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In the year ahead, HR departments will likely see more tools and analytical methods to fight and identify workplace bias. That's been the trend so far. Recruiting and performance management systems may see the most advancements.
The vendors can only chip away at biases. Humans still make final decisions. But interest in anti-bias software technologies is likely to grow for three powerful reasons.
First, vendors are extending AI technologies to combat bias in recruiting and performance management systems. These technologies are intended to improve candidate pools and employee retention. Second, the recent wave of news about workplace sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement is bringing more attention to this issue. That there is a problem is backed up by surveys, such as a Pew finding this month that 42% of working women face job discrimination.
Third, U.S. firms, such as Google and Apple, are becoming more transparent about diversity. Both firms have faulted themselves for workforces where women only account for a third of the employees.
Identifying and quantifying problems
One role for performance management systems is identifying and quantifying problems.
For instance, Palatine Analytics, which makes a peer-to-peer evaluation platform, recently applied its AI-enabled analytics software tools in a special study of performance reviews at five different firms.
Palatine found that men were getting 25% more positive evaluations compared to women in the same position -- even though they were meeting the same measurable performance management goals, such as sales quotas.
"We tried to find out what a person's true performance results should be," said Archil Cheishvili, CEO of the Cambridge, Mass.-based people analytics firm, who was alarmed by the finding. It looked at 500 employees.
Palatine also found that women provided "almost identical performance review scores to men," but "70% of men provided higher evaluations to men than to women."
Palatine research not a lone wolf
Palatine's research is not published, but it's not a lone wolf. Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, a behavioral economist and postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard, has conducted content analysis of performance reviews and reported in a recent essay in Harvard Business Review that "women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback."
In a phone interview, Cecchi-Dimeglio said she was unfamiliar with Palatine's work and couldn't comment on it, but its finding was "consistent with what we know there -- that men provide higher evaluations to men than women."
Recruiting management gets a lot of attention because that's where the employee funnel begins.
SAP SuccessFactors this year released a job analyzer tool that looks for bias in job ad content. Seemingly neutral words used in a certain context can discourage women from applying for jobs, which weakens the initial candidate pool.
SAP's initial release of this tool is focusing on gender bias, but subsequent updates will look at sexual orientation and age.
Pushing back on faulty assumptions
Firms that rely on automation to sort through hundreds or thousands of resumes are also getting anti-bias help. New systems are analyzing the incumbent workforce, discovering what makes a successful employee.
These recruiting management systems, such as one developed by Toronto-based Ideal, push back on faulty assumptions. For instance, some firms tend to favor candidates who graduate from certain universities, a practice which can exclude top candidates from other schools and limit the candidate pool.
Another performance management system area that may see change is computer-based HR training systems.
W. Todd Maddox, a contributing analyst at Amalgam Insights Inc., who earned a Ph.D. in quantitative and cognitive psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the computer-based tools used in sexual harassment training are ineffective. "They don't affect behavior change," he said.
But virtual reality (VR) systems, which are increasingly winning adoption in the consumer market, may find use in HR, Maddox said. A VR system could put the user in the shoes of somebody else who is experiencing sexual harassment, he argued.
It has the potential to create "a visceral emotional experience that can lead to immediate behavior change. It's like the light switch comes on, and I get it," Maddox said.