HR, AI and human rights: are we looking at 'humanity at work' through the wrong lens?

AI is one of the hottest topics in business, and it’s not only organisations in the technology arena who appear to be talking about it. Pharmaceutical, financial services, health sciences, oil and gas all appear to be exploring AI in their business models. The technology is increasingly touted as being transformative to organisations, positioned as the driver of social progress, a radical approach to driving growth, and the source of great new opportunities for employees to develop their skills and capabilities. But what about the darker sides of AI in the workplace? Are we spending enough time exploring the risks associated with this new technology?

The AI enabled workplace: risk or opportunity?
We know from CIPD research published earlier this year that there are many potential applications of AI in the workplace that could radically transform work. The potential is huge: AI could operate alongside human workers, make their lives healthier, enable them to focus on interesting tasks. In fact, our study does show that employees are doing more interesting tasks when technology is additive or complimentary to their role. But this outcome doesn’t appear to be intentional: our study also shows HR is the least likely of all functions to be involved in developing strategy and delivering AI projects. Of all the functions that should be leading and enabling change HR is the least engaged. This is a huge red flag.

Given the function is all about enabling productive, healthy and happy workforces it’s concerning that potentially transformational changes in *how* work is done are not hitting the HR director’s desk. This is important because at its best strategic HR adds considerable value and enables organisations to deliver against their objectives, but when HR is missing from the conversation it means critical HR knowledge is missed by those who ARE leading the applications of tech and AI. We know that modern HR functions have many roles but often overlooked by “the business” is HR’s role in upholding ethical standards, and ensuring work is done the right way. When HR is absent which function plays this role?

Upholding ethical standards should be part and parcel of the value that HR brings to organisations, but when transformational technologies like AI come along and challenge the boundaries, ethical frameworks can only go so far. Ethical frameworks are important because they include moral obligations that inform behaviours, but these are different to legal obligations. This is very nicely summed up in this great new blog. Here it is argued that ethical frameworks offer highly contextual guidelines which, at present are being defined by the organisations most likely to benefit from AI technology: their developers. Instead we should be talking about legal and human rights as the framework to guide how we use AI in organisations. These frameworks offer legal protections that could guide the application of AI technology in the workplace.

Why human rights?
The value of human rights in the AI at work debate is that human rights are internationally agreed norms which describe universally shared values, operate through agreed mechanisms, and importantly are supported by institutions which provide accountability and redress when required. This differs to ethical frameworks which whilst they including ethical obligations often have little power attached behind them.

Human rights law is also valuable in the work context because it provides a framework for navigating what are often issues with conflicting interests, such as employee privacy. They also enable proportionate response using clearly defined measures. Actions when taken are also clearly accountable – through human rights law there would be very little wiggle room for some of the debates currently couched as “AI ethics”.

There is also the added value that human rights is a widely understood term and concept that many employees will understand. Whilst they may not know the detail of the rights they have, they will know that such concepts exist which offer them fundamental protections.

Applying a human rights framework to the issue
The UN Guiding Principles (UNGP) offer a widely accepted global framework against which organisations could align their implementation of AI. There are various criteria within the UNGPs which would be important in providing clarity to technology producers, and organisations who are looking to maximise the value of their investments in AI. And importantly, the UNGPs would also serve the HR function’s role to protect employees in a clear way.

What could this mean for HR functions moving forward? In my view there are three useful questions the leaders of the profession to consider as these debates develop:

  1. Is current practice well-aligned to human rights frameworks? Knowledge of the different frameworks and their pros and cons is an important element of strategic HR practice that leaders must get their head around. This is particularly true in globalised industries with complex supply chains where there are huge variations in job quality. The UNGP technology and human rights theme page is a good place to start regarding AI, but there are many other specialist topics to explore regarding human rights at work.

  2. Are HR experts engaged in technology discussions from day one, and are they well equipped? Frameworks like the UNGP provide the basis for action but not being in technology conversations (let alone leading them) is part of the problem. We don’t know yet WHY the profession is left out of these conversations, but we do know there are valuable HR capabilities which would make the transition to AI enabled workplaces more effective. It is important for HR leaders to engage their experts in OD, L&D, analytics to support the business on AI decisions and to advocate for the profession’s role in these debates.

  3. Which questions relating to human rights and AI should the organisation be exploring? There are many avenues down which organisations can go when querying the impact of AI on the workforce, all of which need to be understood and mapped out. Human rights frameworks can help to ensure that as the organisation considers applying AI (e.g. changing roles, re-skilling employees) that it is done in a manner which supports and enhances the quality of work for individuals. Mapping the questions to consider must be a step when assessing whether the AI strategy is fit for purpose. With the human rights frameworks there are clear boundaries against which practices, or ideas can be strength tested before being developed further

A large part of this blog was inspired by the great blog by Alison Berthet (@alison_berthet) for www.openglobalrights.org. Check it out here.

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