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What does respect for employees mean in the age of the algorithm?

'There’s an algorithm here, tracking a human worker. Do you not see this as a problem?’

Darren Jones, MP, chair of the Employment Select Committee in the UK’s House of Commons, was cross-examining Amazon’s European Head of Public Policy. The latter had initially suggested that Amazon wasn’t into automated surveillance of its workers. He ultimately conceded that a computer algorithm did monitor a worker’s packing speed and that after three instances of the worker being identified as too slow he could be dismissed.

Having listened to this exchange, I turned to Amazon’s statements of purpose and principles.

Amazon strives to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, Earth’s best employer, and Earth’s safest place to work. 

Among its leadership principles Amazon says

‘Leaders work every day to create a safer, more productive, higher performing, more diverse, and more just work environment. They lead with empathy, have fun at work, and make it easy for others to have fun. Leaders ask themselves: Are my fellow employees growing? Are they empowered? Are they ready for what’s next? Leaders have a vision for and commitment to their employees’ personal success, whether that be at Amazon or elsewhere.’

Aspirational stuff.

Yet the Amazon executive that I listened to did not mention empathy or fun at work or his obligation to promote the personal success of individual employees. He was admitting that, in practice, the human being in an Amazon fulfilment centre was subordinate to the demands of the algorithm. People working in his business seemed to be more means than ends.

Big tech companies are continuously improving their aspirational language but is their behaviour becoming more caring? ‘Commit to long hours at high intensity or resign’ was Elon Musk’s message to Twitter staff.

GE’s Jack Welch once hailed as ‘manager of the century’ was also famous for insisting on a rigid policy of dismissing the bottom 10% of employees. Welch sought to defend the practice by saying that leaders did underperforming people no favours by allowing them to stay in a job where they were failing. There is truth in that. And it may justify acting on an individual basis, to deal with individual failings, after a reasonable investment in feedback, training and support. Yet a generalised policy, based on impersonal statistics, is likely to create a climate of fear, and cut throat competition with colleagues to stay out the danger zone. Employees are no longer valued as individual human beings,

This is treating human beings as means, not ends.

Does business exist to serve human purposes? I would argue that it does. And, if it does, it follows that there is an obligation to ensure that the human beings employed directly, or indirectly in a business are treated in ways that respect their humanity.

At various times in the life of Tomorrow’s Company I have encountered people who wanted to talk about the role of love in business. I have always felt uncomfortable with this language. Isn’t love a quality we reserve for our partners and families and our closest friends?

Now I begin to wonder. Perhaps they were right. I read about corporate Titans like Musk and Welsh and Bezos and I ask myself: if you can’t show some love towards your employees is this all worth it? And if the answer to my challenge is to say that you can’t run an organisation of 100,000 or more people on love, my instinctive response is to say, then the cost of that kind of scale is too high.

Perhaps love is too high a threshold. How about respect?

According to a 2014 study

‘no other leader behaviour had a bigger effect on employees across the outcomes we measured. Being treated with respect was more important to employees than recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback — even opportunities for learning, growth, and development’.

In a 2014 recent survey by Georgetown University’s Christine Porath of nearly 20,000 employees worldwide, respondents ranked respect as the most important leadership behaviour. Yet

over half (54%) of employees claimed that they don’t regularly get respect from their leaders

and a survey suggested that they experienced more disrespectful and uncivil behaviour each year.

An executive in Microsoft or one of Elon Musk’s companies might argue that the introduction of AI and other technology-enabled innovation makes it harder and harder to treat the people who work for you as individuals.

Which makes it more important than ever that the board of a company starts looking at its technological investment through the lens of its approach to its people.

Is the commitment to respect people an absolute? If it is, then the technology adopted should reflect that value? If Amazon truly wanted its leaders ask themselves: Are my fellow employees growing? Are they empowered?, then it would not introduce an impersonal algorithm to determine the value to it of an individual employee and it would not operate a crude ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ policy.

Perhaps the treatment of people as an extension of technology is inevitable if a company is to stay in business. If so how about rewarding them better to compensate for the loss of autonomy?

This reminds me of the time a few decades ago when technology made it possible for companies to operate call centres. At first the innovation was promoted for its customer benefits – convenient access of the customer to the staff who could help them. Later it became clear that the innovation had been introduced to save cost, and to insulate the staff directly responsible for a product from the need to talk to customers about. During COVID many organisations in the public and private sector pulled the same stunt. Long after the worst of the pandemic’s impact on staffing I was still listening to recorded messages telling me that ‘Due to COVID our staff are no longer as available to speak to you so please use our website/ talk to a bot’ -  (a bot which duly invites you to visit the website!)

I would have respected a message that said, candidly, ‘During COVID 19 we found it hard to staff our call centres fully and now that COVID 19 is over we have no intention of returning to pre COVID staffing levels!’

To be fair to Amazon, in my experience they do live up to their claims to be customer-centric. It is always possible to find someone to talk to: they rarely invite me to communicate with an unhelpful bot.

So here are some questions for boards when contemplating a technology investment:

 -     Do we intend to treat our people as ends, not means?

-     Is it going to become harder to do so in the future?

-     How compatible is AI with the continuation of respect for the individuality of our people?

-     Do our technology plans clash with our values?

-     Have we analysed, stakeholder by stakeholders, the changes in relationship that are likely to follow from the deployment of AI?

-     If our technology driven changes have made human beings in customer service less accessible, why don’t we admit it ?

-     If there is a clash between our values and our technology policy , are we prepared to be honest?

-     If we make significant savings out of a more impersonal approach, are we prepared to share some of those savings with our people in the form of shares or bonuses?

-     What in our view is the optimum scale of operation if we are to retain an approach which respects the individual? within which an acceptable level of responsiveness  remains possible?

Mark Goyder is Founder of Tomorrow Company and Senior Advisor to the Board intelligence Think Tank. He is the author, with Ong Boon Hwee, of Entrusted -  Stewardship for Responsible Wealth Creation, published by World Scientific in 2020.

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