HR Management & Compliance, Talent

Could Robots Replace HR?

Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are rapidly changing the world we live in, and many are concerned the robots are coming for our jobs. For instance, a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Oxford estimated that almost half of all jobs in the US were at risk of being fully automated in the next 20 years.Robot

Evidence of robots’ ascendance is all around us. AI is doing legal work. Mark Zuckerberg built an AI system that runs his home.  And there are bots working in HR departments.

Despite this, some believe the concerns about automation are overblown. In WIRED, James Surowiecki points out that many employers are seeing skills gaps and labor shortages rather than labor surpluses, as would be expected if robots were truly taking jobs. He also cites a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which predicts that 9% of jobs in more than 21 countries are threatened by automation. It is, in his words, “a significant number, but not an apocalyptic one.”

So which is it? As many companies experiment with automating HR processes, is HR a department that will be automated? Which aspects of HR and recruiting will be automated, and which won’t?

Will Your HR Job Be Automated?

The answer to that question depends on your specific HR role, and the nature of the tasks you perform. Automation will affect all HR jobs, and already has, but to different degrees.

As McKinsey shows, certain types of tasks are more likely to be automated than others. Technical activities, such as data collection and data processing, are very likely to be automated. (Your company may have already begun automating some of these functions.) Other types of work, such as managing people, planning, or creative work are much less likely to be automated.

This explains why HR administrative jobs have a 90% chance of being automated by 2035, according to a study from Oxford University, but HR managers, directors and officers are much less likely to be replaced by robots. A robot can spit out data, but it can’t create a strategic plan or mediate a conflict between two employees.

In short, robots are likely to take over mundane HR tasks, while the HR tasks that require creativity, problem-solving, decision-making, or people skills will remain the domain of humans.

This is great news for HR managers, as it’s not only entry-level workers who collect and process data. Automation will take away those tasks for everyone, including those further up the chain. According to McKinsey, people whose annual incomes are more than $200,000 spend more than 30% of their time on data collection and processing. Automation will allow managers and executives to spend less of their time on routine tasks, and more on the tasks where they truly add value to the company.

Automation, Coming Soon to a Task Near You

What HR tasks are likely to be automated? Here are a few, though as technology evolves, we’ll likely see some others as well.

Data Collection and Processing

As we’ve described, data collection and processing is likely to be automated. Your company may already have systems in place to automate timesheets or other HR data.

Remember we mentioned bots are already working in HR departments? They’re doing data processing. One Chicago-based company uses a bot named “Rosie” to enter data on new employees into their systems. What once took an HR representative about 25 minutes takes Rosie only five.

Responding to HR Inquiries 

 Do you often field routine questions about employee leave or requests for a particular form? A virtual agent or chatbot could take those questions, and leave the more complicated HR questions for the human HR professionals.

This is already happening. Siri is built in to every Apple product. And customer service departments are using chatbots with customers. In the same way, HR chatbots can handle repetitive queries so HR professionals can focus on other matters.

 Recruitment and Retention 

 AI is widely seen as an incredible tool to help with hiring. AI can comb through mountains of data, such as social media profiles or CVs, to find the right person for the job. (If you’re going to use AI for social media screening, just make sure it abides by the ethical and legal standards you’ve set at your company.)

AI can also do a good job of identifying diverse candidates for a job, potentially more diverse than an individual hiring manager relying on his or her own networks. There are also AI tools to evaluate a candidate’s performance in a job interview to better determine if a candidate is a fit for the job.


 Data analytics can reveal compensation discrepancies that occur as a result of bias. Such discrepancies can then be corrected, avoiding an unpleasant lawsuit.

But, Humans Never Go Out of Style

According to Totaljobs, HR managers and directors spend the majority of their time in three ways:

  1. Meeting with senior staff and business partners
  2. Employee relations and engagement
  3. Meeting with employees

These are all tasks that are very unlikely to be automated. McKinsey considers managing and developing staff as the hardest work activity to automate. The second-most difficult activities to automate are those that require applying expertise to decision-making, planning, or creative work.

Meeting with senior staff and employees, and employee relations and engagement all require applying expertise to decision-making. They also involve complex human interaction, which no algorithm can crack as of yet. A robot doesn’t know that Susan prefers meetings to be direct and no-nonsense, while Shane likes to open with small talk and ease into it.

Indeed, automation and technology only makes social and so-called “soft” skills more important. Robots don’t have negotiation, collaboration, communication, mediation and empathy skills.

These are the skills that HR professionals have in spades, and it’s ultimately why robots won’t replace HR. They’ll do time-consuming technical tasks, yes, but when it comes to addressing employee engagement or improving company culture, it takes a human touch.

Chris Lennon is Vice President of Product Management at BirdDogHR. Chris is an active participant in the talent management community bringing over 18 years of experience to BirdDogHR. He has presented at numerous industry events and has been quoted as an industry expert in leading publications like Talent Management magazine, CLO magazine, New Talent Times, TLNT and HR Bartender.

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