Sumser: Health and safety are at the heart of business continuity

Business continuity–at its simplest, staying in business–is the primary concern of HR executives these days. Even though we are dealing with an extreme form of the problem right now, it is always a driving concern of a well-managed HR function.

Everything depends on business continuity.

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Health and Safety

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In the midst of the pandemic, continuity involves primary needs like health and safety. All of the talk about managing skills, creating employee experiences and other forms of employee development are, in fact, expressions of employee health and safety.

There is a great deal of optimism about the vaccines and the end (or at least better control) of the pandemic. It will be a while before we can see more clearly where we are and what’s next. From here, it’s hard to tell if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel or if it’s an oncoming train.


DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives are another fundamental of health and safety. Providing a discrimination- and harassment-free workplace is not just the law; it is essential to a healthy, functional organization.

In addition, DEI will be deeply emphasized in the new administration. That suggests a reinvigorated EEOC and more attention paid to measurable progress. Expect pressure on the four-fifths rule (the EEOC’s idea that 80% effectiveness is “good enough”) in disparate impact cases. It will come to be understood as “that old-fashioned idea that meant that 20% discrimination was legal.”

Related: What the Biden agenda will mean for HR, employers

The December job figures showed women losing 156,000 jobs (particularly women of color), while men gained 16,000 jobs. Race, gender and pay equity issues will be central moving forward. The economic impact of the pandemic is harder on some classes of people than others. Sadly, it’s the same old disparity. Men, particularly white men, gain at the direct expense of others.

AI, Data Tools and Ethics

As a direct result of the renewed emphasis on DEI topics, AI and its ethical issues will also be front and center in business continuity. HR departments are realizing that their organizations still hold the liability even when machines make decisions on their behalf. Expect a flowering of HR departments with AI ethics functions. It’s not only possible to imagine meeting a much higher standard than 80%, it’s imperative.

We also need to reassess how we are using data. AI is based on historical data and the assumption that things will continue as they did in the past. AI is of little use in navigating these “black swan” events. And we’ve had a flock of them.

That’s not to say that AI is irrelevant. Rather, we are in the earliest stages of an intoxicating new era. By learning how to use and make sense of the flawed output of current systems, we will be building muscle memory for the time when AI loses its dependence on historical data. That time will be sooner rather than later. And this is a good thing since organizations survive by their adaptation to unforeseen events–not by simply repeating the past.

There are at least 30 HR tech initiatives that try to mine skills information from a combination of resumes and job descriptions. These tools are not much good at understanding the actual skills involved in a job because resumes and job descriptions don’t describe the reality of the work. The over-complicated taxonomies obscure the fact that many skills are easily transferrable once you understand that the same thing has different names. The latest crop of skills tools makes it hard to see this important truth.

See also: How to use AI, data to drive inclusion

Still, HR executives will be asked to take it on faith that these tools will help solve business continuity questions. Whether they are useful in their current form is the subject of debate.

The HR technology industry is going to reflect the K-shaped economy. The sectors blessed with economic benefit from the pandemic will continue to prosper; their approach to business continuity will look just like it did before the spring of 2020. The companies that have taken a beating will be focused on basic survival. The upper leg of the K will be looking for tools that help expansion. The lower leg will be looking for things that resemble life preservers.

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That means that this year will be a time of contrasts in HR tech. It’s not a good time to believe sweeping generalizations. It’s particularly important, if you are using benchmarks, to understand the circumstances of the people you are imitating or measuring against. We are not going back to the way it was. This is an opportunity to think bigger and explore new approaches that will make business continuity possible. And it starts with health and safety.

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John Sumser
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 can be emailed at [email protected].