HR tech is getting weird, and here’s why

Written by Julia Scavicchio | Originally published at

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Technology has progressed to the point where it’s possible for HR to learn almost everything there is to know about employees — from what they’re doing moment-to-moment at work to what they’re doing on their off hours. Guest poster Julia Scavicchio takes a long hard look at the legal and ethical implications of these new investigative tools.  

Why on Earth does HR need all this data? The answer is simple — HR is not on Earth, it’s in the cloud.

The department transcends traditional roles when data enters the picture.

Many ethical questions posed through technology easily come and go because they seem out of this world.

However, it’s been over 100 years since these ideas first arrived. It was in 1910 that Henry Ford called on the country’s top efficiency experts and managed to raise the standard of living.

From there, scientific management has taken over. Employees are asked to track their tasks, monitor the bottom line and even report on their own happiness each day.

At the time task tracking arrived we were in a legendary pivotal moment. Productivity came into focus and gave workers a way of leveraging their skills for compensation. The nuance of Human Resources paved the way.

Today, we’re met with a very similar moment in history, but this time data is on the line.

The Information Age is upon us and dredging up some very complicated moral dilemmas — the kind of dilemmas that are redefining HR altogether by asking big questions about big data.

The Information Age is upon HR

Let’s consider that HR is the catalyst of change.

From how companies hire to how they retain, HR is going in a new direction. Many of these departments are altering administrative titles to reflect a more approachable profession, such as with a Chief Experience Officer.

There’s a common conception that through measuring employee engagement a company can boost its bottom line. By providing new opportunities to participate at a company, employees are more likely to positively influence it, and therefore change the company’s culture.

Technology has quickly emerged to fill this need for engagement.

How do you measure it, and what is the impact?

Solutions are taking on social features to answer these questions.

HR solutions have gone from stagnant repositories to transactional crossroads. Moments where employees must quickly communicate are happening online.

Originally, these solutions served the purpose of saving time for both administrators and staff by offering online libraries of information. If an employee needed a form, the HR solution was easily accessible to download it.

Now, HR solutions have become much more than knowledge bases. Since the development of more intuitive self-service features, the style and variety of software has changed. Employees are expected to access these solutions to communicate regularly, and not just with HR.

One fascinating development is how these technologies are starting to resemble non-enterprise platforms.

Imagine a space where all employees begin their work day by logging on and touching base. They’re able to share and “like” each other’s notifications. They can add pictures and coordinate for social events.

The result is very similar to a corporatized Facebook.

‘Don’t forget to respond to my meeting invite’

HR is involved with the type of transformation that will make or break a culture, and companies are investing millions into it.

But with so much talk about engagement and leadership, it’s hard to tell what’s actually useful for developing the ultimate office.

So here’s a great idea: HR should collect as much information as possible. That way, the company has everything it might need to follow performance trends. When people are the most valuable asset, the data they produce is just as important.

This isn’t the first time companies have had the bright idea to collect colossal amounts of information. In Ford’s day, intrusive questions were asked by an investigative team to measure moral values and hygiene. This information helped Ford’s team gauge efficiency and the risks associated with employing certain types of people.

The difference between Ford’s days and today is that it’s not necessary to ask these questions. The answers are already available within data.

Take the average employee. This person is a tangible asset. The employee is well aware of it, and understands where accountability lies in exchange for compensation.

Now take the average employee’s data. With technology, data is the exact source of how the employee performs. HR can keep tabs on these metrics and trace key performance indicators (KPIs) up the chain. This helps guide the company as it makes big changes with a more holistic understanding of what’s affected on the ground.

But here’s the catch: The average employee doesn’t just produce data through work.

The average employee is also producing data for many of their own private social purposes.

As organizations catch up to the technology consumers use, this data will become one of the same.

Great, how can we accelerate this?

Mobility is an important factor when it comes to sharing information.

Just about everyone owns a smartphone or tablet, whether it’s made by Apple or Android, Windows or Blackberry. It’s been impossible to avoid this trend, even if you’re only observing others.

Our connection to the cloud has become a new social standard. It’s incredible how quickly lifestyles have changed in response to accessibility. So much data is being shared, from text-based messages to mixed media like pictures and video, and it’s all interconnected with cloud-based applications.

At the pace that many HR solutions are going, this private information could easily be collected and used. Imagine an employee’s entire daily life entered into a performance tracking machine.

That corporatized Facebook concept is a stepping stone for this method of data collection.

The truth to sourcing people-related data is that accountability does not exist in a vacuum. If HR truly wants to track all data that relates to performance, it will cross privacy boundaries.

However, as legal and compliance experts HR should know what it’s getting into. Particularly when it comes to global talent acquisition, data laws vary between each country.

A certain data point – say, a person’s religion — may be legal to collect in one country but absolutely illegal in another. Thankfully, most modern applicant tracking systems take this into consideration and adjust for geographical compliance.

Recruitment solutions are at the front of how rapidly HR processes are changing. When it comes to comprehensive hiring suites, recruiters can analyze a candidate’s social presence and provide personality insights to evaluate alongside job skills.

By parsing text on social media the same as you might a resume, recruiters can better measure how the candidate will fit into the workforce.

Data that is produced on the candidate’s personal time can be used for corporate purposes. The process is even being automated so that insights are delivered without closely considering the source of the data.

A unique legal battle started this past May taking on a similar challenge. Myrna Arias, a salesperson in California, was given a work phone so that she could answer client calls during non-work hours. She discovered that the app she used for work also tracked her GPS location at all times. Her boss admitted to knowing how fast she drove everywhere she went.

Naturally, she described it as a “prisoner’s ankle bracelet” and uninstalled the app. As a result, she was fired.

What kind of culture are we rolling the dice on?

The divide between people’s work and personal lives is rapidly blurring, and there’s not much HR personnel can do to stop it.

The impact of cloud technology will inevitably affect all forms of data. After all, it was invented to replace the hard drive, which is the method all physical storage spaces use.

Many companies are even getting rid of hierarchy structures in an attempt to allow faster social change.

Zappos, a popular shoe retailer, recently eliminated all of its managers by posing an ultimatum to its workforce that they could either leave or take the new job arrangement. In a past post, HR Morning described this method as a “Holacracy” where everyone is a leader, defined as:

A distributed authority system – a set of rules that bake empowerment into the core of the organization. Unlike conventional top-down or progressive bottom-up approaches, it integrates the benefits of both without relying on parental heroic leaders. Everyone becomes a leader of their roles and a follower of others’, processing tensions with real authority and real responsibility, through dynamic governance and transparent operations.

Similar approaches advocate for an open culture where employees should feel free to voice their opinions on company subjects that affect them. When conversations exist online, it’s easier to monitor and address concerns as opposed to hearing sideways conversations that drive distrust.

Privacy within the company must also come into consideration as information is more freely shared. No one is certain of how companies will change now that transparency is a must.

HR is bound to become more data savvy so that compliance experts are able to manage the lifecycle of confidential data.

But as the saying goes: If you change the people, you change the company.

If companies have changed since Ford’s days, the Information Age is bound to bring a very different kind of workforce.

Julia Scavicchio is a writer for Better Buys, a trusted source for enterprise software news and research.

Source: HR tech is getting weird, and here’s why