Space & Innovation

There Is No Leadership Gene

Science hasn't been able to reliably sort through the biological and environmental variables that distinguish what makes a person unique.

Despite internet applications, LinkedIn profiles, social media networking and hiring algorithms designed to crunch employment variables and spit out the perfect candidate, employers still spent 44 days on average in 2015 working to fill a job opening. Time is money, people. And 44 days spent choosing the exact wrong candidate is money out the window. If only there was a better way.

Last week, Gartner analysts David Furlonger and Stephen Smith presented an idea at a symposium for information technology executives that the company itself acknowledges as "maverick" - a future where genetics plays a bigger role in the hiring process.

Although federal and states laws prohibit employers from requesting or using an employee's genetic information, genetic testing is mainstream. Millions of people voluntarily pay to have their genomes analyzed thanks to inexpensive DNA kits available from companies like Ancestry DNA , Genome , 23andMe, Family Tree, to name a few. And research is moving forward in fields such as psychiatric genetics, trying to find correlations between genes and behavior.

"We fully appreciated the lack of legality and some of the issues with the science," Furlonger told Seeker by email. "Nonetheless, it seems clear that work is being undertaken and therefore the current state should not be ignored."

Imagine a future, where new products or services offer employers a way to genetically screen job applicants for traits such as honesty, leadership, being a team player, having a high level of emotional intelligence. Is it even possible?

"If I was a company and one of these people came to me offering to do genetic testing for screening potential employees, I would hold onto my wallet," said Jonathan Moreno, professor of ethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Very little behavior can be predicted from genetics, he said.

If physical characteristics, such as height and weight are influenced by a person's environment, then what could any genetic test predict about a person's leadership skills, their level of creativity or sense of humor? There are simply too many biological and environmental variables.

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Everything from "what proteins were you exposed to in the uterus to what TV shows do you like to watch to who are your friends and what do they like to eat?" said Moreno.

Those ingredients all play a role in what makes a person better at leading or following, and so far science hasn't been able to reliably sort through those variables and find correlations to personality traits.

"Why would an employer rely on imperfect, and generally weak, associations between genes and test scores instead of relying directly on the test scores?" said Henry Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University and the chair of steering committee of the Center for Biomedical Ethics.

It's like running, he said. Rather than look for genetic variations that indicate whether someone is a good sprinter or not, just watch a person sprint. That ought to tell you all you need to know.

Ok, let's just say that way, way out into the future, scientists are able to associate genes with personality traits. Wouldn't that be useful? No, said Eric T. Juengst, director of the UNC Center for Bioethics. All it does is give the employer information about the applicant's potential. It doesn't say anything about how the person used his or her potential.

"Maybe they've been using their talents to shirk responsibility," said Juengst.

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Genetic testing for job candidates reminds Moreno of the intelligence tests that were popular a hundred years ago, which didn't give employers an edge.

Employers would be better off putting a candidate in a role-playing situations where they could see how the person worked as a part of team or solved problems, said Moreno.

But that method is labor-intensive for the employer, who is no doubt looking for the fastest, least costly method for finding the perfect employee.

All of this conjecture may be pointless because, at least in the United States, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 prohibits employers from requiring a person's genetic information and using it - if they obtained it in some other manner - to make decisions about hiring, firing, job assignments or promotions.

Last spring, Senator Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) introduced a bill for the Genetic Research Privacy Protection Act, to strengthen privacy protections for anyone who submits genetic information as part of a medical research study. Not only would it protect individuals who submit their DNA, but also their families. Because in the end, genetics are about more than one person.

"When you are disclosing a piece of genetic information about yourself," said Jeungst, "you are also disclosing it for your parents and your children and your siblings, who may or may not want that information out there."

To be fair, the Gartner analysts presented their idea to provoke discussion, saying it had a low probability of happening. For now, the prospect of using a genetic test to select a potential job candidate does not seem to be in our future. But Furlonger thinks both scientists and executives should keep an open mind.

"Think about all those scientists who were adamant that the concept of brain plasticity was wrong or didn't exist," he wrote. "It seems to me a fixed mindset is a risky attitude when faced with technological development."

H/T Computerworld