Don’t forget the ‘H’ in HR: The Ethics of People Analytics

Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Ethics is a rising concern in the practice of people analytics. A few challenges and best practices to consider.

In his recent article, David Green offers a simple, yet easily neglected reminder to those of us practicing people analytics: “Don’t forget the ‘H’ in HR”. In the article, Green addresses an ever-present issue in the world of people analytics – ethics. Surprisingly, Green cites that issues related to ethics and privacy puts 4 out of every 5 people analytics projects at risk. Green highlights several sources of potential challenges to ethical people analytics practices: legislative challenges, such as needing to comply with GDPR and other restrictions; technological challenges, such as rapid technological advancements that make data collection more widespread and unbeknownst to employees; and cultural challenges, such as effective use of data that maintains employee trust.

One important tension that Green raises, and which I believe is all too often overlooked, is how rapid technological advancement is changing the conversation around ethics. Green uses the infamous example of Amazon collecting employee data through “wearables”. Though Amazon claimed that the purpose of the wearables would be to collect data to improve well-being and productivity, the response by many was critical, raising concerns over “big brother” management. As technology outpaces our understanding of the implications of its use, we are faced with questions about whether the potential benefit is worth the risks. Similar questions are being asked in medicine and even warfare. Just because we can genetically modify an embryo, should we? Just because we can build and use nuclear weapons, should we? Though arguably these questions seem much more immediate and serious than those posed by the use of data in HR, people analytics involves people’s lives to no lesser an extent. Just because we are able to track every employees’ movement, should we? I think these questions are fundamentally about making a convincing case for the tangible insights and meaningful steps that can be gleaned from the collection and use of data.

Intrinsically linked with challenges involving data are those of culture. Employees have always been to some extent de-humanized. As Marx (1844/1964) said, “The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity.” Being able to collect massive amounts of data on employees threatens any hope employees had of separating themselves from the machines that they fear will soon take over their jobs. That is, in the age of people analytics employees may become only data points, monitored and reprogrammed to maximize productivity and efficiency. Obviously, this raises concern and erodes trust. Employees need to be assured that their data is being used first and foremost to help them. This can be conveyed through messaging, as well as employees’ involvement in the process of data collection. Transparency and autonomy are key.

Green offers helpful recommendations for how to HR on how to maintain ethical people analytics practices. I think the most original recommendation is that of being open. Rather than people analytics remaining small and siloed, only for the benefit of few, it needs to be put in the hands of every employee. That is, employees need to be taught about their data footprint and have access to their own data. While to some this may seem like a radical approach, I think it is the only way to ensure an ethical and moral approach to people analytics. Organizations should not own the data that employees produce. If people analytics practices are truly for the benefit of employees, withholding their data from them is antithetical to this notion. Rather, generating insights should be an endeavor that employees have just as much stake in as those working in people analytics.

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5 thoughts on “Don’t forget the ‘H’ in HR: The Ethics of People Analytics

  1. Thanks for sharing! This is a really interesting topic to reflect on: just because we can doesn’t mean we should. I feel really split on the issue. While it is understandable for Amazon employees to be concerned with “big brother” monitoring their movements, it seems like it would only really be a problem for them if they had something to hide. I cannot help but think about comparing it to the criminal justice system in America and the 5th Amendment. You have the right to remain silent, however choosing to exercise that right leads people to think that you have done something wrong. Do employees have a right to privacy while at work? Most workplaces already monitor what websites employees go to and frequently have security cameras monitoring both work and rest areas.

  2. I think this is among the most important questions in people analytics today. I wonder how we as managers can make sure we stay as objective as possible when evaluating the benefits to the employee/manager/firm versus the cost to employees. In many cases, we will have to be the ones advocating for people analytics, but it’s challenging to be the person that highlights the value of increasing people analytics in a firm, while being the leading voice in the risks and downsides. I agree that being open is key, but I think it takes a significant investment from leadership into the people in an organization to create the opportunity where people understand and believe in the benefits of collecting and analyzing data about their work.

  3. Great post – I’ve followed David Green for a while so great to see him get some engagement. I agree wholeheartedly with the “we can vs. we should” tension that exists in people analytics. Too often, the field tends to attract the types of folks who love pursuing new knowledge and findings…and often in the quest for seeking those revelations (particularly in a field that’s exciting because it’s rapidly innovating), they can forget that these data points are ultimately humans who might be uncomfortable with how they’re being monitored or studied!

    That being said, while I appreciate Green’s sentiment that the answer is to be open with people analytics data (it does make for an easy-to-digest pithy blog post sentiment), I think the reality of transparency of people analytics data is complex. True, some level of transparency is important for accountability – it’s a sentiment that applies in almost every situation, and people analytics is no exception. To that end, I’m grateful for tools like MyAnalytics within Microsoft that are leaving employees feeling empowered with their data, and in doing so removing some of the anxieties of how it might be used because they themselves can see the output. That being said, I think only a certain degree of transparency is needed to get that buy-in…but ultimately, some other people analytics work may need time to be fully fleshed out before it’s made “transparent”. As an analogy, I’m thinking of the comment made today in class about how at teaching hospitals, mortality rates are far lower because medical professionals are monitored. With enough study, one can easily see how monitoring of professionals has led to a better outcome – but if you were to simply be transparent about the monitoring and studying from day 1, you’d have a revolt from the doctors! All this to say, I think there’s a world in which people analytics teams can experiment with some work on their own before they go through the change management of bringing it out in the open – they just need to keep in mind that their work ultimately will be brought into the open, and not a closed-door secret meant to empower the decision-making of only a few.

  4. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    I was struck as I read it by the similarity to one of our cases in Reimagining Capitalism–“When Technology Gets Ahead of Society”–where we examined Facebook’s attempts to launch Libra. There, Facebook’s pernicious and sustained lack of goodwill with broader stakeholders, combined with their overreach and attempt to hasten the introduction of a nascent technological solution in a broad blockchain-based payments network, led to a nasty reaction to the introduction of their Libra whitepaper; in a way, they walked into a buzzsaw of their own construction.

    While I agree with your proscription for firms to be open, I think there is a spectrum of openness worth discussing. Simple transparency is one thing–publicly releasing your data and methodologies–but active engagement, educating users, subjects, and broader politial or societal stakeholders is another. In ReCap we discussed how firms, when they find themselves outside the well-understood lines of existing technological and moral frameworks, have a responsibility to help co-create new rules. Such co-creation will necessitate that they move slower than they could if they were only concerned about technological limitations to their work, but if their goal is to introduce meaningful, sustained change without provoking a negative backlash, they will find such prudence to be valuable.

  5. This is great, Grace. Today we began class with the question “does happiness at work matter” and our class (myself included) spent 95% of the time considering how employee happiness affect firm performance. But I hope we all agree it matters for employers to be decent and try to build people up, just because they’re people. Hopefully as future managers we can all keep that in mind!

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