Employers Underuse ‘Big Data’

By Allen Smith Oct 19, 2015
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From hiring to meeting-planning to boosting worker productivity, “big data” can help employers in big ways.

Yet most employers have barely scraped the surface when it comes to mining big data, in part because they worry about invading employees’ privacy, according to Marko Mrkonich, an attorney with Littler in Minneapolis.

“How much more information do employers have about employees, who spend 40 hours a week with them?” asked Mrkonich, who noted that worksites gather tons of data on employees but let most of that data remain fallow. Employers “know more about their employees than they are using.”

What Is Big Data?

Big data is any source of information that is “either very large or high-velocity—updated rapidly,” said Zev Eigen, an attorney with Littler in Los Angeles, and the firm’s national director of data analytics.

Businesses could use big data to hire and retain the employees they want to recruit and keep, while still complying with privacy protections, Mrkonich asserted.

Traditionally, employers during the hiring process have considered what factors lead to success. In the new data-driven world, they can take into account things that successful people have in common, he said.

Say you’re looking at videos of interviews for potential job candidates, Eigen hypothesized. A company could run an algorithm comparing the microexpressions of job candidates with those of successful workers. This could help in the selection process.

Big data also can be used to predict the likelihood an employee will leave during the first six months on the job, he added.


Big data can identify when employees are most productive by looking at data from employee computers and phones. Then, meetings can be scheduled around the times that workers are most productive. Wasteful meetings can be scrapped, if big data builds a case for it.

A CEO who had a monthly meeting with high-ranking direct reports suspected that the meetings were a waste of time and money, Mrkonich said. The CEO had data run on how much the preparation for the meetings and the meetings themselves cost, and the total came to at least $50 million a year. Over five years, the meetings generated $100 million. By taking a snapshot of who attended the meetings, their salaries, the length of the meetings and what the meetings produced, big data was able to support the CEO’s hunch.

Big data also can build the case for encouraging more contact among staff. For example, one company discovered that workers who ate alone were less productive in the afternoon than those who ate with others. The lunchroom was reconfigured to encourage more interaction, Mrkonich recalled.

While there may be some discrimination concerns with the use of data analytics in the workplace (such as with cultural biases in microexpressions), big data can be used to remove bias from decision-making, Eigen observed. Algorithms can’t replace decision-makers, he said, but they can assist those individuals.

Suppose a manager is making 10 employment decisions in a row and factor number three emerges as important. Data analytics is a “great tool for taking so many factors into account simultaneously and weighthem over time” uniformly to remove bias from decision-making, he said. A manager applying the factors on his own might have difficulty doing so.


When it comes to the use of big data, HR professionals often encounter naysayers who maintain that there are too many risks, Mrkonich remarked. So expect some pushback on the use of data analytics, especially regarding privacy and discrimination concerns.

“Be open and transparent in the ways information is used,” said Eigen, who added that resistance tends to be rarer among Millennials, who have lower expectations about privacy since they are accustomed to apps that tap into their personal data.

It’s important that HR professionals embrace data analytics, even as they protect worker privacy and prohibit discrimination, he said.

He added that to account for the use of big data in the workplace, “the laws need to evolve” in the courts in response to any legal challenges.

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.

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