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The HR view on employee data gathering

Never forget those numbers are human beings

“From the point of view of an HR leader, it’s a compelling proposition – having the ability to use data to influence dynamics in the workplace or to help people focus on their wellbeing. It can be positive for the enterprise and the individual.

But there is a flipside. Put yourself in the shoes of your employees. Such tools can trigger mixed emotions. On the one hand, it can seem the employer is looking out for me; but on the other, decisions could be made that could have a negative impact on my life. I could be in a group that an algorithm classes as high risk.

There’s a huge responsibility for HR leaders. They need to think critically about how these algorithms are built. We risk giving lots of power away to algorithms. A recent study described how an algorithm looking at attrition worked out those living further away from the office were more likely to leave, but what it didn’t know was those living further away were likely to be from less advantaged backgrounds. The company risked discriminating against people just because the algorithm told it to.

Done right, people analytics can help you get ahead of the problem. When I worked at IBM, we used sentiment analysis to get our finger on the pulse of the organisation. Once, there was a policy change which said consultants weren’t allowed to get Uber trips reimbursed. A consultant wrote [on the internal social network about this being a bad idea], and lots of people commented. The policy was reversed within 16 hours. It allowed leaders to get ahead of the issue.

Using such tools has to be transparent and employees have to be involved with the design. Once they are part of the design and they influence how things are built, they will curate the content.

In people analytics you have a different responsibility because those numbers are human beings. HR professionals should always think: ‘If I was the subject, the number at the end of the algorithm, how would I feel about the decision that was made?’ Think: will this decision humanise the workplace?”

Stela Lupushor is former director of workforce analytics at TIAA-CREF, and founder and chief re-framer at Reframe.work. She is speaking at Tucana's People Analytics Conference in April, on a panel about employee data gathering.

Further reading

The ethics of gathering employee data

Legal lowdown: Data gathering

21st century Taylorism: Today's information-gathering tools

DNA testing in the workplace