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Ethics in HR analytics
Blog - Didier Elzinga, author profile

Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp


David Green recently wrote a great article on a topic very dear to my heart - ethics in HR. He articulated issues that HR needs to consider when it comes to collecting and using people’s data. In recent months, GDPR has forced organizations to look at employee data and privacy like they do for customers. But as the article points out, how we collect and use data inside companies still needs to fundamentally change in a post-GDPR world.

The way organizations collect and use data must fundamentally change

HR has traditionally collected data, analyzed it, and then taken their findings to a small group of executives to make decisions. One of the most powerful concepts raised in the article is that people analytics has to move away from being a clandestine operation done to benefit a few. This is a legal, moral, and ethical requirement.

For too long, people analytics has been something that's done in the skunkworks when it really should be in the hands of every person in the company. Core to this understands why you’re collecting data.

David correctly says that if you can’t articulate the value to the people you’re collecting data from, you shouldn’t be collecting it. This means organizations need to sit down and think about what they’re going to do with data and whether it will benefit their people before they collect it. That’s a complete 180-degree shift from how data collection has been done in the past.

Data must be used to make better, more ethical decisions

Making changes to how we collect and use data is just the first step. When it comes to people analytics, ethically, we have to help people understand how to interpret and use the data we're giving them so they can use it in the spirit it was intended. People analytics uses a range of techniques based on statistics that are incredibly valuable at the population level but they can be problematic if you use them to make a decision about an individual.

For example, my father has had prostate cancer for over a decade. When he was diagnosed he read a lot of research and could say with a great deal of certainty what would happen to 10,000 men, but provided no insight as to what would happen to him specifically. It’s the same with people analytics.

If you’re Head of HR for a 10,000 person company, the data may tell you that people with certain characteristics are more likely to be promoted. But if a manager uses that data to choose between two specific candidates, they can get it very wrong. That’s because the data doesn’t actually tell you anything about those two individuals, it only tells you about the population. Managers have to decide at what point using that learning becomes unethical - this is a huge problem people are only starting to grapple with.

At Culture Amp, we want to provide people throughout the organisation with information to make better decisions - not tell them what they should do. But we do have a responsibility to consider the level of literacy people have with the information we're giving them. That’s why we’ve always tried to engage with and teach people how to use their data correctly and trust them to make the right decisions.

These are big and difficult challenges, but challenges that our industry must confront.

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