Industrial and Organizational Psychology at LinkedIn (feat. Eric Knudsen)
Alumni Aloud Episode 60
Eric Knudsen earned his PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the Graduate Center and is now a Lead Researcher at LinkedIn.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Eric Knudsen talks to us about how he uses data to help people find fulfilling work and companies improve their employees’ experiences. He also discusses the importance of following up with employers during the hiring process and current trends in employee burnout connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts or your preferred podcast player.
VOICE-OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by graduate students for graduate students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
SARAH HILDEBRAND, HOST: I’m Sarah Hildebrand. I’m a PhD candidate in English at the Graduate Center and a Fellow in the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. In this episode of Alumni Aloud I interviewed Eric Knudsen who graduated from our PhD program in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and is now a Lead Researcher at LinkedIn. He’s going to be talking to us about how he uses data to help people find fulfilling work and companies improve their employees’ experiences, the importance of following up with employers during the hiring process, and trends in employee burnout connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, to get us started Eric, would you mind giving us an overview of LinkedIn’s mission and what your role is there?
ERIC KNUDSEN, GUEST: Yeah, sure. First, it’s great to be here and I appreciate you connecting with me on my experience. So yeah, LinkedIn is a professional social networking platform a lot of your listeners might have profiles or apply for jobs on LinkedIn. In fact, about 3 people are hired into new jobs on LinkedIn every minute so it’s quickly becoming a one stop shop for a lot of job seekers. And more specifically I work on a LinkedIn product called Glint, which was acquired in 2018. And Glint is a platform that allows companies to use surveys to understand how employees are feeling, how the companies can improve their employees experience, and then actually take action on those opportunities.
So, when you look at the vision of these two entities, the LinkedIn vision is to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce and Glint’s vision is to make people happier and more successful at work. So, when you combine these visions quite ambitiously it’s essentially to create happiness, success, and economic opportunity and we do that of course by helping people find fulfilling work that complements their skills and helping companies create fulfilling work experiences by bringing together job needs with candidates who fit those needs. And there’s really no one better to do that then LinkedIn with 600 plus million members and Glint understanding how millions of people are feeling about their jobs and companies every day.
So that’s LinkedIn and Glint, and for me specifically I lead research for the Glint product to help us understand the fulfillment side of this equation. So, I leverage hundreds of millions of data points that we’ve collected on employee experience and conduct research on and explore what the state of that experience is in a global workforce. So, are employees feeling connected to their peers? Are they feeling inspired by their company’s mission? Do they trust their senior leaders or their peers or managers? And, even more recently, are they feeling burnout as a result of all the changes we’ve seen in the workforce over really the last year now as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
So, I spend a lot of my time tackling research questions related to these issues and then sort of lastly, I also think about future opportunities to join Glint and LinkedIn data. So, for example, what if we could look at the match of your skillset, Sarah, and the typical skills ideal for the job you’re in, and then determine how the overlap between the skills you have and the skills you should have or skills you need, how does that gap or overlap impact your experience of that job. Could we help you or your company identify those gaps, recommend any trainings and hopefully improve the fulfillment you get out of your work? These are the problems we’re actually thinking through today and into the future. So that’s sort of a long-winded summary of my role and also the business that I serve.
HILDEBRAND: That’s great. That’s super interesting and we really do encourage all our students to have LinkedIn accounts. So, it’s interesting to hear what’s going on at LinkedIn on kind of the backend. So, thinking about how you got started in all of this, what made you interested in the field of psychology and your particular subfield, and how did you get involved in, I guess we would say, the field of people analytics?
KNUDSEN: Yeah, yeah. So, as you highlighted at the beginning, my degree is in Industrial Organizational Psychology or I/O Psychology for short. And that is essentially the application of Psychology to workplace problems. So, it’s not therapy in the workplace, but rather it’s the study of human behavior and motivation as it applies to our work. How do we find the right people for the job? How do we motivate and excite them about their work? Unfortunately, even among Psychology students today, the mention of I/O is still often a footnote or a small paragraph in psych textbooks. So, we’re still figuring out how to grow our presence and awareness in the broader field of Psychology.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, actually, how did you find out about I/O Psych to begin with? Because I know you have a pretty strong background in I/O Psych.
