What are the Ethical Limits of People Analytics?

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The promise of People Analytics is to offer deeper and deeper insight into the condition, capacity, potential and intentions of the workforce. The benefits lie in being able to optimise workforce planning, deployment, training, management and succession.

Like all business analytics, its commercial value - at least its potential value - has been demonstrated fairly conclusively. However, what separates this field from other areas of business analytics is the nature of the data – a huge proportion of at least internal data is directly harvested from the qualities and behaviours of individuals working there.

This raises questions about ownership of this data, and in who’s interests it is being used. Addressing these questions is no longer an option for any data-driven organisation – a backlash against a perceived intrusion into the private sphere is already being seen, and a company that ignores the concerns of its employees about their own data being potentially used against them does so at its peril.

In Europe, including the UK, the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that comes into force in May 2018 gives many of these concerns a legal grounding, with punishing consequences for non-compliance. Less formal but at least as potentially damaging is the prospect of the PR nightmare of being seen as untrustworthy with personal data, and the consequent impact on employer brand and worker loyalty.

So – how is an organisation to navigate these waters? A balance must be struck between the commercial imperative to enhance both its data set and its analytics activity, and the emotional and legal consequences of overstepping what is considered to be ethical and justifiable.

We have convened some leading voices in this space, with a breadth of experience that spans multiple organisations and multiple spheres of work, to give their perspective on some critical issues that HR - and wider business – needs to address as analytics gets deeper and more personal:

- Who does employee data belong to? Can this be signed away in the small print?

- At what point does the employee need to be asked for consent?

- To what extent do the interests of the employee need to be considered when mining for more data?

- If information is public – eg. social media data – can it justifiably be used against the interests of the individual employee by their employer?

- In the event that servicing one is to the detriment of the other, what should shareholders prioritise – employee wellbeing or company performance?

- Are predictive algorithms becoming a replacement for good management?

- If using personal or non-personal (eg. demographic) data in hiring/development decisions can be shown to have a broadly positive financial impact for an organisation, but that it can be potentially damaging or catastrophic for individuals who cannot control this data, who’s interests should be prioritised? What if the ones who suffer at the hands of the data they have provided are a tiny proportion of a company of hundreds of thousands who would benefit from their loss?

- Are there limits to the kinds of data that an organisation can legitimately collect on its employees while at work without explicit consent? Should it be opt-in or opt-out?

- If an employee can withdraw their consent for their data to be analysed, is it fair that they continue to benefit from the results of analytics based on their consenting colleagues’ data?

- If it could be statistically proven, in a specific and enclosed situation, that employee wellbeing had no significant impact on productivity or profitability, would there be any rational reason for that organisation to invest in – or even care about – employee wellbeing?

- What is the best way to make sure you have the support and consent of your employees for using their data to serve the interests of the organisation – which is the one investing in the analytics programme in the first place?

Raise your own concerns and have your say - don’t miss this climax of Europe’s premier forum for People Analytics, Data-Driven HR and the Future of Work

Panel Debate