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

What Do We Owe Each Other?

While I have been safely ensconced in #SHRM18, I haven’t been able to read the news as much as I’d like.  When I finally looked at my twitter feed devoted to news, I became angry, sad, frustrated, and a whole other host of emotions.  So as midnight approaches, here are some things I hope all of my HR friends take from this fantabulous conference to put into their worlds:

Compassion.  Oscar Munoz explained why caring comes immediately after safety at United.  Caring means holding a door open for a family who just landed a half a terminal away and who are running to catch the plane to see a sick grandma.  While a policy may say one thing, caring about the people we serve (and for those of us in HR, that includes our employees and candidates) sometimes says something different.  If our employees are empowered with compassion, they will do the right thing for our customers, clients, and the greater world.

Compassion.  While he may not have said it in quite this way, Tim Sackett talked about how CEOs want to be able to personalize our HR plans because our people are individuals who want personalization.  Personalization means we have to know, acknowledge, and understand the needs of candidates and employees.  We can’t personalize unless we are compassionate with the people we help every day.

Compassion.  In discussing inclusion, Joe Gerstandt asked us to imagine a world where employees have space to be themselves, we ask and they speak about the personal parts of their life so they don’t feel they have to hide parts of themselves.  “How are you really?”  “How is your mom?  Is she feeling better?”  Adding circle tables to a break room so people can interact.  Integrating our values into conversations about our objectives, especially when we are struggling with an issue.  We want our employees to be innovative problem-solvers, and we can do that by being compassionate with them.

Compassion.  I was unable to attend Adam Grant’s presentation.  But from what I saw on the twitters, it was amazing.  One thing he challenged me on is ending exit interviews.  The argument (via him and some super HR pros) is that we should have known about the problems before the employee leaves.  This is absolutely true.  We should have known.  When an employee is so afraid to talk to us while still working for us, we have lost.  Lost big time.  We need employees to want to talk with us, to want to share the good stuff and the bad stuff.  This takes trust.  We can foster trust by being compassionate with our folks.  Knowing their names, their struggles, their successes.  When they see that we are interested and invested in their well-being, they will come to us with their concerns.

So, what do we owe each other?  Do we owe each person around us respect?  Hells to the yeah.  Do we owe each other attention when a problem crops up or a success is achieved?  Yes.  Do we owe someone time when he is asking for help in dealing with FMLA paperwork because his wife is ill?  Yes.  All of this takes compassion.  When we see people suffering, do we owe them help?  Yes.  It breaks my heart to see people suffering.  I hope that is true for everyone in HR.  We owe ourselves, our employees, and the people around us compassion.

I’m going to try to remain hopeful and do better myself.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Man-Bashing Training

Question:  Do we vilify men in harassment training?   

Think about that for a moment.  Do we use more man-on-woman examples?  (Probably.)  Do we need to change this?  Yes.  Harassment training is for everybody because everybody could harass.  According to a recent poll, one in seven men has experienced harassment at work. So, we can’t ignore men and their experiences just because so many women have similar experiences.

It is possible (and maybe even likely) that we’ve created an environment surrounding harassment training that we’ve alienated men or have come across as attacking them.  If this is the case, we should be criticized.  And, we should do better.  Here’s how I think we can do this:

Know our audience.  Every training should be customized to the workplace.  If the scenarios don’t feel real, the training won’t have an impact.  Because we have men in our workplaces, we can’t exclude their experience (and fear) from our training.  We should address it, and give a workable framework on what we expect from them.

Start with respect.  Often in trainings, I hear the statement, “I can’t even compliment a woman anymore.”  This comment comes from a man, usually over 40, who is sitting with his arms crossed, angry that he even needs to be in the room.  I turn to him and say, “There’s a difference between ‘That dress is very nice on you’ and ‘That dress hugs you in all the right ways.’”  He nods, and if I’m lucky, he chuckles a bit.  I then say, “We’re here to talk about that difference.”  That difference is respect.

For all of you labor lawyers cringing at this, listen up!  We live in a society where respect is under a near constant barrage.  We can’t operate in workplaces where respect and integrity aren’t at the core of what we are.  Without respect, we don’t get innovation.  So, we should make respect the cornerstone of our training. Our employees want respect.  They expect and deserve respect.  Starting our training talking about respect is what we must do.  If every conversation was respectful, we wouldn’t have harassment.

Have diverse examples.  Women-on-women harassment happens.  Men-on-men harassment happens.  So, we should have diverse examples.  Some of my best examples – examples that result in the most discussion – are man-on-man and woman-on-man.  We want to have a discussion and a bit of uncomfortableness.  Because we learn when we experience and are at least a bit uncomfortable, the discussion has any chance to really make a difference.

