Faces of HR

Without HR Tech, Employers Would Not Have Been Ready for the Pandemic

Something that I hear repeatedly from HR experts is the idea that if the pandemic had happened 10 years ago, we’d all have been doomed. Without videoconferencing and remote virtual private networks (VPNs), remote work would have been nearly impossible. But what about HR technologies? What role did they play in the last year? Today’s guest has a lot to say about that, as well as about transparency and current recruiting technology trends.

Meet Ben Eubanks, author and founder of upstartHR.

How did you find yourself doing HR stuff?

I knew I wanted to be in HR when I was a kid.

No way.

I didn’t know what it was called yet.


The funny version of that is, I am the older middle child of four boys. And so I had none of the positional authority of being the CEO of the kids, but I had to get everything done. So I was brokering deals and making things happen.

The real story is that I worked for my parents, who had a small business from the time I was 12 years old. There were all of these problems they had with hiring people, with making sure they had good benefits, and with training and all the other fun things. I was like, this can be a real problem. I imagine a lot of people probably have that, so I’ll just go to school for whatever that is, and I’ll figure out how to solve that. Then I can help them, but I can help everybody else, too.

I was a nerd as a kid, as you can tell. When I got to college, I was told, “I want you to write on this thing called Human Resources.” That sounded super boring, but I started researching and realized that’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to do. It dealt with all those things I was very curious about and interested in.

Congratulations on being the second person out of hundreds who knew he wanted to be an HR person from the time he was young. The other person had two parents who were both in HR. I refer to that person as the chosen one. What are the odds?

Legacy, real legacy.

I guess there were some strong HR genes running around in that kid.

My kids might end up being in HR—who knows? None of the older ones seem interested in it, but we’ve got four. So the chances are good that I can talk them into it.

I guess you just never veered off path?

When you put that last piece of the puzzle in and that satisfaction you get and you’re deep in your gut like, yes, that was it, that was what I felt. So I got my degree. Back then, you could get your certification immediately after you finished your degree, which I did. After my year of serving the employer that had paid for my last year of college, I got an HR job. That was over 10 years ago. Been an amazing journey ever since.

You’re considered an HR tech expert. How did you find your way into that specialty?

I always tell a story when I’m speaking about the first time I tried to sell the idea of buying technology for HR purposes in my company. My pitch was: It will make my job easier. That didn’t go anywhere with the leadership of the company. They’re like, suck it up, and get back to work. From that point on, I was like, I know this thing will solve this real problem that we have, right? It’s going to cost something, but it’s going to solve this problem. So I learned more about how to build the case. And what other things can the technology do? And how do we solve for other problems? And if these are solving problems that’ve been around for as long as I’ve been here and far back beyond before I even started, what other tools are out there that are solving things that I haven’t thought of yet?

I started digging and learning and digging. And every time I uncovered a little more, I learned a little more. The famous astrophysicist Neil Tyson deGrasse says, “As the area of my knowledge grows, so does the perimeter of my ignorance.” The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. That’s what I love about it. Every time I’ve got it kind of figured out, like “oh, I’ve got a handle on this,” I find something else that kind of expands that a little more. And it’s just fun for me to be a modern-day explorer in that space.

Yeah. Well, it definitely seems to be a space that’s ever-expanding. And even as it reaches new horizons, it also increases in specialization. It’s been very interesting to watch over the 6 years of my career.

Yes. Yesterday I talked to a company that is big and very traditional. It has some major tech that it’s built, but the tools we were looking at yesterday can do things some people wouldn’t even believe. Let’s say you’re looking for a data scientist. You can put in three or four additional skills that you hire for your company but might not be the standard thing. You add three or four additional skills to what a data scientist would do. And in real time, it is pricing that position. You know exactly what the market price is with those additional skills you’ve lumped in. If you take one of those skills out, it changes the price dynamically right there in the moment.

That’s fun for me to do. I love technology—it’s just neat. But I also appreciate it from the perspective of when I worked in HR day to day and spent my days trying to manage employees and things like that. Would this have solved a real problem I had? I’m always using that filter. Oftentimes, I think, man, I would have loved to have had this. I would have killed to have had some tools to do these kinds of things back when I was sitting in that seat.

Salary negotiation is probably one of the most fraught areas. Whenever I talked to somebody in those moments I was on the market, I wanted to know up front, “What are you guys paying?” They want to know how little they can get away with paying you. And if either of you says the wrong number, it’s done, conversation over.

Yes. Burned that bridge.

