The Great Reshuffle of the labor market has businesses scrambling to attract new talent and retain workers. As employers introduce smart technologies to drive efficiency, they may stumble on a hidden layer of division in the workforce: some workers are comfortable having their resumes and workplace performance data read by artificial intelligence (AI) – and some workers are fearful of the use of smart technologies in their employment decisions. Approximately, 25% of workers fall into each camp, with the remaining 50% somewhat neutral, according to research from SAP SuccessFactors.
What the research suggests is that it will take a long time for workers to accept AI, indicating the heart of HR will continue to be human for the foreseeable future. Until AI gains wider approval, the burden will be on employers to demonstrate their commitment to ethical, transparent AI to ensure an inclusive employee experience.
Finding Fairness in Efficiency
“AI is not the entire future of HR,” cautioned Dr. Caitlynn Sendra, an experience product scientist at SAP SuccessFactors, where she studies how products influence the employee experience.
Sendra spoke at the annual conference of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychologists (SIOP) in Seattle on April 28, during the debate session “Robot or Not: Is AI the Future of HR?” She teamed up with Michelle Brown, chief operating officer at Pinsight, a provider of leadership development solutions, to argue the point of view of those who object to more AI in HR. Outside the debate arena, Sendra and Brown say they favor a more positive stance on AI and are keen to see the technology deliver on different use cases. This debate however left little room for compromise between pro and con.
The pro-AI arguments in this provocative debate centered on the ways AI can aid HR in achieving new levels of efficiency at greater scale. This is a hot topic in the talent acquisition space, where recruiters struggle with record volume and demanding metrics. However, seasoned HR experts say AI is no replacement for human judgement and strongly recommend a balanced approach in which AI is integrated as one tool within a holistic talent strategy.
“Whenever we’re talking about AI, there’s a big emphasis on efficiency, but my counterpoint to that is always, what about fairness?” Sendra said to the audience of mostly industrial and organizational (I-O) psychologists. “As psychologists, I’m sure we all know that perception of fairness also matters.”
Divided Perceptions: The Promoters and The Fearful
SAP SuccessFactors surveyed 1,378 workers in 14 countries to gauge their perceptions of how smart technologies, like AI and machine learning, are going to impact them in the workplace. This research revealed that 44% feel apprehensive, while others feel distress (26%) or fear (25%). In testing 22 use cases, less than 25% of employees could be considered “promoters” on a traditional net promoter score.
Many employees voiced that the use of physical, body-related data sources, like facial tracking or movement tracking, were particularly problematic. “Employees really expressed that they did not want these kinds of tracking technologies being used in their work,” Sendra said.
In High-Stakes Decisions, Who Do You Trust?
Some say what’s really missing from AI in HR is the nuance and emotional intelligence that is distinctly human. But is that such a bad thing?
“AI can be very good at relieving the mundane, repetitive tasks of HR professionals,” said Brown, who insists that HR needs a human heart. “But often on the other side of that repetitive mundane task is a person – a person in a high-stakes interaction about securing the job of their dreams or navigating confusing healthcare benefits for a sick family member.”
The counterargument to this important point is that unfortunately some people encounter bias or discrimination during these high-stakes interactions. In 2021, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received more than 61,000 reports of discrimination in the workplace, a reminder that not all workplaces are safe environments, where workers can place their trust in bias-free decision making.
Advocates of more inclusive hiring practices point to evidence that AI can filter out unconscious human biases in the hiring process, opening opportunity to members of underrepresented groups. A slew of new AI-powered solutions has sprung onto the market, promising improved efficiency and DEI outcomes for employers desperate to hire more diverse and qualified talent in a competitive labor market.
AI quickly becomes murky under scrutiny of the algorithms that power its decision-making, which can be rife with bias based on the historical training data that is fed into the system.
“This opens up that key ethical dilemma in AI and concerning automated decisions, where we can encounter bias because algorithms are programmed by human developers from human decisions of the past and often with incomplete data sets,” asserted Brown, echoing the words of mathematician Cathy O’Neil, who famously said, “Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.”
The legal and ethical landscape for AI is shifting rapidly in many key employment markets, as well. For example, the EEOC recently launched an initiative aimed at ensuring algorithmic fairness over concerns that these new technologies do not become “a high-tech pathway to discrimination.” Part of the EEOC’s initiative – and an indication of the complexity of the debate around AI – will be to examine “promising practices” for AI, as well.
Agreed: More Transparency Is Needed
As the debate at the SIOP conference drew to a close, the two teams reached something close to an agreement about AI in the future of HR. “AI is appropriate for some cases,” concluded the objector team. “What’s needed is to open the black box and provide the data and explainability.”
“On opening the black box, I can agree with you,” declared the pro team in a moment that felt close to finding common ground.
Beyond opening the black box, employers can take additional steps to improve employees’ experiences with intelligent technology, according to research from SAP SuccessFactors: providing evidence to show that algorithms are unbiased, establishing regulatory bodies such as an AI ethics committee, explaining the benefits of the technology, and allowing employees to correct information generated from algorithms.
The takeaway for employers is that transparency and care will be key to providing inclusive, ethical AI as part of the employee experience. AI will be integrated and accepted into the workplace at a different pace compared to other technologies. Not all workers are going to be ready at the same time. In the meantime, perhaps we need to consider what we are giving up and what are we gaining as AI enters HR.
The research from SAP SuccessFactors referenced in this presentation will be available on its public research page in the upcoming months.