KNUDSEN: Yeah, so I took my first I/O course in undergrad at University at Albany, but actually next to courses like abnormal and developmental psychology, which a lot of people think of as more traditional applications of psychology, I/O can sometimes seem quite dry when it’s right next to those other subdisciplines. You’re in college you probably haven’t held a salaried job yet, so it’s a little hard to relate to. How or why you might want to apply these principles in the workplace. So, I actually started at the Grad Center in the School Psychology PhD program. And after my first year I had the opportunity to transfer and I took that opportunity because I realized after spending some time in that program that a lot of my interests in the field of education were actually more organizational in nature. They were more sort of structural and about how the institution of education operates.
And then those same interests scale more broadly to workplaces in general and organizations. So, I took the leap, switched over to I/O. I was also a bit closer to the workforce then and starting to understand how I/O could be impactful in everyday work. We spend about a third of our lives in our jobs and so it was an exciting prospect to maybe have such an impact through, at the same, this little-known field. So yeah, so back in 2012 I switched to the I/O program and I never looked back.
HILDEBRAND: That’s great. It seems like you found the right path for you.
HILDEBRAND: So, how did you go from grad school to LinkedIn?
KNUDSEN: Yeah, so, I’ve held a couple roles during and after my time in grad school. When I first switched to the I/O program. I had started an Assistantship at CUNY’s Central Office where I supported a few initiatives for CUNY’s teacher education programs. And it was during my years at that job that I started cutting my teeth with data analysis and learning to code my way through those analyses. Coding was not a requirement of the job, but it was a skill I wanted to pick up and I had projects that created the space that allowed me to do that. So, I was fortunate to have that space to do that learning because I realize now that I reflect that it was really pivotal as a launchpad for my analytics skills.
So, I was going through grad school and in 2015, right after I’d finished comps, I took my first I/O job at JetBlue Airways and it was at JetBlue that I was on a team responsible for developing assessments used to hire into their frontline roles. So, when you go to the airport and you fly JetBlue, it’s likely that most of the people you encounter from gate agents to flight attendants to pilots, even the ground operations crew officers you see on the tarmac, it’s likely all of them took a test developed by that team to get the job. So, I spent some time there helping and really learning about the process of building tools that identify the right skills for the job.
And one of the most rewarding projects I worked on there, which I like to talk about, was the launch of a program called Gateway Select. The goal of which was to identify non-obvious but high potential candidates for pilot jobs. So, pilots normally put themselves through flight school and then proactively apply to airlines. But some people don’t have the means, the money, or the support they need to go this route. But they might have grown up watching planes take-off and land as a child, but just didn’t have the resources to go to flight school. And so, my teams’ work for Gateway Select involved designing a bunch of tests to identify if a person had the fundamental skills to succeed as a pilot even if they had never sat in a cockpit before. And if they passed those tests and if they moved through the rest of this rigorous selection process, JetBlue would support them through flight training with the hope that they’ll ultimately be able to fly for JetBlue after training. It was a really really rewarding experience there.
After JetBlue, I moved into the tech industry at an HR software company called Namely, and it was there that I got to build an analytics function from the ground up. So, I got to do things like improve hiring and performance review processes with data. For example, we started collecting what are called quality of hire data, which are basically reflections that managers make on their own hiring decisions. And then we connected that data to things like how the candidate found us say through our website, LinkedIn, or perhaps they were referred by another employee. And the goal here is of course to identify key sources of top job candidates so that we can double down on those sources and ensure that we continue hiring the best talent we can find out there. So that was my time at Namely. And then just about a year ago I moved to LinkedIn to kick off this research work for the Glint group, which I’ve spoken a bit about already. So that was my journey from really the start of grad school to where I am today.
HILDEBRAND: That’s great. And that’s so cool that you’re really seeing the behind the scenes of the hiring process. We’re all kind of looking at it as job seekers but you know what the managers are thinking about and how they’re kind of selecting candidates.
KNUDSEN: Yeah, yeah, it’s been fascinating both as a job applicant, because of course I still apply to jobs and go through hiring processes, and also yeah to help design effective hiring processes on the backend.
HILDEBRAND: And how did you find some of those jobs? Did you network your way in? Did you have a LinkedIn profile? Did you search job boards?
KNUDSEN: Great question. So, most of my professional experience has come to me through my network, which I value the people in my professional network immensely. Not just because I work with these people and solve problems with these people, but because there’s so many wonderful people in the field that I feel like I become a better professional and honestly a better person by keeping in touch with these folks. Especially during challenging times like now.
