Could DNA testing be the key to developing talent?

DNA testing for ancestry and medical insights has become increasingly popular as the technology matures, but what impact could it have on talent development at work? Jo Faragher looks at the emergence of genetic assessments that can predict potential and help develop people’s careers. Are they an ethical minefield or the future of workplace assessment? 

Last year, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology revealed that athletes aiming to represent the country at the 2022 Winter Olympics would undergo genetic testing as part of the official selection process.

“Complete genome sequencing will be applied on outstanding athletes competing in the winter games for speed, endurance and explosive force, with at least 300 athletes in each group,” stated an official document. The belief is that coaches can detect certain academic prowess from someone’s genes and can then focus their training accordingly to build the best possible team.

To most people, this feels more like a scene from Brave New World than a contemporary, government-backed initiative. Yet the role of genetic analysis in our work and personal lives could be closer than we think.

Many of us will be aware of – or may have used – tests that can tell us about our ancestry or potential medical conditions from companies such as Ancestry.co.uk or 23andMe, but a handful of companies is now emerging that claim our DNA profile can predict our potential at work.

The process is the same, an individual provides a saliva sample that is sent to a laboratory. The lab isolates the genetic make-up from the sample and maps this against a huge database of DNA markers that, in combination, may be linked to certain ‘traits’ or talents.

Some companies marry this with other, more conventional psychometric or personality tests to build a bigger picture of how that person likes to work, what motivates them, and how their work environment has shaped them. The subject receives a report and follow-up call detailing the findings and how they might use them to develop themselves.

The rise of personal genomics

Last year, Blueprint, a book by Robert Plomin, explored the rise of so-called “personal genomics”, advocating how advances in genetic science mean we can now identify whether a newborn baby might be susceptible to depression, or prone to becoming obese in later life. Plomin argues that DNA analysis will not just be the preserve of medical research or Chinese sports coaches – it could also indicate potential for practical applications such as how good we are at maths or spatial awareness, or help guide children in the right career direction.

We can ask people if they’re still happy with the choices they made subconsciously earlier in their lives. When we look at behaviour the brain has a working model that deals with information that’s present , and a lot of it is based on assumptions that go back to our DNA, and have never been challenged” – Wouter van den Berg,  BrainCompass

Companies offering DNA-based assessments are part of this wave, essentially using big data analysis techniques that map an individual’s genetic sequence against thousands of data points from DNA databases. A certain combination of genes might, for example, be able to tell us if someone takes rejection easily, or is suited to leadership. “It gives you a total overview of all the talents at your disposal, including the hidden ones,” says Wouter van den Berg, founder of DNA-based assessment company BrainCompass. His company also runs tests for attachment styles, personality assessment and professional mindset.

“We can ask people if they’re still happy with the choices they made subconsciously earlier in their lives. When we look at behaviour the brain has a working model that deals with information that’s present, and a lot of it is based on assumptions that go back to our DNA, and have never been challenged,” he says.

Because our personalities are a mixture of nature and nurture, however, DNA can only ever point to potential – it can never 100% predict behaviour. Van den Berg describes this as the difference between “prediction and empowerment”. He adds: “We enter the process when an employee (sometimes with their employer) decides they want to make a next step to a new goal; we’re asked to provide the most efficient route to that goal.”

He says BrainCompass attracts two types of customers: “Those who are addressing a specific problem – they want to solve something particular or acute, help redefine their journey. Or they’re looking at their career from a broader perspective.

“Perhaps they’ve reached an age where they’re looking for a new career move, or they see a reorganisation on the cards.” By seeing traits they’re genetically predisposed to, such as risk-taking, they can use this knowledge to make decisions or choose a development path.

More broadly, this sort of analysis could be used to support societal change. “I’ve not found a single recruiter who’s not blown away by this,” says Bas van de Haterd, a consultant and speaker on recruitment innovation. “You could use it to see what sports might be good for your child, what type of education might suit them, whether to give them a book or encourage them to play football.” Imagine if we could define the gene sequence that made someone a paedophile, he suggests, and they could be prevented from working with children?

DNA and decisions

If this screams Minority Report rather than ethical workplace practice, then you’re not alone. Legal and assessment experts raise questions on the reliability of DNA to predict someone’s poptential, on consent and privacy issues around gathering data, and the ethical issues if an employer decides to use these insights to make decisions about someone’s career progression, future role or salary.

The most important issue will be consent, says Barry Stanton, head of employment at law firm Boyes Turner. “Will individuals consent to their DNA being taken and tested if that is going to result in decisions being taken about recruitment, promotion or training? If the ability to be promoted or even recruited is linked to a DNA test, then the individual is being given little option but to agree,” he argues.

“The risk then becomes that employees are, essentially, compelled to take a DNA test in the hope of advancement. That carries with it the risk that claims will follow from those who do not wish to undergo testing that the employer has destroyed the bond of trust and confidence.”

Companies come to us because their executives want to know what kind of leader they are – I worked hard, got the right education, got this position, but am I a good leader?” – Albert Akkermans, Goldmen Genetics.

Providers, for their part, emphasise that the tools should only be used by a consenting employee for their personal development purposes, and absolutely not for hiring or selection. Kyriakos Kokorris, CEO of Karmagenes, says many customers apply their findings to their personal lives rather than, or as well as, their careers.

“Customers get a 25-page report with a diagram of their traits, and an explanation of them,” he explains. “They also get a customised analysis based on their assessment profile with suggestions for how this can be applied to your personal life or to improve your wellbeing. For example, perhaps you want to be more spontaneous. If you have a low stress tolerance, how can we help you take more time to make decisions?”

