Data has rapidly become one of the most valuable assets a company can hold, thanks in part to the advent of innovative technologies that can extract powerful insights from an array of data sources. Much of the focus of AI tools has been on exploiting customer data rather than seeking to collect and utilise employee data, leaving many businesses with an incomplete or inaccurate view of their workforce.
There are a great deal of ethical concerns that must be considered when companies begin to mine employee data with adequate protections needed to ensure that there is transparency around every stage of this process. But if these challenges can be overcome, fundamental improvements can be made to both employee wellbeing and, ultimately, the company itself.
“Employee data, when viewed holistically, is a powerful tool that reveals under-utilised talent, evaluates the effectiveness of your hiring processes and training programmes, and provides insights to trends affecting employee engagement,” says Norberts Erts, co-founder of CakeHR, a HR software company that streamlines attendance, performance and recruitment management.
An Accenture survey of over 10,000 workers and 1,400 C-suite executives across a range of industries and countries found that more than 90% of employees are happy for employers to collect and use data on them, on the agreement that they benefit from this deal.
“Employees are allowing their employers to streamline company processes, improve employee benefits, and create more engagement in the workplace. All of this contributes not only to the company’s bottom line but also on the workforce’s overall wellbeing,” says Mr Erts.
However, there needs to be a clear distinction between the type of data that it is acceptable for employers to monitor and private data. For example, work-related tasks including emails and phone calls are reasonable areas for companies to analyse for actionable insights, but recording social media activity and in-office conversations are widely seen as steps too far.
Innovative technologies that give businesses the power to track virtually all aspects of how an employee works are not intrusive in their daily life, but they do raise questions over both what employers are doing with this data and if it is secure.
As companies will be responsible for legally and ethically collecting data and ensuring it is secure, those that fail in this role will face major reputational and ethical damage. Losing sensitive employee data through a data breach can be almost impossible to recover from, in terms of rebuilding employee trust.
A survey released for the 20th HR Metrics & Analytics Summit last year found that just 52% of staff trust their employer to protect their data, highlighting the importance of companies ensuring they have sufficiently protected their employees’ data.
Striking the right balance between what employers want and the privacy expectations of workers will require close collaboration between staff representatives and the human resources team. Before any Human Resource Analytics (HRA) program or software is introduced to the workplace, there should be a comprehensive consulting process that allows staff to play a central role in deciding what solutions are used.
The goal of HRA solutions that mine and analyse employee data is not to micromanage staff and log every single interaction employees have, as this would clearly be counterproductive and limit trust and creativity. If an employee is taking a relatively large amount of sick days, compared to others on their team, then managers can use this information to offer support and help the employee work through whatever issues they are experiencing.
With staff expecting to benefit from the use of HRA, companies must show them how the data analysis tools that have been implemented actually benefit the employee experience. Transparency is key to making a success of using employee data, and explicitly explaining the entire process to employees will help ensure that there will be no hidden programs for staff to accidentally discover down the line.
Adrian Barrett, founder & CEO of Exonar, a data discovery and management software firm, believes that employees will get back what they put in to any data collection programme.
“A simple way to give staff peace of mind is to appoint a staff representative to be part of any ™ data collection initiative. Then creating a solid data discovery and governance strategy demonstrates that the organisation takes data protection seriously, and they’re aware of the need to continually monitor data to ensure it remains safe and protected at all times,” says Mr Barrett.
HRA is a burgeoning approach that uses data-driven insights to understand how best to manage staff in the workplace. By bringing together often disparate data sources like staff attendance, work history, survey responses and churn rates, HRA tools are able to identify ways companies can improve staff wellbeing and operations.
“Regular data collection, including surveys and exit interviews, can give you valuable information to tailor-fit your employee benefits programmes that can make your employees happier and more productive. A happy workforce is a secret to a healthy company bottom line,” explains Mr Erts of CakeHR.
For example, if a certain department or team is found to be taking longer than other parts of the company to complete administrative tasks, solutions can be considered that automate these tasks, thereby freeing up vital staff time and making the workforce more productive.
An ideal example of using AI technology to mine for insights in employee data is from insurance firm AXA. This French insurer created a virtual career assistant that is able to offer tailored answers to questions like: What job options are best suited to my interests and skills? What training is available to me?
Mr Barrett believes that regardless of the field, using personal data to make better decisions should be the standard. “Who’s leaving the company? The answer is in the data. Who knows the most about a particular topic? The answer is in the data. Who is the unsung hero in the business, the person with all the ideas on how to change and improve the organisation? The answer is in the data,” he explains.
The conversation around the ethics of gathering employee data is only going to gain momentum as AI and machine-learning technology improves and is able to provide more insights into employees. AI tools like Vibe, an app that can assess staff morale on the Slack communications app, provides companies with a simple way to improve employee engagement.
But Vibe, like many other tools that analyse employee data, can be used without the staff members themselves knowing that they are in operation. By following all the legal obligations in every jurisdiction, companies can make certain that, at a minimum, the use and collection of staff data is fully compliant with local laws.
“Organisations can’t just start rooting around in their employees’ correspondence, there needs to be a strong set of standards and controls in place first. Ensuring that an individual’s legal right to privacy is not compromised is of paramount importance. Let GDPR be the guide as to what to do – it contains a strong set of principles that give a good grounding to build from,” adds Mr Barrett.
Under GDPR, employers have a legal requirement to provide an individual with all the data held about them, within 30 days of a Subject Access Request (SAR). According to research from Exonar, even simple SARs cost an average of £145 and take eight hours to complete.
But the real challenge to companies that hold employee data in disparate locations are so-called “weaponised” SARs, which can come from any person, but are most challenging when required by disgruntled employees, as they will typically have insight into the exact data the business holds about them.
Companies that use HRA will have more data about employees than those that do not. Yet, due to the strong level of data organisation these solutions offer, particularly around the automation of data collection and use, dealing with complex SARs will be a simpler process that has far less an impact on the operations of an organisation.
By making use of data discovery technology, the process of finding exactly the right data that is needed becomes more efficient and makes transparency far easier to achieve.
“Then, with the messy business out of the way, the business is free to turn its attention to those employees who do make a difference to the business, revealing the insight locked within the data to discover ways to improve their daily working lives,” concludes Mr Barrett.