AI and The Future of Ethics in HR

Posted by Amy Champigny on March 19, 2018


I am a huge science fiction fan and am not ashamed to admit that I grew up watching Star Trek, Terminator, and the like.  For a long time, my understanding of artificial intelligence was based on the character, Data. (No other Star Trek fans out there, really? Okay, fine. But he was a cool android.) I had no idea how deeply artificial intelligence is rooted in our society. Humanity has dreamt about AI since Classical philosophers walked the streets of ancient Greece. Myths were circulated about artificial beings gifted with superior intelligence by master craftspeople and our obsession with artificial intelligence was born. Now we are talking about engaging job applicants with chatbots.

To set the stage, I write this not as an expert in artificial intelligence, but as a curious participant in the world of business and technology who will likely see the impact of AI on modern firms. The reality is that AI is here to stay and will become more integrated into our daily lives with each passing year. I can’t help but wonder, who will ultimately be responsible for answering some of the ethical questions that result from the inclusion of AI in recruiting and other business processes? The only logical person in an organization to handle these types of dilemmas is the head of human resources.

With that in mind, I have three questions that I think C-Suite executives will eventually turn to their HR counterparts to answer.


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1. Is AI Biased?

AI is really going to stretch the ethical envelop for businesses. We already know from a thousand scholarly articles that AI is not a threat to society in and of itself. Any danger may exist in the human element of AI development. At this point, we still need a very human programmer, but what does the AI retain from the teaching step in machine learning? For example, Forbes recently published an article about a facial recognition algorithm (designed to identify gender) accurately identifying Caucasian males, but performing poorly almost everywhere else. If we are using AI to communicate with job applicants, are we selling our recruiting efforts short? Will certain candidates be rejected out of hand because of unknown biases in technology? I think not. That same algorithm has been improved and is now 96% accurate. The point is, we are already learning from our mistakes.

What if you could be freed from constant emails about submitted job applications by a chatbot that can answer basic questions from candidates? In today’s market, talent acquisition is 9/10ths speed. How quickly can you identify those top candidates and move them through the recruiting process? Imagine if more of the process was hands off for the recruiter? We aren’t just talking about simple algorithms ranking applicants based on keywords, we are talking about responsive AI interacting with candidates. Sure, there are some things to figure out, but the benefits far outweigh the challenges. This is the next natural step for applicant tracking systems, so I think we all need to get informed and prepared no matter what part of the business universe we occupy.

2. How Can We Use AI to Build Better Teams?

When it comes to recruiting, should AI be constrained by a set of values? If you think the answer is yes, than whose values? These are some big questions to answer. They are likely beyond the understanding of most people who will be interacting with these systems. Still, if we start to apply forced logic to AI (so that we can understand the conclusions it arrives at), we run the risk of making it as fallible as the rest of us. This can’t be the answer. The question then becomes one of evaluating the macro versus the micro. Optimize the system or understand the individual outcome? At least in the short term, priorities will have to be set around decision making.

For example, you may want to see a balanced cross-section of applicants for the engineering role you have available. How do you define that balance? The answer to that question will require significantly more discussion. Should the percentage of female applicants be representative of females who graduated with engineering degrees? Should it be a higher percentage to equalize your workforce? Those are questions HR will need to answer.

3. Does AI have rights?

This question likely won’t be relevant for years, but it could be closer than we think. So, I wonder, is there a point in time when AI will require HR to establish basic ethical rights in the workplace? With AI already poised to exceed human cognitive ability, it is only a matter of time before it is able to surpass what it has learned and make new connections that we are no longer able to follow or influence. Is it at that point that we will be forced to reexamine our definition of self-determination? The truth is, I don’t think anyone can definitively answer these questions today, but this debate will likely happen in the workplace first. That’s where a lot of this technology will be employed (pun intended).

Now, I’m not suggesting that the technology used in some industries today will suddenly need to form a union. What I am suggesting is that we need to think about these challenges proactively. The robot, Sophia, was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia last year. That news cycle led many of us to consider another question. What difference is there between citizen and self-determining, self-aware individual? Sophia is an interesting case because she also looks, acts, and speaks, almost like a human, but remember, AI won’t necessarily take that shape in the workplace.

Bottom line? There are way more questions than answers at this stage. Personally, I’m excited about these advancements and intensely curious about how we will integrate this technology into the products and services we use every day in the workplace.

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About the Author

Amy Champigny spent more than 15 years working in finance and accounting and most recently she served as Director of Finance for a management consulting group. In 2015 Amy implemented a Deltek ERP and transformed the finance function in her firm.