Use the whole scale of harassment.  Include examples of calling someone “sweetheart” or “man candy.”  Talk about staring, dirty jokes, and racial epithets.  You can talk about kissing, hugging, and even assault too, but ignoring the subtle stuff ignores where most harassment starts.  We don’t want this.

Ask, “what would you do?”  We should put our employees in the uncomfortable position of asking them what they would do.  You may be surprised by the responses.  Then, we should explain what we want them to do.  We don’t have to change their personalities to get between a harasser and his/her victim, but we should at least explain who we want them to tell.

Harassment training should mirror the tone of our workplaces.  It should set expectations and be meaningful for employees and managers.  It should make our employees contemplate their conduct without making them feel bad.

One more point:  Ladies, we don’t get to objectify men at work.  I’ve heard the argument that men have objectified women for a long time, so women should get to objectify men as a matter of fairness or even that they like it (uff da).  But like India has to grow green while we polluted for decades, we have to do the right thing.  We can’t objectify them either.  Enjoy a Magic Mike movie, but you can’t bring the poster into the office.  Ok?

This evening, I get to talk about trends in harassment training.  I’ve very excited (and a more than a bit nervous) about this.  Eliminating man-bashing will be one of the trends along with bystander and civility components, manager focus, and welcomeness elimination.  Any others you think I should talk about?

Photo by Nicholas Green on Unsplash

#UltiConnect!

This week, I was honored to be included in a loveable group of yahoos – I mean, influencers – at Ultimate Software’s Connections Conference in Las Vegas.  These people are leading the way in human resources and technology, and I’m lucky to call them friends.

The conference itself was really something.  While Robin Roberts and John O’Leary’s keynotes were fantastic, it was Ultimate Chief Executive Officer Scott Scherr who left the biggest impact on me.  Mr. Scherr’s general session did not focus on what was new or why his leadership has brought success to the company like how many other CEOs may have spent their time.  Instead, he focused on his people.  He went through a list of Ultipeeps who have made a difference.  This list was impressive, even if he was slightly embarrassing a few of them.

But what really got me was how Mr. Scherr focused on their “People First” mantra as not just a mantra but a lifestyle.  In a presentation to SHRM in 2009, Mr. Scherr said the following, “The measure of a company is how they treat their lowest paid employee.”  In this year’s session, Mr. Scherr talked about how the character of the company relies on the character of its people.  When you hire good people, you treat them well, they will take care of the 3,700 customers there at the conference and all those who were unable to attend.  This is so true.  Another (more lawyerly) way to look at this is when people are treated well, the compliance risks are significantly lower for an organization.

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If you’d like to see the sessions where I presented, please see the links for employee communication (I start at 17:25) and women in leadership.  The women in leadership session was made up of some fantastic women!  I highly recommend spending some time to learn from them.

 

What’s the Problem with Training?

Who here provides sexual harassment training for managers and employees?  Who here thinks their training prevents sexual harassment in their workplace?  Who here is confident that their managers know what to do to prevent harassment?  Who here is confident that sexual harassment could never happen in your workplace because you have a policy and you’ve trained?

Let’s be honest.  No one is confident that your workplace is 100% harassment-free simply because you have a policy and have provided training.  (Heck, if that’s how training and policies worked, we’d never have poor performance or discipline issues.)  We know that harassment can happen in spite of our policies and trainings.  We even read articles that suggest harassment training can have a negative effect the workplace.  So, should we stop training?  No.  Absolutely not.

Don’t lose hope in training.  Lose hope in bad training.  Here’s what makes training good:

It’s live. A live training invites conversation.  Conversation invites questions.  We want people to ask us questions.  It is a rare video that actually sparks conversation afterward, so if you are going to video, make sure you check in with folks after they’ve watched it or that the video includes a live (studio) audience.

It’s couched in respect. We know that harassment has a lot to do with power dynamics in the workplace and/or a lack of respect.  The training should reflect that.  I joke that harassment violates a lot of the rules we learned in Kindergarten – keep your hands to yourself, treat each other nicely, say sorry – and to a large extent that’s true.  If we treated everyone with respect, harassment wouldn’t be a problem.  Spend some time talking about respect and what that means for your workplace.  Hint:  This is the civility piece the EEOC wants.

It’s customized to the workplace. Managers and employees need to see themselves in the scenarios posed by the training.  It is important that the training be relatable enough that it makes people feel uncomfortable.  We learn in the uncomfortable.  A manufacturing facility needs a factory line example.  Software companies need software development examples.  A bank needs banking examples.  A retail establishment has an employee-customer example.  I can’t stress enough how important this is.  For hospitality clients, I’m using this video.