It’s crazy. I could see the extreme value of that tool. There’s a lot going on in the world of HR tech. One of the things I wanted to ask you today is how ready do you think HR tech made us for the pandemic, if at all?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. We actually did some research last year. After things were not normal—and they probably won’t be for a while—but after things had settled a little bit, later in the year, we did a little bit of research around how companies thought their HR technology helped them. We asked an audience of HR and IT professionals how they felt about that because we wanted to get the fuller picture if they were managing the tech, even if they didn’t pick it, because they’re not the HR leader, right? I don’t want to just be biased by “we’re great because we’re in HR.”

What we found was that out of that audience, of the companies that said “we were ready for this, we were able to adapt quickly, we responded to the things, and there were bumps, yes, but we were able to adapt, and we were ready for something in that sort of ready to be responsive,” 97% indicated that HR technology was a key part of that. It was the tools we use. It was the things we had in place to help manage our people because we think it’s a medical problem. We think it’s a logistical problem. It’s a people problem because suddenly, the people are for the solutions, but people were also the issue because they can’t be together anymore. They can’t be in proximity.

So that was the big change that shifted everything. This is a people problem fundamentally. And those organizations that spent the time and did the work were the ones that said it wasn’t just window dressing. It wasn’t just the basics. These tools helped us overcome this change.

Getting your various HR technologies in place, choosing the right one, making sure they work with the other systems, and all that stuff gets backburnered by so many organizations, or at least it used to, along with so many other aspects HR has to handle. I think this was a real crucible to learn how wrong you were or how right you were before this all happened.

Two things come to mind there. One is that we’re actually doing this right now. I am so excited to see it because I love uncovering new things and creating something new based on the crowdsourced insights that are out there. Let’s find out what the truth is.

One of the questions in that is how did your technology fail you last year? How did it not work? Because I want to know what those gaps were and what their plans are to shore that up. Have you already fixed that? Is there a plan this year? That’s one thing that occurs to me there.

The other thing is Dan Heath, who writes a lot of great books. One of his most recent books was Upstream. It’s about how we think about the problems we can solve now. Let’s think about prevention. Let’s think about strategy. Let’s think about continuity. Let’s solve those problems now instead of waiting until it’s this raging inferno in front of us, and we’ve got to just put it out because we have no other choice. Let’s try to think through this logically and think about how we can make sure this doesn’t become a problem down the road.

And that’s the sense that I’m getting from the data from the conversation of having those companies that took the time, did that, and didn’t do the backburner thing like you mentioned. They were the ones that had done some upstream thinking, and they reaped the benefits once everything hit the proverbial fan.

Agreed. I’ve done a lot of interviews over the last year. I haven’t met anyone who said, “Oh, we weren’t ready, and everything went terribly,” and maybe that’s true for every one of them. But what I have heard regularly from many of them was this undertone, which is people holding their breath for everything to go back to the way it was.

It’s a little concerning how often I hear that because it’s not going to go back to the way it was. Things have been fundamentally changed in ways that are clear and obvious and in other ways that we won’t know maybe for 5 more years.

I’m curious, what’s your perspective on an HR person’s approach to how he or she implements and how he or she uses HR tech with regard to how he or she perceives the “end of COVID”?

That is a really insightful question.

Why, thank you!

I’ll take a stab at answering. So how does someone’s sense of that affect how he or she is going to score long term? I would say part of that is, if you are holding your breath, you are going to pass out before things change. My son used to hold his breath when he got all upset, and we’d just be like “He’ll breathe when he passes out. It’s OK. Just give him a minute.” If you are just holding your breath, waiting for that to change, then you’re going to be not just mistaken but also disappointed in that because I think some things have fundamentally changed forever.

It’s a small segment, but they are very vocal. There are some companies that have said, “We’re not going back to the office. We are working virtually or remotely as our long-term plan.”

Coming into the software space, you have that flexibility. Others that don’t have the flexibility still have said, “You know what? Even if we can’t have our people here in front of us, we have to be a little bit more spaced out. We have to be a little more cognizant of them and their safety.”

If they’re a field-based workforce or if they’re in transportation, we still have to think about their safety and think about work in a different way. Those companies are looking at other ways to connect, to share information, to be more transparent, and to be communicative with those people. Those are things I hope never change.

One of the funny things I was saying early on is that people are disappointed in what we’ve lost. We’ve lost this office kind of experience. Let’s just be honest with each other: A lot of those things are terrible. Let’s be glad that some of the things are forgotten. Let’s be thankful that people didn’t have to do A, B, and C because those things were not that great in the first place. We did those because they were a natural by-product of having to work in a physical location. If those things went away, don’t lament—celebrate.

Absolutely it’s human nature to think about what we lost. What we need to think about is that we now have more opportunities. We are more focused on HR and more focused on the people side of business than ever before. There’s never been, in my history of working in the field—and I’d argue even before that—as much of a focus on the people side of the business as there has been in the last year.

