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HR and the Hazards of Automation

As HR evolves, one of the many challenges we face as a profession is how best to deliver value to our organizations in ways that are aligned with the leaner, fast-moving nature of today’s business landscape. The wide adoption of HR technology, self-service models, and outsourcing are a few methods that the HR profession has increasingly turned to in an effort to place limits on the admin-focused work that has threatened to overwhelm our function. And yet…this kind of automation is unacknowledged as a delicate art; a balance must be sought. We need only look to the larger market for examples…

In recent years a handful of telecom and tech service companies have begun advertising the ease with which their customers can access a “real human being’ by phone as a key differentiator of their service. A real human- imagine! And yet anyone who has found themselves lost and enraged, wandering an automated phone system “loop of hell” will understand this to be a deeply attractive feature. Automation can be taken too far-  and the results can be profoundly alienating- for employees and customers.  As HR practitioners looking to the future, we need to be mindful of how we can best balance the need to automate with the need to maintain real human relationships with the organizations and stakeholders we support.

Automation’s Lost Opportunities

Let’s take reference checks as an example. I recently offered to be a reference for an exceptional former intern of mine who’d been offered a role in HR. The next day I was mildly disappointed to receive an automatically generated e-mail from a well-known Canadian reference check vendor asking me to complete a short survey about the individual in question. This message also informed me that I likely would not be able to complete the required reference ‘survey’ on a mobile device….great, not like anyone uses those, right?

Now, I’m no Luddite. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve worked for organizations in which resource constraints made it desirable to outsource reference checks, and the vendor then automated the collection of this information as an efficiency measure. But does this really make sense? Are reference checks truly a low value administrative task to be outsourced and automated?

I’d argue strongly that the approach to automation and outsourcing of HR processes and services should be mindful and selective. Just because something can be automated doesn’t mean it should be. And if resource constraints demand that some high-value interactions be automated, then there needs to be some reflection about how to prioritize these in a way that aligns with the organization’s needs and goals. For example, if an organization is seeking to be an employer of choice, it makes sense to identify key points of contact for employees and potential employees and then direct (real!) human resources at these rather than automating, regardless of the potential time savings.

3 Reasons Not To Automate

1.    You  lose an important opportunity to build your employment brand and reputation.

With an increasing focus on candidate experience, we should know that it’s a small world, and thus surprisingly easy to sully your organizational reputation through a few frustrating, highly impersonal interactions between stakeholders and your automated systems. It seems clear to me that checking references for a candidate is one of these very interactions. When a candidate supplies us with their references we are being given an opportunity to interact with other professionals as representatives of our organizations. So why opt to send them a generic e-mail survey, or foist some third-party automaton on them who has no insight into the role their being considered for? Instead, see that phone-call for what it is – a low-risk chance to leave a great impression on a (possibly senior) industry professional. Respecting their time, exhibiting gratitude for the information they are willing to share with you, and showing that you grasp the professional or industry context of their remarks all go a long way to accomplishing this. Heck, you might even create the rapport to ask them for additional referrals. You can’t do that effectively through a third party or an automated survey.

2.    The quality, nuance and subtext of an interaction is lost

Automation generally lacks any mechanism to deliver or absorb nuance or subtlety. Tone, energy, enthusiasm and certainty are virtually impossible to gauge through automated interactions, or third party written summaries. References, candidate phone screens, or providing difficult employee feedback are all exchanges fraught with this kind of subtext. Robbing actors in these processes of the opportunity to voice, or listen for, the subtle clues in these communications seriously limits their value.

3.    The gravity of messages is lost

Given the number of e-mails most of us receive from Nigerian princes wanting to share their fortunes, it’s easy to see why people place less importance on automated and impersonal communications and interactions. There is simply no comparison between a generic “Thank you for your great work- John Smith has sent you a thumbs up” versus a sincere personal note. Creating the automated mechanism to provide recognition (or feedback, or rejection letters, or task reminders) can make these communications more likely to happen, but if their impersonal nature makes these messages seem trivial or even alienating, then this offers no real advantage.

Automation is a Blunt Tool

In the end, I completed the “reference check” online survey for my former intern, struggling to convey my enthusiasm and insight about her strengths and potential using only my keyboard. It felt like a missed opportunity – for me to paint a vivid picture of what her capabilities and potential are, and for her new employer to perhaps glean subtle distinctions between candidates, or curate the perception that I have of them as an employer and organization.

What do you think- do we take HR automation too far? Or is that a necessary evil?

Image Credit: massenpunkt via Flick Creative Commons

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post – I think automation in HR should be the tool used to assist in achieving the end result…and not be the end result itself.

    April 22, 2013
  2. ChristopherinHR #

    Important points for real live human beings to remember!

    April 22, 2013
  3. Teri Lindeberg #

    I absolutely agree! Great article!!

    April 23, 2013
  4. My $.02….the necessity reason for automation in today’s world is because it is the most efficient means of collecting data, and the use of credible and timely data is something HR teams cannot afford not to have.

    That said, where I have watched HR go too far is in the end user experience, and I think it is critically important for any HR team to look at those they serve as a company looks at their customers. First, too many HR technology systems have so many bells and whistles, and often don’t talk with each other. So the leader or employee has to go to one system to change their personal information, another to do a performance review, and yet another to access learning. While the bells and whistles might be great for the HR Team (although I dare say most use only about 20% of a system’s capacity), the end user is frustrated.

    I would encourage HR to step back and ask a few pointed questions about why they need technology, what they (really) hope to accomplish and get some end users involved.

    Of course, like anything else HR, I’m not at all passionate about this 😉

    May 3, 2013

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