Hidden Figures, Hidden Talent

hidden figures hidden talent.jpg

One of the challenges of talking, writing, consulting, or teaching about IO Psychology is the difficulty that lay people (i.e. company stakeholders, students, my parents and family) have in understanding the value of what we bring to the workplace. I often try to use films and TV shows as examples. My closest friends know that I love films and television. My wife and I enjoy going to the local multiplex to see what’s playing. We recently watched Hidden Figures, a terrific film about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson and their work at NASA. The film illustrated their difficulty in being noticed by the establishment at NASA during the space race. During this difficult time when the United States needed all the science and engineering talent it could muster, those in charge at NASA seemingly ignored these individuals because they were African-American and female.


Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons play three supervisors in the film and as I was watching I was flabbergasted by each character's’ decision to discount the evidence of their own eyes. Each of these supervisors lessened what they saw in their employees’ positive work performance. Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) both ignored high quality performances because of demographic characteristics. The first such example in the film is that of Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) who had spent a year working as a supervisor and yet could not receive the official designation and title. Vaughan had obviously excelled and succeeded in the role but her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell would not budge on the issue of her promotion. Katherine Johnson fared no better. As a woman who excels at math and science she is subtly ignored by men in the workforce due to gender stereotypes. Add her status as an African-American to the mix and no wonder she’s often ignored by the other staff members in the NASA computing division. While these actions are perhaps more prominently delineated because this is a PG-rated Hollywood family film taking place during the racially charged 1960's, the underlying idea rings true.  


While such explicit bias isn’t as common in the modern era I wonder how often subtle bias affects managers and decision makers in talent management. Perhaps it's not even bias but organizational politics or an inability to see what’s in front of us. Imagine looking at Lebron James and saying “he’s not good enough for my team” or looking at Stephen Hawking and saying “he’s disabled, I don’t think he can do physics research.” The film illustrates the active process by which those in authority can ignore true talent even if it sits in front of them.

Truth and Talent

As an IO Psychology practitioner, a professor, and a consultant I treasure the truth. Watching Hidden Figures reminded me how far people can sometimes go when it comes to ignoring the truth. There are social, cultural, and political reasons why this happens. We see these distortions in the form of commonly held stereotypes. Stereotypes that continue to threaten potentially talented individuals from pursuing leadership roles,  pursuing STEM careers, or even envisioning their own ability to achieve. As a social scientist, a teacher, and a consultant I cannot allow these types of untruths to continue unabated. We need to stand up for the truth which is that qualified individuals of every demographic category need opportunities to succeed. If we commit to this as a field and as a community then we can start to honestly address these issues and design interventions and solutions that allow organizations to thrive while allowing people from diverse backgrounds to succeed. Science is about striving to look for the truth and in IO psychology we try to identify the truth in people’s abilities and design solutions to put people in the right jobs where they can succeed.

What can be done?

If human judgment, intuition, and gut instinct have multiple issues  then what can be done? Just like with any other decision in life, a decision about promotion, selection, and termination should be made using tools. Tools before the days of IO psychology included asking a friend or seeking out an expert, perhaps getting a recommendation. In the age of the internet and the mobile device think about the last time you made a decision about where to eat, what to buy, or who to date without referencing Yelp or Amazon reviews (Aziz Ansari writes about this process quite beautifully in Modern Romance).

IO Psychology and Human Resources Management research have helped the talent management field generate several tools that can be used for the process of selecting, training, promoting, and managing an employee. There are so many tools out there in the modern era that the process of ignoring a talented employee because of gender, race, or religion seems unfathomable. Yet it continues to happen.


As a front-line, mid-level, or hiring manager you have the power to use these tools to make better decisions. Here’s some general advice about how to avoid missing out on hidden talent.


  1. Discuss the job requirements with your HR and recruiting teams. In the selection process make it clear to your HR and recruitment teams what you’re looking for. Be sure to include the results of a job analysis so that the requirements of the job are clear to all involved in the hiring process.

  2. Use psychometrically valid tools that assess the job requirements. Make sure that the tools that you’re planning on using measure the real job requirements. If your organization uses an observation checklist then make sure that observers are looking for those behaviors that are actually part of the job that lead to organizationally valued results. If your organization uses a work sample test or an interview make sure that those tools assess the necessary skills for the job. Make sure that your organization knows how to use these tools as well. Ask consultants or test developers about how these tools ought to be used.

  3. Reflect on your processes. Even if your organization has matched job requirements to hiring and performance appraisal systems, it’s important to look at the organization as a whole. Are there gaps that exist in your organization in terms of diversity? Does your organization promote diversity effectively. Without an honest self reflection organizations can have situations of disparate impact Even psychometrically valid tools are built by humans and can sometimes have bias built into them inadvertently. If you don’t reflect on these processes you can miss errors that are being made.

  4. Recognize that the process is iterative. You and your organization may not get it right straight away. The goal is to keep working towards developing fairer hiring and promotion practices because these practices do lead to better business results and create a more just world.

Finally, I want to leave you with a reminder that even if you do put in your due diligence you might miss top talent. Remember Tom Brady was drafted in the 6th round of the NFL draft. Those teams didn't miss his talent for lack of trying. As HR, IO Psychology, and talent management professionals it’s up to us to stay committed to searching for talent everywhere so that our organizations can be more effective and bring about a more just world. The lesson of Hidden Figures isn't that talent was hidden but that it was ignored.