That is a boon to the HR community. This is your chance to step up. This is your chance to show what you’ve got. This is your chance. Everybody’s like “I want an option to be a partner. I want to show what I can do.” This is your shot. At this time, this moment, things are not normal still. You can take that opportunity. You still have some time to seize that and to show why the people side of business is the most important side of the business.

Absolutely. It’s funny because the requirement of how we connect with people and how we understand our people is more technology. In the beginning, it was Zoom calls and messaging programs and things like that. But, those all have revealed their issues and problems. It’s interesting how, in order to understand our employees better, we really just need to figure out what technologies we need to be able to make those kinds of connections. It’s a weird dichotomy, really.

I would totally agree with that.

I guess the question is, what does the next year look like in terms of HR solutions to common remote work and common workplace problems that we’ve seen over the last year during the pandemic?

What is, this year? Because everybody’s been focused on how we respond right now. I think, again, most of the dust has settled around that. If you were going to make a move, you already have. Like some of the research I mentioned a minute ago—it might be that I find that those who said they had a gap have already filled it.

I’d love for people to say that. That means they’re actually taking action and solving the problems versus, like you said, holding their breath and waiting and hoping that the problem resolves itself before they have to take action. So I’m hoping to find that people have already taken action and they’ve adapted in that way.

The coming year, what is the focus going to be on? I still think we’re going to be thinking a lot about the vaccine. We keep hearing about new strains or how vaccines are going to take a while. Is the vaccine going to be effective against different things? There’s so much stuff there, and I’m not a doctor or a scientist, so I can’t even begin to guess at all that.

All that noise just means uncertainty. In the world of uncertainty, the only thing you can do is communicate and share and be transparent. There are a lot of good data out there that show that transparency overall leads to trust. That means saying “Here’s what we know, and here’s what we don’t” and having leaders share that openly, whether you’re HR or someone else wearing a chief-something hat in the business.

Trust leads to the business outcomes we care about. Trust leads to people being more engaged, people wanting to work harder, and people being willing to go the extra mile for their employer because they feel like their employer is being truthful and honest and authentic with them. So if nothing else, even not knowing what could happen tomorrow, the answer is still to be transparent, be open, and communicate with your people because that’s never going to be the wrong answer.

Really, it is everything. I was interviewing somebody just the other day and talking about artificial intelligence (AI) solutions during Zoom calls and videoconferencing. This AI software can analyze people’s facial reactions and body language to give the people who are holding the meeting information about how they’re being received, what their approach is like, and whether people are zoning out or if they’re getting upset. Very interesting concept.

He said that a few clients had come to him and asked if they can make an automatic termination AI. Obviously, he thought that’s a terrible idea. And it is. But that’s the kind of thing you can see automatically happening when people rely too heavily on technology.

They want things to be easier for themselves, of course, and that’s what it’s for. But how you do that is really just as important as what your tools are. This is another issue I bump up against—the ethics of AI. They aren’t really discussed that much. The ethics of advanced HR technology really aren’t a concern that I’ve heard anyone talking about. But they’re really important to get right.

What’s your outlook on how we get ethical as we get more digital?

A book I wrote, and I’m actually working on the second edition right now—Artificial Intelligence for HR—is right in this wheelhouse. There’s a chapter on the challenges of ethics. One of the things I pointed out in the first edition, and will elaborate on in the second, is that we have to be transparent as organizations.

Here’s where we’re using it. Here’s what it’s evaluating. If Jim is applying for a job with us and I’m looking at his résumé and I’m listening to, with an AI tool, his answers on a phone screen and it is going to select whether he goes forward or not, I need to be telling him what sorts of things that’s evaluating.

There was actually some research done in the last 3 or 4 months that showed candidates the ways we could present this. Which of these makes you feel most comfortable about continuing with this job application?

The one that stood out and that they selected the most was the one that said, here are the things we’re going to evaluate you on. Here’s what the algorithm is going do. Here’s what the algorithm is not looking at. It is not looking at your facial expressions. It is not listening to your voice and whether you can speak English or not. It’s not using those things. It’s merely looking at the words you’re using and trying to match those against what we know a high-performing employee would say in some of these things.

So, it’s looking for, if you’re talking about marketing, whether you’re talking about how you build a content plan. Are you talking about how you understand personas, the buyers? And if you’re missing some of those key concepts in the response, well, it knows that you probably aren’t as advanced as someone who does know those things to say. It’s not like you can gain the system. You know that or you don’t, and it’s going to use that in the process.

