Automated HR received a bit of a bashing last month, with critics alleging the approach has been found to be lacking in the human touch. In early June, some investigative journalism at business publication Bloomberg kicked all this off with a story revealing how inflexible ‘robot’ HR processes had caused problems for some employees at Amazon, for example.
This was then amplified in other quarters, with The Daily Mail soon on the bandwagon: “Workers have been mired for hours on the phone and dealing with chatbots designed to fulfill requests automatically…Amazon’s automation has wrongfully initiated termination proceedings on some employees who are sick or recovering from COVID-19 for allegedly missing shifts [and the software] has also reportedly denied sick-leave to workers who [are] ill or need to take care of those who are sick.”
This alleged “dysfunction” has been “exacerbated” by the company’s goal of “reducing its human workforce to focus more heavily on automation”, state the attacks, which got expanded on by a number of other publications, such as the US’s Insurance Journal. There, one Amazon worker is quoted on how the robots think he’s deliberately missing shifts while being on sick leave approved by another part of the ecommerce giant’s HR process.
The problem is said to be down to “the design” of Amazon’s HR department, which reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the company’s culture by being “heavily automated”. This is becoming an issue now because while the approach helped Amazon grow quickly and restrain costs, in times of crisis like COVID it “leaves employees hitting dead ends with chatbots, smartphone apps and phone trees”.
Sobering stuff, and we hope Amazon, seen as a leader in so many fields, is able to re-balance the need for quick service with sensitivity to employees in trouble not of their own making. While we contemplate the limits of HR tech, though, maybe we should also look on the bright side, in the shape of a great article in Personnel Today by Ksenia Zheltoukhova, director of people at think tank Nesta, that encourages us to use tech to beat unemployment:
“Even without the implications of coronavirus, the world of work is changing at a rapid pace. Trends such as automation, globalisation and the rise of the green economy are all having a big impact on the jobs available, and the skills employers require,” she reminds us.
People need flexible and accessible ways to gain skills, and to have the ability and confidence to make changes in their careers. Technology can play a vital part in this, she notes, making advice and guidance about jobs more accessible, and helping with our understanding of the job market: for example, data driven technologies can gather information from job ads to share insights into jobs that are growing and the skills required, to help people explore careers which they might not have otherwise considered, Nesta believes. Artificial Intelligence can also help by analysing labour market information to provide the most up to date predictions on skills demands, for example:
“Used in the right way, technology can empower workers to understand how their unique skills and experiences fit into this complex picture, and find learning opportunities which meet their individual needs and circumstances… It is more important than ever that we give people the tools they need to plan their path to more secure employment.”
Let’s hope we can make tech a supportive aid to people in the workplace then—and not let teething troubles like Amazon’s stop organisations wanting to explore automation’s potential.