If Amazon’s Tool Could Discriminate, Could Yours?

Yesterday, Reuters reported that Amazon created a recruiting engine using artificial intelligence.  This isn’t news.  Amazon is a leader in automation, so it makes sense that the retail giant would try automation in their own recruiting processes to try to quickly find the “best” candidates.  Yet, Amazon’s tool had a big problem – it didn’t like women.

As the article describes, “Everyone wanted this holy grail,” one of the people said. “They literally wanted it to be an engine where I’m going to give you 100 resumes, it will spit out the top five, and we’ll hire those.”  Who doesn’t want this?  To make hiring faster and easier?  Currently, there are hundreds of AI tools available to human resources – many of them in the recruiting space – that promise to do these things for you.  But if Amazon found problems, what about those tools?

Amazon’s tool used a 10-year look back of existing employees (largely male-dominated).  The tool then could rank applicants based on what it learned makes a good Amazonian.  Based on its own analysis, the tool learned that male candidates were preferred over female candidates in a mixture of words that appear on applications, like “women’s,” experience, job requirements, and potentially proxies for gender.  While Amazon tried to solve for this problem – making “women’s” a neutral word so the tool did not reduce the applicant’s rank – the results of the tool still had a negative impact on women.  So, in 2015, Amazon abandoned the tool.  Good for Amazon.  This is the right thing to do.  But again, there are hundreds of other AI tools out there.

At this year’s HR Tech Conference in Las Vegas, my friend Heather Bussing and I presented on this very topic.  We spoke about how AI can both amplify and reduce bias. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • We know that AI is biased because people are biased.
  • We know the sources of the bias include the data we use to teach the AI, the programming itself, the design of the tool, and people who create the tool.
  • Employers have to be vigilant with their tools.  We have to test for bias and retest and retest (and retest) for bias in our tools.
  • Employers – not the AI – are ultimately responsible for the results of the tool, because even if we follow the output of the tool, the employer is making the ultimate employment decision.

It is very possible, even probable, that the tools out there on the market have bias in them.  Employers can’t simply rely on a vendor’s salesperson’s enthusiastic declarations that the tool eliminates bias.  Instead, employers should assume bias plays a factor and look at their tool with a critical eye and try to solve for the problem ourselves.

I applaud Amazon for doing the right thing here, including testing its tool, reviewing the results, and abandoning the tool when it became clear that its bias played a part the results.  This isn’t easy for every employer.  And, not every employer is going to have the resources to do this.  This is why employers have to be vigilant and hold their vendors accountable for helping us make sure bias isn’t affecting our decisions even when using an AI tool.  Because ultimately, the employer could be liable for the discrimination that the tools aid.

 

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Two Questions

There are two questions that can change how well our people perform, how we work as a team, how we manage, and how we keep compliant.  Here they are:

  1. How are things going?
  2. What can I do to help you?

Definitely not rocket science, but think about these.  If you manager came to you, and genuinely asked, “how are things going?” how would you respond?  Would you respond with some of your concerns or roadblocks, would you say “my mom has been really sick” or “I’m having a hard time getting through to my Assistant,” or would you say “I completed this project!” More likely than not, if you believed your manager really wanted to know, you’d share information about your or your team’s work performance.  You might also share information that affects that work performance.

If your manager asked what she could do to help you, would you give an honest response?  “Janelle in Accounting is holding this up, could you please chat with the CFO?”  “I would like to go to this conference so I can learn more about XYZ.”  “I might need your help filling in for me while I get my mom to the doctor.”  Or, “James has been saying weird things to me, could you help me figure out how to handle the situation?” If you know your manager is willing to help, would you ask for it?  Wouldn’t this help you?

The Harvard Business Review published an important article about questions and how they build emotional intelligence and most importantly, trust.  If all the research is correct that when employees trust their manager, their performance and engagement increase, why wouldn’t we ask managers to ask questions to build trust?  These questions are business related by identifying successes and concerns while offering to help.

