HR Administration

Ethics and the future of workforce management

By Lisa Disselkamp

Jul. 24, 2020

As the future of work rapidly evolves and organizations integrate people, technology, alternative workforces and new ways of working, leaders are wrestling with an increasing range of ethical challenges.

These challenges are especially pronounced at the intersection between humans and technology, where new questions top the ethics agenda about the impact of emerging technologies on workers and society. How organizations combine people and machines, govern new human-machine work combinations and operationalize the working relationship between humans, teams and machines will be at the center of how ethical concerns can be managed for the broadest range of benefits. Organizations that tackle these issues head-on – changing their perspective to consider not only “could we” but also “how should we” – will be well positioned to make the bold choices that help to build trust among all stakeholders.

Ethical concerns are front and center for today’s organization as the nature of work, the workforce and the workplace rapidly evolve. In Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report, 85 percent of survey respondents believe that the future of work raises ethical challenges but only 27 percent have clear policies and leaders in place to manage them.

And managing ethics related to the future of work is growing in importance: More than half of the respondents said that it was either the top, or one of the top issues facing organizations today, and 66 percent said it would be in three years.

According to our report, four factors rose to the top of the ethics concerns: legal and regulatory requirements, rapid adoption of AI in the workplace, changes in workforce composition and pressure from external stakeholders.

The leading driver that respondents identified was legal and regulatory requirements. Given that there is often a lag in laws and regulations relating to both technology and workforce issues, this perception is surprising. However, outside of a few moves including fair workweek rules for hourly workers, policy changes have been slow in coming.

The pressure on ethics created by the rapid adoption of AI in the workplace, however, is much more understandable. AI and other technologies make ethics in the future of work, specifically more relevant because the proliferation of technology is driving a redefinition of work. Perhaps the issue that has attracted the most attention is the question of how technology affects the role of humans in work.

While our survey found that only a small percentage of respondents are using robots and AI to replace workers, headlines of the forthcoming “robot apocalypse” continue to capture global attention and raise concern. Organizations that are implementing technologies that drive efficiencies can expect to make decisions whether and how to redeploy people to add strategic value elsewhere, and what, if they decide to eliminate jobs, they will do to support the workers thus displaced. AI will also be a part of scheduling work across a blended workforce of machine and human workers.

As technology becomes more embedded into work, its design and use needs to be assessed for fairness and equity. Organizations should consider questions such as whether their applications of technology decrease or increase discriminatory bias; what procedures they have to protect the privacy of worker data; whether technology-made decisions are transparent and explainable; and what policies they have in place to hold humans responsible for those decisions’ outputs.[1]

Our research found that the third driver of ethics’ importance in the future of work is changing workforce composition, which raises issues about the evolving social contract between the individual and the organization and the organizations and society — the growth of the alternative workforce is one major phenomenon contributing to these concerns.

The number of self-employed workers in the United States is projected to hit 42 million in 2020. “Invisible labor forces” are being exposed in the recent research by Mary Gray and Siddarth Suri’s “Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass,” which talks about the unsavory working conditions of many workers performing the high-tech piecework (labeling data, captioning images and flagging inappropriate content) that powers automation and AI.

The fast growth of this workforce segment is calling to attention related ethical concerns, including alternative workers’ access to fair pay, health care and other potential benefits.

Lisa Disselkamp is a managing director in the HR Transformation practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP. Her work focuses on workforce management business practice and technology design including timekeeping, labor scheduling, leave management and labor optimization analytics.

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