Andrea Winfield: Why HR & ethics are crucial for AI’s unknown future

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Andrea Winfield: Why HR & ethics are crucial for AI’s unknown future

Human Resources is unique because it’s one of the few departments to impact and shape the entirety of an organisation. It is also hugely important as it shoulders the responsibility of maximising the success of a business, by optimising the wellbeing and effectiveness of its employees.

This is why Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD, says:

If you imagine a business as an arrow shooting towards an AI-augmented future, the HR team forms the point, determining the speed and direction of travel. Alongside the broader business, HR has the opportunity to unite employees around the exciting possibilities of AI and the future of work.

Quite rightly, there’s a great deal of positivity out there, about the power and potential of AI to improve our working lives. But there is also fear – of change, and ultimately, of unemployment. The truth is, we simply don’t yet know for sure what the long-term impact of AI will be. It’s crucial that employers are honest and transparent about these unknowns if they want to build trust among their employees.

So, HR has a vital role to play in guiding organisations and individuals through the exciting, yet uncertain AI era. HR must recognise its responsibility to define the robust ethical principles of how businesses will use this technology and provide the long-term oversight to ensure these principles are adhered to in the process.

Ethical AI transforming recruitment

One such area is recruitment, where AI is increasingly being used to sift through the thousands of job applications so many well-known firms receive. Unconscious bias in recruiting is something all good HR pros are working to eradicate. It might seem natural to assume that, by removing the human element in recruitment, bias could be eliminated. However, if an organisation has a history of hiring one gender more than another, or a track record of promoting people based on certain criteria, these variables must be checked carefully. Because this is the information AI will use as a template for future recruiting.

Another application of AI in recruitment is facial recognition. It can help reduce unconscious bias in the recruitment process by analysing candidates’ facial features and responses for personality traits such as honesty, confidence, and the ability to stay calm – in short, whether the candidate is a “good fit” for the company. Indeed, Unilever says using facial recognition AI as part of its recruitment process has already contributed to greater ethnic diversity in the company. This approach can also be more convenient for candidates, as they can answer a set of questions in a video interview via their phone or other device – in their own time. The software then returns a selection of the best candidates to the recruiter once the process is complete.

These are genuine benefits, yet we must strive to see this technology the way non-HR professionals will see it too. It’s easy to imagine how candidates – who might already be nervous enough before an interview, could feel even more self-conscious, or even put off – when they know their every smile or blink is being analysed by AI.

So we have to take care. As HR professionals we should apply the same level of scrutiny to AI as we would to ourselves, and we must be absolutely transparent about communicating the benefits of this AI and exactly how we are using it.

Robbie Stamp, futurist and chairman of Bioss International Ltd, said:

The real ethics is in the care and attention we make as we deploy AI. You need to go through a checklist of key issues that you need to be addressing. Once AI is up and running, be vigilant about the way it is performing in line with purpose, value, strategy, tactics and ethics.

Ethical recruiting also has a direct impact on a company’s success. A global study by McKinsey found organisations with the most gender-diverse leadership teams are 21 per cent more likely to outperform industry peers on profitability, and 27 per cent more likely with regard to long-term value creation. Organisations in the top quartile for ethnicity/cultural diversity are more likely to achieve above-average profitability too – with figures of 33 per cent for diverse executive teams and 43 per cent for diverse boards.

AI boosting employee retention

Ethical principles are equally essential for employee retention. One of the consequences of automating tasks is that a company may need to reskill or reallocate some of its employees. People will naturally have concerns about job losses.

HR has a critically important role to play here as an advocate for employee development. Using AI shouldn’t be about making a company leaner, but making it stronger – making work fairer, more rewarding and more flexible, and responsive to the expectations of a changing demographic of workers.

The emphasis should be on creating new upskilling opportunities, redesigning jobs, and helping an organisation evolve to have more of a learning culture.

When Confused.com introduced its ‘School of Tech’ for non-IT employees, the response was extremely positive. “There’s a wealth of experience in our IT department. By pairing non-technical employees with technical employees we hope we can improve people’s understanding of AI and automation and how it can help them in their day to day roles,” says Tamsin Jones, head of people and planning at Confused.com

Companies rightfully expect to reap the rewards of AI in terms of boosting productivity and efficiency, so we must also ensure employees reap the benefits too. As automation frees up more time, there is an opportunity to promote further training, critical thinking and creative work. It might mean introducing an initiative where workers are free to work on passion projects not directly related to their primary job, yet might ultimately benefit the company. One such example being Microsoft’s own project, ‘The Garage’, which acts as a community for thousands of employees to explore new technologies and move their own ideas forward. By actively participating in the creative process, regardless of results, each person gets the opportunity to gain valuable insights, increase their knowledge, and take their experience back to their day job.

AI heralds new ways of working that will test our core values and force us to ask ourselves difficult questions: about fairness, about people’s rights at work, about how we grow as profitable organisations while bringing our people along with us. This is why ethics must be at the heart of everything we do with AI.

We’ll make mistakes and learn from them along the way – yet by cultivating a positive, open and transparent discussion about AI, HR teams will make better decisions for their companies and colleagues.

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About Andrea Winfield

Andrea is director of HR for Microsoft UK. She joined Microsoft as a Graduate 20 years ago – never in her wildest dreams did she imagine she’d stay with a company so long! Yet the complex challenges and vast learning experiences that Microsoft’s constantly transforming environment provides, continue to provide opportunities for deep and transformative impact! Andrea has enjoyed a variety of leadership roles both in the UK and for Microsoft Internationally, within HR, Talent Acquisition & Talent Management. She holds a BA Hons degree in Business and Financial Services, and post-graduate certificates in Human Capital Management & Advanced Organisation Design from the University of Southern California.

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