Associate Professor Fiona Edgar
Head of Department of Management
The University of Otago
Technology has changed the way we practise Human Resource Management (HRM). The profession is steadily, but surely moving into a new era, with digitisation occurring across many of HRM functions. There is no doubt that the introduction of technology into processes surrounding the management of people in organisations has brought about an array of labour-related efficiencies. However, we must also be cognisant that by supplanting the human factor in HRM decision-making with technology, some inevitable issues will arise.
If we briefly overview how technology is changing the way we do things in HRM, one of the first things we observe is the wide variety of digital platforms and tools that are now available to assist the HR professional with workforce recruiting, selection, rewarding, training, development, and performance management. A closer look at recruitment and selection reveals that some organisations are embracing visual media not only as a technological means for proactively promoting themselves to prospective applicants (e.g., LinkedIn), but also as a sorting tool in the selection process (e.g., one-way interviews). Supplementing use of this technology, we find utilisation of artificial intelligence (AI) is on the increase, with this commonly used as a first-phase screener for assessing cover letters, applications and/or CVs in the selection process. The introduction of these technologies into the HR practitioner’s toolkit means that job seekers need to be savvier about how they opt to express themselves when using both written and oral mediums; if they don’t, they risk failing at the first selection hurdle.
The use of people analytics (PA) in workforce management is also becoming more common. PA can be utilised for the purposes of managing employees’ performance and surveillance. When it comes to performance management, these data help inform algorithms that are designed to nudge or shape desirable employee behaviours in the workplace (e.g., reminder emails to engage in an upcoming training or development programme). A subversive downside of using PA for this type of initiative is that employees are often unawares that they are being nudged to behave in a particular way (Tursunbayeva, Pagliari, Di Lauro & Antonelli, 2021). The pandemic has also put the spotlight on the use of PA technologies for surveillance and while it is not illegal for organisations to monitor, say the email interactions (e.g., administration or professional roles) or the locales (e.g., sales and delivery roles) of their employees, doing so has the potential to send a message that they are not trusted; this can detrimentally impact on job satisfaction.
These forms of digitisation briefly mentioned here have important implications for the HR professional. This is because replacing the human factor in people management with AI opens the door for inadvertent forms of discrimination to creep into HR processes. Illustrations of how AI can lead to inadvertent discrimination are evidenced in the highly publicised incidents related to Facebook and Amazon. Facebook was implicated in a legal stoush with T-mobile for their ad-targeting algorithm which discriminated against recipients based on age; here it was alleged that older Facebook users did not see the same job advertisements as young Facebook users. Similarly, when Amazon adopted a machine learning approach to their screening of applicants, it took several years before they discovered that the search engine’s algorithm was effectively discriminating against women.
What can we learn from current approaches to digitising HRM? To my mind, one of the key points is that while efficiencies for the organisation and also the HR practitioner are able to be readily generated, we need to be mindful of some of the potential pitfalls. The experiences of Facebook and Amazon highlight the unanticipated issues that can emerge from the use of AI and, assuming we don’t replicate these same mistakes, some of the human aspects tied to these processes need to be retained. Possibly, introducing new digital technologies alongside of traditional organisational processes, thereby providing the organisation with an opportunity to evaluate and compare the outcomes of both, would help ensure this.
Tursunbayeva, Aizhan, Claudia Pagliari, Stefano Di Lauro, and Gilda Antonelli. (2021). The ethics of people analytics: risks, opportunities and recommendations. Personnel Review. https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/PR-12-2019-0680.