Don’t forget the human in a world of AI

Recent reports have highlighted concerns about the risk to privacy and other rights of increasing monitoring via technology during the pandemic. We need to ensure there are sufficient checks and balances in the system so that technology doesn’t cause more problems than it solves.

no such thing as certainty


A report from the TUC last week highlighted concerns about the increasing role of Artificial Intelligence in monitoring workers. The report says workers believe this has increased during the pandemic in areas such as selecting candidates for interview, day-to-day line management, performance ratings, shift allocation and deciding who is disciplined or made redundant.

The TUC says that AI-powered technologies are currently being used to analyse facial expressions, tone of voice and accents to assess candidates’ suitability for roles. The report also highlights how AI is being used by employers to analyse team dynamics and personality types when making restructuring decisions.

It is worried that, without regulation, this could affect fairness at work and also undermine trust between workers and managers.

Last week also saw news of concerns about an Amazon tool – the AWS Panorama – which can be used to check if workers are wearing face masks and socially distancing. The tool can be plugged into internet protocol cameras that many employers use on their sites and there are worries that it could further boost workplace stress and undermine workers’ right to privacy and data protection.

Microsoft was also in the news over its plans to modify part of its Productivity Score feature in Microsoft 365 so that users can no longer be identified on an individual level. Critics had described the employee tracking function as a “full-fledged workplace surveillance tool.” The feature enables employers to track the day-to-day activities of workers, including how much time individuals were spending online and how often they were sending emails, in order to “accelerate digital transformation” and “provide insights into how your organisation works.” Microsoft’s head of Microsoft 365 Jared Spataro described the decision to modify the feature in a blog post: “These changes to the product will bolster privacy for end users, while still enabling IT professionals to measure and manage their organisation’s adoption of the productivity apps and services in Microsoft 365.”

More data

Data is a huge issue in HR and can be used to boost moves towards greater equality in the workplace. The ability to measure who views job ads, who applies, who gets promoted and why they leave is vital to understanding what barriers may be holding people back in the workplace and to creating processes, practices and general awareness around how to address them.

Yet our ability to get data on just about anything could, like everything, be open to misuse. There are reports that increased homeworking during the pandemic has been accompanied by a rise in remote monitoring tools. Those employers who have pioneered flexible working have always emphasised the need for mutual trust in the relationship between employers and employees. Micro-managing of employees undermines trust and demotivates people, with a consequent impact on productivity. Management by fear is not sustainable.

Access to data will be an increasing feature of HR in the future. The Cognizant Center for the Future of Work and Future Workplace’s recent report outlines 21 HR jobs of the future, including a human-machine teaming manager who manages teams which include robots and humans and an HR data detective. We need, however, to be aware of the potential downsides of technology and take a balanced approach, ensuring the requisite checks are in place.  Indeed one of the future jobs outlined in the report is a human bias auditor or an algorithm bias officer. This is someone who will respond to the fact that algorithms will become more critical to business success and concerns that they don’t have built-in biases.

In all the interest in and enthusiasm for data, it is vital that HR doesn’t lose site of the H part of its role. Technology is an enabler and in a working world of more AI it will be nurturing what sets us apart as humans that gives employers the cutting edge.

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