So, it’s been a lot of leveraging my network. Namely—when I want to the company Namely—that was something that I had pursued myself because I was interested in taking a step back and wanting to build an analytics function, an analytics process, from the very beginning from the ground up and I knew that I wanted that experience to help lay the foundation for my later career. So that was something I pursued on my own. But it definitely did come through… some of my experiences come through my network. And I would encourage all graduate students to think about that. Expand your networks outside of just your graduate school colleagues or professors because not only will you learn from these people but you never know when an opportunity arises that you know can help elevate your career.
HILDEBRAND: That’s great advice. Start networking, network early, and network broadly so that you can kind of figure out what all is out there and hopefully it will help you accomplish what you set out to.
KNUDSEN: Yeah, and you know, LinkedIn is a good tool to do that. Shameless plug. I strongly encourage something that some people are not super comfortable with, which is basically cold reach outs to people on LinkedIn. That doesn’t mean going and connecting with everyone you find, but if you read abut a company or a job somewhere that you thought was really cool or you want to learn more about, it’s always worth trying to reach out. Send a message to someone on the team that you read about or anyone at the company that you read about that might be interested in speaking to you and teaching you a bit more about what they’re doing there. You know, even if they don’t necessarily have a job posted, number one, you’ve made a connection, number two, you’ve learned a bit more about that thing you thought you were interested in. Maybe you learned it’s actually not for you. Maybe you learned it’s definitely for you. And you’ve got nothing to lose. It might be a little uncomfortable approaching a stranger in this way, by sending them a message, and there’s of course always a chance they don’t respond, and that’s okay. You know, that’s okay. That’s part of the challenge of these reach outs. But whenever somebody does respond, it’s often because they’re happy to speak with you and talk about their work. So, there’s really nothing to lose. You never know how valuable it could be to connect with someone that you may have no other way of connecting with.
HILDEBRAND: What would you say in a LinkedIn message if you were trying to connect with someone? What’s the best way to get a response do you think?
KNUDSEN: Yeah, great question. So, you know it depends on what the driver behind your sort of cold email cold message is. Say you read an article about or a blog post about the… in my world maybe the data science team at this company. They did something really cool to… really impactful to improve the diversity of their hiring pipeline and the article didn’t give you quite all the detail you wanted. You’re really interested in thinking about this problem or maybe you’re already at a company and you’re thinking through the same problem yourself and you really want to bounce ideas around. You might open up by, number one, pointing out that you read about that team or that person or that company in this article. You might link to that article or blog post so they know where you got that information from. And simply follow up by saying I’m really really fascinated by the work you’re doing. It’s really cool and really high impact and happening at a really important time. I’m thinking through these same problems myself and I would love to spend a little time learning about how you approach this problem, the obstacles you overcame to get there. And just, you know, approach this message with an authenticity that I think a lot of people will find sincere enough to inspire a response. You know, it’s all about genuine interest. People can of course sense when you’re interested only in a job. And that should not be your goal here. Your genuine goal should be I want to learn more so I can better my own skills or better my own experience. If something more comes of this great, but that should not be the top objective of this informational interview request basically.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, the job might be the ultimate end goal, but it’s not where you start with in networking. It’s just gathering information and seeing if it is something, you’re interested in doing and connecting with someone.
KNUDSEN: And remember, if I reach out to one person and they’re open to speaking with me about how they solved this problem, maybe down the line I end up in the interview process somewhere else at a totally different company and they ask me how could you think through this job or how would you tackle this problem. You’ve now spent some time with another professional who actually tackled that problem; you have an idea to present in that interview that maybe you wouldn’t have otherwise have had. And it’s really important to expand the range of ideas that we’re exposed to and these reach outs are a great way to do that. And just remember that it benefits you in more ways than one, more ways than just by maybe landing you a job someday.
HILDEBRAND: That’s helpful and you just brought up interview processes, which I think is another important thing to cover because a lot of our students are used to thinking about the academic job market and thinking about the timeline of that which is many many months and they’re familiar with the different interviews you might go through, but what happens when you’re looking for an industry job? How long did it take you to get jobs kind of from the application part to interviews to the initial offer? And what was that like? How many interviews did you have to have?
