data-, and evidence-driven estimates corresponding to HR activities are subject to (in my opinion) so much greater suspicion. I’ve seen some truly atrocious financial estimates used to justify business activities in other spheres of business, but because they originated from other departments (e.g., finance) they were soundly accepted.

  4. Reader Says:

    August 20th, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    The message here is clearly quite the contrary: Do not stop hiring DSs, but instead get out of your HR caves and evolve with technology. Abandon the inertia of outdated hiring practices and embrace a mathematically-certified solution that is able to support and reinforce your processes for the greater good. This is more of a political and social issue than anything else.

  5. Andrew Says:

    July 17th, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    I’m currently in this position, was hired specifically for analytics as they grow… and they are not ‘ready’. While they get ready to get ready… to get ready, I’m making lists of things I could help on, only to get rebuffed each time and met with the cone of silence.

    Even worse they ignore my reccomendations after I completed an HR mini data assignment with results that were faster than expected and now I am back doing low level work.

    I honestly think companies are scared to death of data, bad managers are filled with anxiety that their poor skills will be revealed. I’ve tried again and again to reassure them that I don’t want their job, just to help but no use.

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