So, how does this tie to compliance?  Well, that’s an easy connection – when would people trust us, they tell us when something isn’t going quite right.  They tell us when someone said something he shouldn’t have, when they need a reasonable accommodation, or when they fear a co-worker might be breaking the law. If we want to foster communication from employees on these issues, we need them to trust us.  So, let’s ask them the two questions more often.

One other thing – it’s easy to train managers to lead with these questions.  The hard part is getting those managers to live these questions, to turn them into real information-seeking questions.  Look for those managers who do it well, keep them, train them, promote them.

 

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Is HR Two-Faced? You Betcha.

HR has two faces.  This is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s by design.  To employees, we are the face of management.  To management, we are the face of employees.  This is what makes our job so darn hard.

Employees need us to be their advocate to management.  We beg, borrow, and steal for increased benefits, argue that people should be disciplined, we ask for more training and opportunity for employees, we pass tissues when someone is upset, we help get them leave when a grandma is sick or a baby is on the way, etc.

Management expects us to keep them safe.  We create policies that govern employee behavior, we find people so the widgets get made, we draft severance agreements when a manager screws up, we coach managers how to have tough conversations, we try to reduce liability by implementing safety programs, etc.

Some of us really like one side over the other, but both are expected and important.  Problems arise when we show the wrong face.  When we brag to employees just how hard we’ve been working on their behalf, management hears of it and loses trust in us.  When we gossip with employees about management strategy, employees learn they can’t trust us either.  When we stop advocating for employees with management, the employees know we’ve stopped.  Then, they know they can’t come to us with problems – we’ll just can’t be bothered by them.

These two faces are really hard to maintain.  We can’t have deep friendships with the people we work with for fear of the time when we have a tough conversation with our friend that ends in her termination. But we want to know enough about people so they feel comfortable coming to us with concerns even if we don’t partake in the party after the company party.  This professional distance is important for us to do our jobs, so we’re trusted enough to do our jobs.

Sometimes, we can’t show either face until we have facts.  When we hear about harassment is one of those times.  We are empathetic and appreciative to the person who brought us the complaint, but we can’t make admissions like “I’m so sorry” or “We’ll make this right.”  This could show the employee that we’re on her side, undermining our investigation.  OR – perhaps more destructively – we show the employee our management face that’s cold and “just the fact’s ma’am” ensuring that no employee ever tells us about harassment again because we appeared to immediately take the side of the harasser.  Once we have completed the investigation, we advocate to management about what should be done, even if it’s nothing.  When we advocate for the ultimate penalty (termination), we put our credibility and relationship with management on the line.  Then, if we lose, we have to make tough decisions for ourselves.

We don’t always win.  We advocate and lose on both sides, employees and management.  But even when we lose, our job is to build relationships strong enough to get past the loss so we can be ready for the next round. OR, if this loss affects our integrity, we have even tougher decisions to make.  We must think about the possibility of making that decision someday.  It takes guts.

We may have two faces, two jobs that sometimes conflict, but that’s the great thing of HR.  We get to do both.

 

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Soapbox Moment

The worst of us make a demon out of all of us. 

I’m afraid this is how the world works today –  folks hear about bad HR then surmise that HR as a whole is bad.  For Pete’s sake, HR is regularly portrayed as hapless, harried, and ineffective (even if funny).  This reality is hard to take sometimes.  But it is true.  Whether it is Uber’s HR not taking Susan Fowler’s complaints seriously, failing to properly classify construction workers, or allowing murder plots, we have an obligation to each other to do better.

HR is like the CIA.png

We have to know our values.  Are you for inclusive workplaces?  Are you for doing the right thing even if it is hard?  Are you for making sure the right people are in the right seats on the bus?  Are you for giving tools to managers and then making people actually manage?  Are you for holding people accountable?  (If you nodded, you’re on my team!  YAY!)

We have to think critically.  We have to look at the examples of bad HR out there.  (Unluckily, there’s no shortage.)  Evaluate what went wrong – they didn’t take appropriate action, they didn’t put the needs of the organization before themselves, they didn’t understand the complexities of XYZ law, they had no clue what they were doing, etc. – and then self-reflect on whether we’ve done the same thing or how we would have behaved differently.