KNUDSEN: So, this will vary widely depending on how well-oiled a company’s hiring process is. Some companies are really smooth; they’ve done this hundreds or thousands of times and you’ll sense that while you’re in the process. It’s like you always know where you stand in the process, you know what the next step is. And then there are companies that are still figuring out what their best process looks like and that might be a little, might feel a little clumsier. As a candidate you might have to do a little follow up to know where you’re at or when you can expect to hear about next steps. So, a lot of variance there. I would say a typical hiring process for a candidate will be at least a few weeks, especially in the tech industry, you’re likely to do multiple rounds of interviews and probably have to complete some kind of applied exercise relevant to the job. So, in my case it has often been some kind of data analysis and maybe a presentation on top of that of the results. If it’s a sales-related job it might just be a presentation or learn about this product and pitch it to us. You can see how that would be relevant for a sales role. And for other jobs it might be a simple knowledge test that tests your fundamental understanding of some of the basics of the job.
So yeah, these tools are called case studies or often work sample tests and that is likely to come probably midway through the process. Throughout the interviews from beginning to end, you’re probably going to speak with a recruiter, the hiring manager—that’s the manager that you’ll eventually report to—maybe a peer who is going to be on your team and possibly someone from an entirely different team, sometimes called the cross-functional interview. And your case study or work sample will be sprinkled somewhere in there in the middle. And one thing I’ll add on top of that is, while right now I’m sure all of these interviews are remote, previously at some point in the process you would be brought on site and you would probably have multiple interviews in a single afternoon. So that might be the day that you meet a hiring manager, a cross functional peer, and then maybe a peer from your team as well. Sometimes the work sample is on-site as well. So, you can see how there’s a range of different experiences and a range of different lengths, but you can reliably expect multiple interviews and possibly that applied exercise.
HILDEBRAND: That sounds like a fairly rigorous process.
KNUDSEN: Yes. The more rigorous the better, the more likely the company can ensure it’s the right fit not just for them but for the job candidate. And one thing I’ll add is sometimes I think people who are just entering industry can you know be a little timid about sending follow-ups to ask about next steps or what can I expect. And there’s no harm in ever doing that. In fact, sometimes if the candidate falls through the cracks a little bit—which they shouldn’t but, they do—the company may not send you or be clear about what the next step is right away. There’s no harm in firing off an email after an interview to ask, “Oh, we didn’t talk about next steps, when can I expect to hear from you guys next?”
HILDEBRAND: That’s good advice, because I think occasionally there is some ghosting that happens and you just need to follow up a little bit.
KNUDSEN: Yes, and that ghosting happens on both sides of the relationship. I think unfortunately employers or the hiring companies who don’t have those processes down don’t do the right thing and don’t update candidates on when they’ve been removed from the process. That’s not best practice by any means, but it does happen and that’s why following up is so important—so you can get clarity there. But then ghosting also happens on the candidate’s part—if maybe a candidate decided they’re no longer interested in the job. It always helps to let the company know so that they don’t invest too much time in trying to follow up and pursue you when you know you’ve moved on.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, it works both ways. So, if students are interested in applying to jobs either in I/O Psych or even at LinkedIn, what are some things that they could do to make their applications stand out?
KNUDSEN: Really important stuff. So I could say all the typical things here, like learn to code, join a research lab, etc. But I think there’s one really important thing that comes to mind that is a little I would say even more important and that people think about a little less. So when I review resumes to hire, I am instantly impressed if you can point me to a place, say online, where you’ve uploaded personal projects that show your interest in learning about the discipline or possibly independent research you’ve done say with a dataset that you found online. It demonstrates real authentic passion for the work. You know that you think about these problems even when you’re sitting around at home.
And you can also be crafty about how you gain some of this project experience. For example, I like to encourage people and grad students to go find a gig through the Taproot Foundation. I never did this myself, but I wish that I did. Taproot is an organization that connects volunteers, like grad students, with nonprofits who need help with specific projects in areas like marketing, HR, strategy, finance, technology. And so, they’ll accept applications from volunteers and you’ll get matched up with a nonprofit who has a problem and would love a little bit of your time to think through those problems. It’s a great way to build your resume when you feel like it’s hard to get people to give you a chance if you don’t already have the experience. It’s like this cyclical problem—experience begets more experience. If you don’t have the experience to start, how do you get someone to take a chance on you. Organizations like the Taproot Foundation are helping volunteers and grad students do just that.
