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.

 

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

Die Annual Performance Review Die

Client calls.  Asks if they can fire Jerry for performance reasons.  The first (seriously, the very first) question I ask is, “what do Jerry’s performance reviews say?”  Experience has taught me that performance-related terminations usually have a homegrown enemy – the employee’s previous annual performance reviews.  What if we could eliminate the enemy by doing it better?

No one likes performance reviews.  Employees lose sleep the night before a review meeting.  Managers hate completing all the forms and fear having uncomfortable conversations.  HR turns into nagging mother-in-law types trying to track down managers to get all the forms turned in so that performance increases can be made.  No one likes this.

Performance reviews are rarely done well.  Most typically, the reviews are so vague they are meaningless.  They focus only on recent events and not performance over the entire year.  They are chockfull of bias.  Sometimes, a manager pretends he lives in Lake Wobegon where all the employees are above average.  Because we in HR are focused on handling the next fire, we don’t have time to push back on managers who do not do performance management well.  So, a poorly completed review gets stuck in a personnel file until I ask about it when the client wants to terminate.

Even when the termination is completely warranted and lawful, it’s the performance review that hurts.  The termination is going to have to get explained.  I’m confident that I am not the only employment attorney stuck explaining why an employee was terminated for bad performance just weeks after a positive review.  (We attorneys should form a secret society complete with a secret handshake.)  Our explanation is often couched in terms of a rapid performance decline as explained by a manager who “wanted to be nice” in the review but had observed poor performance that resulted in a lost customer, order, and so on.  The explanation by both the attorney and the manager is expensive for the company.

These are just a few of the reasons I want the annual performance review to die.  I’m not advocating for the end of performance management – quite to opposite.  I want more frequent, meaningful reviews for everyone.  Here’s my wishlist:

  • Conversation coaching.  Managers need to have difficult conversations with employees about performance.  Most managers, and particularly new managers, have not learned how to have these difficult conversations.  HR pros are conversation coaches, so we need to coach our managers on how to have these conversations.  Or, we need to get our managers the training and skills necessary.
  • Frequent discussions.  I love one-on-ones when they’re done right.  Brief meetings that discuss how projects are progressing that also discuss how the employee is doing are vital to successful businesses.  With this, managers get a sense of what roadblocks they can remove, and employees get critical feedback on how to do better.
  • Transparency.  People need to know how they’re doing.  Managers need to tell them.  Use examples.  Explain how things can improve.  Show.  If employees know where they stand, they may be able to understand why you’re firing them and not believe it is for some unlawful reason.
  • Recognize.  It isn’t just poor performance that needs to see the light of day.  Good performance does too.  Managers need to know how to champion those performers with potential as well as coaching those who just haven’t meet expectation quite yet.
  • Documents.  (Insert collective reader sigh here.)  Yes, feedback discussions should be documented.  I don’t care you document provided you document and I can get it later when we need it.  You can use the functionality of your HCM or you can have managers email themselves brief synopsis of each conversation.  With the conversation coaching, coach managers how to document as well, including how to remove references to protected class status, leave use, or other items that could get an organization in trouble.

Employees deserve to know how they are doing.  More importantly, they want to know how they are doing.  That’s what a great performance management process can do – get employees what information they need to do their jobs well so we can do our business well.

 

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash