I, Robot: The “Human” in HR – Part 2

Today it seems like every HR magazine or e-newsletter contains an advertisement or article on “HR tech” that promises to provide all manner & quantity of data on a workforce. There is also a running conversation about how HR will become more automated in the future with computers supervising robots!

Until such time as the robots and computers do run the world, the question that needs to be considered is whether HR can play a role in understanding a workforce’s productivity and happiness based on data alone, without genuine human interactions.

In this blog we will look at the pros and cons of reliance on data and tech in HR.

GPS and Fitness Trackers

Some large employers like Amazon track the movements of their warehouse employees using GPS to help those employees find the best route through the warehouse to pick and pack stock. At the same time, an employer is able to record that data in terms of measuring productivity.

Other companies like DEXUS Property Group, provide all employees with FitBits to track their health data. DEXUS Property Group employees are encouraged to challenge each other to reach activity goals or share heart rate information during meetings to avoid making important decisions while stressed. This raises interesting questions for the business and indeed, individuals who are aware of an employee’s elevated heart rate – do they directly question the employee in public or private about their heart rate? Is the employee obligated to disclose the reason if it is a personal issue (such as underlying anxiety for example, a fear of public speaking)? Does the business simply exclude that employee from meetings or the decision making process in consideration for their heart rate? If so, what impact will that have on the individual employee and their position in the team and business?

Cloud Based HR platforms

Simple cloud-based HR platforms designed to manage personnel files bundle their service with a stylish digital dashboard that breaks down the statistics of a workforce by age, gender and salary. There is no doubt that these types of tools have a practical benefit for HR teams (less paperwork being one of the main attractions) but the “added bonus” of the visual statistical breakdown may or may not be helpful.

For example, in the US, a digital health benefits platform recently came under scrutiny when it was revealed that employers could view detailed data on the health information of their employees. The health information, though scrubbed of identifying information, could be used to predict certain workforce outcomes and effect planning decisions. For example, the data could be used to predict how many women in the workforce were pregnant or were considering pregnancy during a particular period, leading an employer to decide to hire fewer women of that age because of the potential strain on the business if they all took parental leave at once. Clearly, this type of data based decision-making could lead to discriminatory recruitment outcomes – in this example where women of a particular age are not recruited simply because they are women and of that age.

Data and Employee Morale

Also available to employers is software that “reads” the email correspondence of a team of employees in real time to sense any strain or discontent within that team. The data produced by the program is intended to help HR to implement and evaluate management decisions. As with the health benefits platform, the email reading software guarantees employee anonymity in the data it collects.

Does the anonymity of the email data pose a problem for HR? Without having access to the actual emails or talking to any employees in a group, could a single employee being sarcastic or “funny” still be identified as being a negative influence? 

Presented with the data – potentially indicating a problem – how now does HR go about discussing the results of the data with a team of employees who were guaranteed anonymity? What if HR does nothing and fails to manage a risk to health and safety in the workplace that they were advised of by the software – and an injury results?


While big data certainly has its uses, even in HR, data collected through various digital means does not reflect the complexities of human behaviour or account for context. Employees can feed surveys false information about engagement and happiness (and some probably think it is funny to do so). Some employees may even feel that their value to an organisation is undermined by the impersonal way they are asked to “rate” their happiness.

Good human resources management is about human relationships and knowing how to get the best performance and engagement from people. A genuine human interaction can understand when “ok” means “not ok.”

Data is a tool for HR and may provide interesting insights, but these insights are no replacement for authentic discussions between employers, HR and employees.  

See also Human Nature: The “Human” in HR – Part 1 and We Don’t Talk Anymore: The “Human” in HR – Part 3.

Shane Koelmeyer is a leading workplace relations lawyer and Director at Workplace Law. Workplace Law is a specialist law firm providing employers with legal advice, training and representation in all aspects of workplace relations, employment-related matters and WH&S.

02 9256 7500 | sydney@workplacelaw.com.au

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