Andrew Secker, principal associate at law firm Mills & Reeve, compares the growing interest in DNA analysis to the potential many employers saw in wearables a few years ago.

“Firstly, like wearable technology which came before it, this type of testing makes the results seem attractive,” he says. “Swap out ‘deliver a healthier, more productive workforce’ for ‘make smarter business decisions and maximise the natural strengths of your workforce’, and we’re hearing a message we’ve heard before.

“But just like wearable tech, an employer who wants to adopt this needs to work through the privacy aspects and the invasion of privacy this will generate,” he adds.

“The core problem here is there is highly likely to be a less intrusive way of obtaining the aim (making sound decisions), making the processing of this type of data inherently difficult.”

Jonathan Maude, a partner at Vedder Price, believes the main concern in exploring DNA-based assessment would be a breach of privacy rules, namely the General Data Protection Regulation.

“Because of the highly sensitive nature of this data, it requires a higher level of protection under GDPR,” he says. “The sensible way of looking at it is to ask what would we have in place to protect us if there were allegations of a breach? Is it encrypted?”

Kokorris acknowledges the data security risks and takes them very seriously. “When we take the sample, we apply cryptography, send it to the lab. There’s no way of the lab being able to connect it to one individual,” he says. “The data is deleted after six months and once the analysis is done it’s disregarded. The only thing that stays on our database is the report, and that can’t be related to an individual.”

Two other companies in this field, BrainCompass and Goldmen Genetics, are both based in The Netherlands, which passed its own data protection legislation in 2016 in advance of GDPR. BrainCompass’ platform received a full audit by the Dutch authorities, while Goldmen disposes of any DNA-related data once it has been analysed and requires employers to sign non-disclosure agreements if workers agree to undergo a test.

“Companies come to us because their executives want to know what kind of leader they are – I worked hard, got the right education, got this position, but am I a good leader?” says Albert Akkermans, founder of Goldmen Genetics.

“DNA analysis can take you to the next level. Someone might be a good entrepreneur, but once they’re managing 100 people are they still a good leader? They might be a great entrepreneur but not good at dealing with the day-to-day operations of the business that need to be done.”

Akkermans passionately believes that DNA analysis will change our lives as we learn more and more about how it shapes our potential. The Chinese government choosing to use genetic sequencing to build its Olympic team is just the start. “The next thing could be genetic modification. If you don’t have the ‘right’ DNA, can we change something? I think in two to three years we will be ready for this,” he says.

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But Ryne Sherman, chief science officer at Hogan Assessment Systems, argues that he could be overstating the workplace insights we can get from someone’s DNA.

“Genes play an important role in who we are but there is no evidence of a link between one single DNA structure and people’s personality traits. There’s no single gene for impulsiveness for example,” he says. “The effect of one could be tiny if not unnoticeable. The science just is not there yet to say with any confidence someone will behave a certain way because of their genes. Furthermore, what could be more personal than your DNA? It’s the most private data you own.”

Stanton adds that grouping traits in this way could also have unintended consequences, particularly if this science is ever applied to recruitment: “Relatively little is understood about how genes interact with each other and the impact of gene sequencing,” he says.

He’s concerned that ethnicity data could be extrapolated from individuals’ core characteristics and innate abilities and that that could pose a significant risk that stereotypical decisions will be reached.

“If, for example, a role required someone with an outgoing personality and the DNA results demonstrated that a person had 50% DNA from a grouping perceived to be more reserved, a refusal to appoint on that basis might result in a successful race discrimination claim on the basis of ethnic origins.”

Why so controversial?

But van den Berg from BrainCompass argues that sophisticated psychometrics tests already step into the sensitive data category that attracts greater protection under GDPR, so why should genetic testing for development purposes attract such fear?

Helen Jamieson from HR consulting and training company Jaluch makes the same point: “Interestingly, psychometric profiling in business is increasingly valued and respected, and not seen as particularly controversial.

DNA test

A doctor prepares to collect DNA.
Photo: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock

“Genetic testing is. Why is one viewed as personally intrusive while the other is not? Perhaps it’s because over time acceptability has increased as culture has moved towards a better understanding of, and focus on individual psychology. This might happen in due course with DNA testing.”

The data is deleted after six months and once the analysis is done it’s disregarded. The only thing that stays on our database is the report, and that can’t be related to an individual” – Kyriakos Kokorris, Karmagenes

In short – it should never be used as the sole deciding factor in any sort of career-related decision. “Danger lies in allowing this data, which is entirely objective in nature, to infiltrate into areas that require subjective considerations – such as hiring for certain roles,” says Sophie Rotwell from law firm Child & Child. “While data science can offer employers an abundance of opportunity, it is important not to let it inadvertently restrict or create unnecessary boundaries.”

The future of DNA-based assessment could well rest on how palatable it is to the general public, and the transparency of those offering it. If privacy is assured and people believe there is something positive in it for them, there could be a growing acceptance.

BrainCompass reports that around 7,500 people are using its platform, a quarter of whom are corporate clients. Around 1,000 have taken Karmagenes’ test. Not everyone has good intentions, according to van den Berg at BrainCompass. “We get calls once or twice a week asking whether the test can be used to downsize,” he says. “Firstly, we would never do this from an ethical standpoint and secondly there’s no data to suggest this would be accurate. This all stems from the idea, the myth, that DNA has some deterministic factors. You are not a product of your DNA, you’re a product of how your DNA interacts with everything else.”

He likens it to caterpillars and butterflies having the same DNA. “With talent development, we can help shape that interaction, help shape someone into a butterfly,” he concludes. Whether employers will be able to overcome their ethical and legal concerns over using employees’ genetic make-up to realise their potential, however, could be way over the horizon.

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