We have to ask tough questions.  When we see a prominent HR person appearing to canoodle with someone we find distasteful, we ask why.  We ask if this is the image our collective “we” wants to project out into the world.  We ask if this is really how we want to meet our objectives when the alternatives are too numerous to list. We must ask ourselves the same questions and then demand answers.

We have to act as a resource for each other.  Luckily, we’ve created great communities where we can share our struggles and get feedback from our peers.  Take the Manufacturer’s Alliance.  In every single meeting I’ve presented, they talked amongst themselves about their challenges, solicited advice, and bared naked some truly challenging issues.  Take local SHRM chapters.  The same thing happens there more informally.  Notes are taken.  Calls are made.  Things get better.  You don’t have to be in a formal group, you just need a group where you can safely ask questions and get the help you need.

We in HR are going to continually be demonized for the acts of a few of us.  We’re not alone in this (looking at you police officers), but we have to do better for all of us. This means holding each other accountable and asking both ourselves and our leaders hard questions.

I’ll get off my soapbox now.  Thank you for listening!

 

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Tough Conversations

Question:  What do I do if during a conversation about poor performance the employee starts injecting that she’s being attacked or has been harassed?

A tough conversation is exactly that – tough.  For a lot of managers, tough conversations include performance discussions.  A March 2016 Harvard Business Review article explained that two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees. Two-thirds!  This means a couple of things:  (1) managers don’t know how to have tough conversations; and (2) managers are not prepared to have tough conversations.  HR can help with this!

It is a rare organization that does a great job training managers on how to manage.  Most don’t have the time or resources to devote to some of the “softer” skills about how to communicate with employees.  So, we send managers out into our organizations to fend for themselves, explain they should treat employees how they want to be treated, buy them a book on leadership, and hope for the best.  While I wish managers knew more, here’s what I’d like them to know about tough conversations:

Plan.  Prepare a script.  I recommend you draft an email with some bullet points or full script of what you need to convey to the employee.  If you don’t plan, it’s possible that the conversation will wander and you may miss the clear messaging you need to convey.

Consult.  Consult with HR, another manager, and/or your manager.  Ask them for feedback that you can use to improve your messaging or alter your wording to make the message even more clear or less emotional or harsh.

Take a beat.  Yes, performance should be addressed as soon as possible, but a discussion about performance should not happen in the heat of the moment or in anger.  Take a beat to breathe, plan, and consult.  It’s okay and even preferred where the manager’s own emotion could hinder the discussion.  Just don’t let the beat last longer than one business day.

Schedule.  This is a short, in-person meeting – usually less than 15 minutes.  There should not be a long list of things you need to cover.  Bogging it down with other subjects reduces the importance of the poor performance part of the discussion, so performance should be the only topic of the conversation from the manager’s perspective.  Plus, if you add other topics, the employee may not remember them.

Anticipate.  Usually, a manager knows if an employee will cry, become defensive, and/or angry.  Ponder in your planning what could happen.  Have tissues ready, let HR know you’re having the conversation, or plan to have someone with you if you have concerns about the employee’s reaction.  Select this person carefully – s/he should not be a co-worker of the employee.

Prepare for surprise.  Sometimes, a manager won’t be able to anticipate how the employee react.  In the question above, if the employee starts lodging complaints, the manager needs to know how to refocus the discussion.  Managers will need to hear a complaint, but then remind the employee that she’s there to talk about performance.  Managers should report the complaint immediately after the meeting so HR or management can take action.

Document.  Use your bullet points or script to recap with additions of how the meeting actually went.  The employee does not have to sign off on the documentation but should know of the document’s existence.

I often joke that managers have the word “manage” in their job title, so they’ve got to actually manage.  Most managers are great at saying “you’re doing great,” but it is those conversations where they have to confront an employee about poor performance or misconduct that trips them up.  For HR, this means we coach managers through these tough conversations.  Use these tips and reach out when you need help.

 

 

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