HILDEBRAND: That’s really interesting. That sounds like a good organization to get hooked up with. Something very practical that students can work on now. This is jumping around a little bit, but in your current job, what does a day in the life kind of look like? Do you mostly do the same things every day or do you have a lot of different projects?
KNUDSEN: Yeah, it’s different every day or every week depending on how long a specific project takes. There’s definitely no typical day. My research will vary depending on importance to not just the business but importance to the global workforce. So when COVID hit the US back in March, Glint focused a lot of attention on understanding: how are the changes we’re experiencing at work impacting employees? How are those changes affecting employees’ daily lives, their experiences of work?
And so, you know, if you had asked me in January February what I was working on, it was radically different from what I picked up in March, April, and beyond. We pivoted immediately to studying employee burnout as a phenomenon cause we saw a spike in burnout back in April. So COVID-19 hit in March; employees over the following month were sent home; different organizations at different times made that decision, and by April we were all dealing with the changes to not just our work lives but our home lives as well. So we saw a spike in symptoms of burnout in April. Then those actually subsided a bit over the summer, perhaps because we came into warmer weather and we all felt like we were getting adjusted to our work from home life. But then more recently at the end of August/beginning of September, we saw that go up again, quite dramatically even higher than in April. So what we’re actually seeing in burnout tracks pretty closely to the COVID-19 case rate we’re seeing at a national level. We’ve only looked at a national level to-date, but it’ll be quite interesting if and when we decide to look more regionally and more closely at just how closely tied is the experience of employee burnout to the state of the pandemic in a given place.
So, this is you know an example of a more recent focus of mine and just how quickly we can pivot from something we were working on before if this issue suddenly becomes important to the workforce. You know, our goal is to educate businesses and the workforce to or about the goings on in organizations. So we need to be ready to adapt and our research needs to be ready to adapt as well.
HILDEBRAND: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about the trends in burnout that are happening due to our current living circumstances. And it’s good that someone is researching that because we need some practical solutions to get out of it. And so all this has been great, you’ve covered a lot of good stuff for us today. Usually as a final question we like to ask if you have any last-minute advice for current students whether they’re in the Psychology program or grad school at-large. Is there anything you’d tell them to do now or anything you wish you’d known at the time?
KNUDSEN: Yeah. So, I would say the biggest thing is that we know doctoral studies especially is very theory heavy. And industry is often a little less theory heavy. And so, one bit of advice for current students no matter what field you’re in—if you think you might go applied or work in industry is basically for every major theory that you study and learn, I would encourage you to spend a little time writing an elevator pitch for that theory that your parents would understand. So, in industry, few people feel they have time to or even want to discuss theory in depth. That’s not universally true, but it’s often you’ll be working with people who haven’t studied theory to the depth that you have. So, in some ways you need sometimes like a trojan horse for theory in your work that is relatable and understandable by both technical and nontechnical audiences. And so, it pays for every major theory you study to just think about what’s my 30-second explainer of this for someone who has no idea what I do for a living. Because that’ll pay dividends later.
The second bit of advice is a little silly but important, and that is to really really enjoy grad school. The tough moments and the great moments. Build authentic relationships with your peers and your colleagues. Some of those people will be super important to you down the road. Sometimes for your professional well being, but other times just for your mental and emotional wellbeing as well. In grad school you solve problems together with these people that really like in many cases no one else in your life will ever understand. And that can be isolating. And so keeping these people in your lives to help think through problems or even just bounce ideas around can be really really important later in your career. So yeah, elevator pitches for theories and just build great relationships while you’re in school.
HILDEBRAND: Yeah, that’s great advice. Take advantage of grad school while you’re in it. It can be a good thing.
KNUDSEN: For sure, for sure.
HILDEBRAND: Well okay, Eric. Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us, it was super interesting to hear more about your work. And I want to thank you for coming in!
KNUDSEN: Thank you for having me. It was great to chat with you.
HILDEBRAND, VOICE-OVER: Thanks again to Eric for coming in to talk to us about how he’s put his degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology to work. The Office of Career Planning & Professional Development can help you decide what career path is right for you. Find a list of our upcoming events or make an appointment to speak with one of our career advisors at cuny.is/careerplan. You can also follow us on Twitter @careerplanGC. Thanks for listening.