Sumser: 8 ways to reflect on your HR ethics

By: | June 4, 2020 • 4 min read
Emerging Intelligence columnist John Sumser is the principal analyst at HRExaminer. He researches the impact of data, analytics, AI and associated ethical issues on the workplace. John works with vendors and HR departments to identify problems, define solutions and clarify the narrative. He will speak at the 2020 Virtual HR Technology Conference scheduled for Oct. 27-30. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

Pandemic, massive racial and political unrest, economic disruption, men in space, generational conflict, cities burning. You could be forgiven if you think we’ve been transported back to the 1960s. For a long time, nothing much happened. Then, whammo. It’s all happening at once.

The progress toward a society rooted in equality stalled some time ago. It took a political administration that says the quiet part out loud to pull the covers off the thing we didn’t want to see: We live in a class-driven society. And the primary determinant of class is skin color. Our organizations are reflections of the structural forces that drive unequal access to resources, education, jobs, and technology.

See more from John Sumser here. 

In the early days of intelligent tools (AI), much was made of the desire to eliminate bias from decision-making. The theory was that bias existed in the data and, if we just used the right data, model or algorithm, we could remove human bias and get objective, data-driven decisions. The idea made the tech optimists very happy.

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But you can’t eliminate bias with data. Data is the result of measuring what happens in the world. Our culture is biased. People are biased. Often, they don’t even realize it. The data simply reflects this. And trying to bury the signal is the most likely way to amplify it.

While one can discover bias in data, the data is not the source of bias. People are. The problem is with what is happening and being measured, not in our carefully constructed models of it.

The first wave of AI in HR tech focused on the data. The second wave has to get closer to the action. Bias is not an ivory tower topic for analysis; it is the daily lived experience of far too many people. Changing the story we tell through data won’t change this reality.

Whatever we have been doing to address the problem hasn’t worked.

The ways we have approached bias and ethics in HR and HR tech have failed to solve the problem. Our current approach produces lists of things you shouldn’t do and quantitative targets for the things you should. We end up caring more about the content of the reports than the content of the organization.

Laws are rules, mostly about what you can’t do. Ethics are questions about the right thing to do. The right thing to do often requires change. And this means asking hard questions that data based on the past cannot help us answer.

The process of really thinking hard about something should generate ideas that in turn raise deeper questions. The deeper you dig, the more refined the conversation becomes.

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Here are a few questions for consideration. They won’t have bright shiny fixes. Instead, they will lead you on a path of discovery, reflection and improvement.

  1. Why don’t leadership teams reflect the diversity of our workers and population? Where do our systems, processes, assessments, measurements and definitions of success create barriers for people of color, women, people with disabilities and the neurodiverse? Where have we limited the realm of possibility based on assumptions about what to do and how to do it?
  2. Are we mistaking the data for reality?
  3. What is the most important ethical question in our organization? What is second?
  4. If we hit our ethics-related targets, what have we achieved besides accomplishing a numerical goal?
  5. How do we understand and measure power in our organizations so we can understand who is being excluded or chosen based on past practice or assumptions?
  6. How do you monitor and examine all of the biases in an organization, legal or illegal?
  7. How do supply chains and ecosystems manage ethical issues? Should there be a conversation across organizational boundaries?
  8. What other issues should we be examining from an ethical perspective? Is profit the most important thing in our organization, or is it a symptom of a deeper commitment to doing the right thing?

HR, like the rest of our culture, is at an inflection point. We can and must do better. I am extremely interested in talking with people who are taking on bigger ethical goals in their companies. I’ll be covering this in my session at the HR Tech Conference this fall.