How Your HR Department Can Develop an Ethical Stance on AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace is rapidly progressing from fantasy to a pervasive reality impacting the entire employee journey, from hire to retire. It’s an exciting time for our industry, with great opportunities ahead. However, I also believe that our industry should not breathlessly rush to deploy ever more powerful yet poorly understood capabilities without first understanding what it is we hope to achieve—and the ethical code we will follow in getting there. As it turns out, this is not just an academic or humanitarian exercise; it is critical to the ultimate success or failure of your AI investment. 

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At Ultimate Software, our mission has always been to put people first, and to do so in the AI era, we are pioneering significant advances in the capability to understand every employee’s voice, including the critical aspects of how we feel and about what. To navigate the intersection of the human and the machine, we created an internal AI Ethics team, which developed a corresponding framework guiding related product and engineering decisions.

But for AI in the workplace to reach its potential without unintended negative consequences, the industry at large must put in a similar effort. As HR professionals, our transparent commitment to the ethical use of AI will be a powerful tool for fostering trust within our organizations, thereby driving the success of the very initiatives in which we are putting so much hope. Below, I’ve outlined some ways HR can embrace a strong, clear ethical foundation toward the use of AI.

Begin with a Code of Conduct

To begin building your own AI Code of Conduct, work backward from a future vision of what you want to accomplish and what behaviors your organizational culture requires a solution must follow. For example, most organizations are drowning in data and adding more data, no matter how clever, is not an aspiration. So “Achieve actionable insights, not numbers” could be a good requirement.

Our belief in always putting people first informs our Code of Conduct at Ultimate. For example, we believe AI initiatives must ensure all voices (not just management or extroverts, for example) are heard, and that anything we build must be in the service of helping each person realize his or her potential. Above all, we believe AI must be designed to assist—not replace—people. To us, AI is about augmentation, not automation.

Emphasize Privacy Above All

For any AI initiative to have long-term success, employees must first trust that their privacy is valued and protected. You achieve this in two ways: first, ensuring that employees know exactly what data is being fed into the system (companies should never secretly analyze private conversations or e-mails, for instance), and that their feedback is fully protected from being used against them, which can be achieved by appropriate anonymization and aggregation.

While there are myriad operational steps to take to ensure this is true, making sure it is a foundational, highly valued aspect of your ethical code is critical for executives and employees alike. Trust will only increase the quality and value of the feedback and insights provided. By creating an environment where employee privacy is respected, and individuals feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, you will set the stage to achieve the meaningful change within your company. Conversely, without it, it is an exercise in futility.

Expand Your Focus to Teams, Not Just to Individuals 

A common fear from employees is that AI will be used to single them out or to enforce conformity. A great way to both address this concern and to focus on results is to purpose your technology initiatives to add understanding at the team level. Frankly, AI is often more valuable when working on larger trends affecting an organization, beyond any individual. For example, a sales team may be frustrated with its marketing counterparts because of a lack of competitive intelligence. Or company expansion may be making employees feel excited and energized but unsure about their own future. Both insights have huge consequences when addressed, which far outweigh the consequences if you addressed the concerns of any one individual.

Make Sure All Voices Are Heard

Employees want to be heard—that’s why they provide feedback in the first place. AI and natural language processing (NLP) allow us to hear their collective voice in a way that had not been possible before now. NLP software can read and analyze employee input even on open-ended survey questions and categorize it by theme and emotion. By efficiently understanding the themes and sentiments across their workforce, employers can get a better picture of the overall health of their organizations, as well as the pain points of specific teams.

Emerging technologies like AI and machine learning in HR eliminate some of the common obstacles (or excuses) preventing HR departments from gathering input from all of their employees. Any one employee can create nearly infinite value, yet we often have had to settle for sampling from or outright ignoring large populations, such as foreign offices speaking another language. The NLP found in solutions developed at Ultimate means employees around the world can complete surveys in their native language, and their input will be heard and valued just like their domestic counterparts.

Help Everyone Realize His or Her Potential

Studies have shown that AI will create more jobs than it disrupts, but conversations about the future of work still revolve around whether or not jobs will be taken away from humans. It’s certainly true that AI can, for example, analyze text a lot faster with much higher accuracy than humans can. But analyzing text is almost never the end goal—it is figuring out what to do with what you learn! Put this another way—let the machine do things we are either not good at or shouldn’t be doing in the first place, and let its work inform our very human decision-making.

We have a strict covenant in Ultimate’s Code of Conduct that our AI is not intended to act on its own, as in replacing HR with a joystick. Its purpose instead is to partner with employees who continuously have critical decisions to make on their own, from whom to hire to what to write in a performance review, and help each decision be faster, fairer, backed by evidence, and made with more ease and confidence. We aspire to use AI to help employees relegate notoriously unreliable and uncomfortable “gut feeling” decisions to a product of the past.

Building software in the era of AI provides exciting opportunities but is fraught with challenges. We believe working backward from the end goals and developing a transparent code of ethics that all employees can engage with and contribute to, is the key to realizing the true potential of this technology—helping each employee realize his or her potential, building fundamentally stronger organizations in the most sustainable and rewarding fashion. Ultimately, AI is meant to help us understand people better so we can help them be the best version of themselves at work.

Armen Berjikly is senior director of growth strategy at Ultimate Software where he drives the company’s transformative AI platform and direction. Previously, he was the founder and CEO of Kanjoya Inc., where he developed advancements in the NLP space to understand and improve organizations.

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