We play a game from my favorite podcast where the audience or I can stop the video at any point and talk about what we saw.  This video is so great because it has a gradual increase in severity until the big incident.  It sparks a lot of conversation – great conversation.

The trainer asks questions. What would you do if you saw this?  Would you step in?  Do you have to?  What does the company want you to do?  What if this happened to you?  These are the kinds of bystander questions that the EEOC wants to see in harassment training.  Even if the audience is hesitant to raise their hands, they are answering in their heads and waiting to see what someone else might say.  I’m happy with answering in your head because you’re answering.  If the audience can see themselves in the scenario and are asked what they would do, they’ll remember that feeling when they’re actually in a situation.

Acknowledge the fear. There is a lot of fear about harassment.  Men are afraid to compliment a female co-worker on her dress.  Companies are banning hugging.  A good trainer will tackle this fear head-on, explaining there’s a difference between “you look nice today” and “hey baby, that dress hugs you in all the right ways.”  Spending time talking about the fear and how to handle it can make people feel more comfortable with their own conduct and be more willing to talk to each other.

Folks learn who to talk to. We don’t need the audience to remember the ins and outs of harassment law – we only need them to remember what is problematic and who to talk to.  They need to know that HR is here to listen to them and if they’re uncomfortable with reporting the situation to HR, they can talk to any manager.  So, HR (and a member of upper management) should be there so the trainer can point to them.  “These are the people who will drop everything if you walk into their office with a concern about harassment.”  Employees and managers need to know they are not alone with this, and the organization really, really wants to hear from them.

Training cannot be the only thing an organization does to prevent harassment.  It takes a culture where employees trust managers and feel comfortable talking about these issues without fear of losing their jobs.  That takes much more than training.  But, training is an important piece of this.

I am doing a great deal of harassment training these days in response to #MeToo and #TimesUp.  While I wish these movements did not have to exist, I’m happy organizations are spending the time and resources to do the training.  Consider it for yours.

 

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

Some of Us Hear You

It’s February, Black History Month, and the return of #BlackBlogsMatter.  I love this time of the year – not only because we champion the contributions of African Americans, but because this is a great opportunity for some of us to challenge our thinking, our perspectives, and quite frankly, our privilege.

This is hard.  Many people believe that our country gives everyone the chance to succeed.  The point to the “self-made” folk like Oprah, Jay-Z, or Robert Johnson as people who have made it.  However, when we point to these wildly successful people, we are also suggesting that those who haven’t made it just haven’t worked hard enough.  This is a problem – maybe even the problem with pushing the “pull yourself up from the bootstraps” American narrative.  Our society and our workplaces have been built on this narrative with built-in advantages for white people (particularly white men).

Here are some ways we may be perpetuating the privilege:

  • We recruit from our networks, begging our current employees to mine their LinkedIn and Facebook networks to find our next great hire. However, there’s overwhelming evidence that we flock to people who look like us, creating networks without a great deal of diversity.
  • We recruit from educational institutions we or one of our friends graduated from. While some have made great strides, white folk still take up a greater percentage of college graduates.
  • Unconscious bias affects our hiring and promotions. We have started doing blind hiring, which can help, but we cannot hold this technique as the end-all, be-all that solves the problem.
  • We avoid having discussions of race. While our avoidance makes for a great SNL skit, our avoidance only allows the problem to continue to fester.

We have to be more proactive, more intentional with how we build workplaces that accurately reflect the world around us with the diversity of race, age, religion, gender, thought, etc.  If we don’t, we’re missing out.  Missing out on better decision-making, better business, and a better place for everyone.  This means taking a hard look at our current practices, having hard discussions, and confronting the problems whether we intentionally created them or not.  We can’t simply watch the documentaries, revise policies, or give lip service to our desire to build more inclusive workplaces.  We actually have to self-reflect as organizations and individuals even though the guilt seizes us with paralysis.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers here.  I do know that the best way to start is by listening to those voices we haven’t been very good about listening to and then lending our voices to help.  In a recent blog post, Jazmine Wilkes (a member of the #HRTribe) lamented the lack of white voices speaking up to combat the ongoing prejudice and injustice facing so many.  To Jazmine, Sarah, Keirsten, Tamara, Janine, Rachel, and all the folks writing this month for #BlackBlogsMatter, I hear you and here’s my voice.

 

Photo by Nicholas Kampouris on Unsplash