The real Katharine Johnson

The real Katharine Johnson



Post-SIOP 2016 Reflection


I had almost forgotten to write my post SIOP 2016 thoughts until I came across this set of pictures from the 2016 conference. SIOP 2016 still feels like a whirlwind and while I made it to many sessions, I did not attend as many as I would have liked.  Here are my thoughts after experiencing IO psychology’s biggest annual conference:

1)      Data science- Data science was one of the prominent themes at this year’s SIOP conference. I attended a number of sessions about machine learning, big data, deep learning and related topics. There seemed to be much concern among session attendees that IO psychology was falling behind in the area of statistics and data science.  However, as David Morgan from Facebook stated it will take data scientists much longer to learn psychology then it will for IO psychologists to learn data science. Ultimately, big data, deep learning, and machine learning are newer techniques that IO psychology practitioners and academics are in a unique position to take advantage of.  IO practitioners are poised to take the lead in workplace research. We just need to learn how to leverage these new tools and techniques to generate new insights.

2)      Translators- Many of the sessions I attended and many of the conversations that I had with friends, colleagues, and students were around the increased attention on our field. Whether that attention has come from the work of Lazlo Bock, Adam Grant, or the Re:Work initiative. This increased interest in our field means that we have a unique opportunity to effectively communicate the fundamental ideas of IO psychology to our students, clients, and stakeholders. Whether it was a panel on survey design, situational judgment tests, or data analytics, speakers focused on the importance of IO psychology practitioners’ ability to communicate to those outside of our field. There was great excitement about new journals such as Bowling Green’s Personnel Assessment and Decisions. This journal's primary objective is to bridge the gap between science, practitioners, and business stakeholders. The message from SIOP 2016 was clearer than ever: we must all advocate for evidence-based management.

3)      Technology- There were many panels on technological innovations that were shaping the way we have done traditional IO work. Whether it was mobile pulse surveys, web-based simulations or e-learning we are finding new ways of using our methods and assessments. You couldn't walk around the SIOP exhibition hall without seeing new and exciting tools for simulations or assessment centers. This is an exciting time to be in the field because we are able to collect data using these technologies which will ultimately help us develop even more robust tools and statistical techniques. 

4)      ‘Classic' Methodology- Even though we are seeing innovations in the amount of data, technology, and demand for IO services there was a sense at this year’s SIOP that we have to stay true to ourselves. That we need to remain true to what we know about selection, training, performance management, and organizational development. None of the technological innovations are changing what constitutes good science. Nor does it change our goals as IO psychology practitioners but the technology does expand our tool box and may help us become more efficient.

5)      Teaming up- If it’s good enough for the Avengers then its good enough for SIOP! It was wonderful to see that SHRM was a sponsor of this year’s conference. It was also exciting to hear about the many wonderful local IO groups that have been recently formed around the country. My local IO group, Metro, had a strong presence at the conference this year and I learned from some of my co-panelists about local IO groups in Dallas, DC, and Minnesota. These partnerships and organizations (at the local and national level) will only help to strengthen the field of IO psychology and help us make an even greater impact in the workplace. It’s great to see SIOP take such a leading role at recognizing the benefits of partnership and collaboration.

6)      The expanding scope of IO Psychology- When I first started studying IO psychology in 2007 I initially felt that our science’s only application could be found in corporate America. Over the years, I have learned otherwise. IO psychology’s principles of methodological rigor paired with evidence-based decision making can be found in the worlds of market research, program evaluation, healthcare (just to name a few applications). One of the most exciting areas is the work of the Global Organization for Humanitarian Work Psychology. The GOHWP is a coalition of individuals from low- to high-income countries devoted to the field of humanitarian work psychology “whose purpose is to further the synthesis of organizational, industrial, work, and other areas of psychology with deliberate and organized efforts to enhance human welfare”.  The GOHWP provides our field an opportunity to extend our science into unforeseen areas of practice. IO psychology has much to offer non-profit and governmental organizations. The work of the GOHWP includes expanding research into areas involving different samples (i.e. Nicaraguan garment workers) working in varied organizations (businesses, governments, and non-governmental organizations) and using research science to tackle real-world issues (i.e. employability, poverty). Talent Metrics proudly offers its services to local non-profit organizations in NY and Florida. GOHWP is a wonderful endeavor and it continues to grow year after year. Ashlee Hoffman, Dr. Stuart Carr, and Laura Sywulak of GOHWP lead a lively discussion at the GOHWP SIOP party. There are exciting Humanitarian Work Psychology initiatives happening at organizations like the  UN (and other non-profit organizations) that will allow IO practitioners to expand their skillset. If you are a student looking for an opportunity to practice what you learned in class, a practitioner looking to try your hand at a new challenge, or  an academic looking to conduct research in an exciting new area, humanitarian work psychology may have something to offer to you. Reach out to GOHPW on Twitter or at their website  to get involved!

These are my takeaways from SIOP, but I would love to hear yours! The time period right after the conference is when I’m most energized and excited about the field. Please post them in the comments below or send me a message on Twitter at @IOSyIslam