In terms of just overall ethics, on the vendor side for a second, let’s push it to them. If you are talking to a company and it’s saying, “Hey, we’ve got this AI tool that does automated yada yada, yada,” it doesn’t matter what it’s saying. Be willing to pressure the company as a practitioner. You want to pressure it a little bit and say, what sorts of things is that considering? What sorts of factors are in that super-secret black box algorithm you have? Because we, as HR leaders, have our radar up all the time for things that are going to be red flags.

And if they say, “Oh, we look at the ZIP code of a candidate,” well, hold on a minute. That might indicate someone’s ethnicity or his or her socioeconomic status. We can’t use that. Oh, well this thing looks at what college people went to, and it matches them against … No, that same thing. You’re missing a certain piece of information, or you’re going to downplay someone’s college because it’s maybe not as common because you’ve never seen it before.

You’ve got to be willing to push back a little bit on those. You do not have to be an AI scientist. You do not have to be an analytics wiz. Just ask them what sorts of factors that’s considering. And that will help you know if it’s considering those things that you would consider or if it’s things that are outside of the real possibility of things we cannot ask and things we will not ask if we were trying to commit to doing the right thing legally and ethically in terms of hiring people.

HR practitioners can sense when the lawsuits are coming. One of the things about all this recruiting software and recruiting technology is the potential for it to be biased. I can’t tell you how many PR pitches I’ve gotten from AI companies or companies that have recruiting software saying that because it’s a computer, it’s not biased.

Yeah, if you load it to not be biased, then maybe it won’t be. But people are still making the software. They’re making the terms. It’s just a matter of time before candidates realize they’re being discriminated against and then get together, and then plaintiffs’ attorneys figure out how to prosecute that because it’s definitely happening out there.

There are two sides to that I can touch on. Number one, if, let’s say, we have people applying, and there’s a tool we’re using that is looking at facial expressions, well, immediately, that’s biased because all of the data show that something that’s using facial recognition is going to be biased against people of color because the data sets are not as extensive. They can’t judge them as accurately.

Things like that that are built into the tool are going to be biased. One way IBM has tackled this, because it’s one of the world leaders in that space of building technology, is that the company made sure that the team that’s building tools is diverse. It’s not a homogenous group of people who all look the same, have the same background, and have the same things they care about and music they listen to and all the other things. That group is likely to have a lot of blind spots. They mix it up and make sure that different perspectives are in there developing the software so they can catch something that might be a flag early on.

The other piece, though, is that people want to assume that every piece of technology is biased because it’s built by people. I’d say there are some areas where putting that in the process is going to be less biased. Let’s say we’re using a chat bot that is automated and hands-off. It is talking to every candidate who comes through. Well, if you have a recruiter doing that instead, that recruiter is going to say, “Hey, look, that person went to my college. Great, I’m going to call that person first and start a conversation. I’ll throw this candidate the easy questions at the home screen and give him or her high marks, and we’ll move on.”

The chat bot won’t do that. It’s treating everyone the same. Everyone gets the same opportunity to chime in. Everyone gets the same consideration and the same questions. It is standardizing that process and taking some of that out.

The selection research out there says that if we’re using a very standardized process for interviews—very rigid and very structured—that’s a pretty good way to pick people. When it’s kind of off the cuff or someone’s just kind of throwing questions out as they come to him or her, it’s not as good. You might as well flip a coin because it’s just as good at picking people as something that’s unstructured.

One other thing I’ll say is that in the last 2 years, we have seen employers shift heavily away from just using something that is up. Do all these video interviews, and it will automatically shortlist your top five candidates. That was a big deal a couple of years ago. And employers have shied away from that a little bit. They’re now looking for things that have another layer in there.

The big trend we wrote about last year was that employers want an assessment, something that gives me a second vector on people’s abilities, not just an assessment through a video interview, like let’s see how good they can record their answers and then rerecord their answers until they’re perfect. That just gives you one layer of somebody, but it also provides an assessment that also looks at someone’s cognitive abilities or his or her behavioral traits or the things about the person’s skills that are going to fit with that job.

Those two things together give you a pretty accurate picture of someone. Just one or just the other, and you’re missing out. You might have that person who’s really great at taking tests and answering questions and looks like a good fit. But then, when you get him or her in person, he or she has none of the people skills you’re actually looking for or vice versa. The person is chatty, friendly, and does great on the video interview, but when it comes to actually doing the task, he or she is incapable. The candidate doesn’t know how.

That combination helps to solve for that problem. That happened in the last year. That’s been a big focus in the virtual space. Hiring managers might not feel comfortable hiring someone they can’t see, but the assessment gives you some level of comfort about a person’s abilities and his or her people skills that allows you to make a better judgment.