Work Daze: AI & U

By Bob Goldman

Companies are trying something new: artificial intelligence.

Sound scary? It is. But you have to admit, it’s better for management to actually have some intelligence, even if it is artificial.

Or is it?

According to “What’s on Your Mind? Bosses Are Using Artificial Intelligence to Find Out,” a recent article by Imani Moise in The Wall Street Journal, “Human-resource departments are becoming a bit less human as companies turn to artificial intelligence for help with hiring and firing.”

This is scary stuff. Given all the problems that have arisen in the digital age with dysfunctional devices and demonic help desks, it’s creepy to learn that your job security may depend on a technology company. I guess we’re lucky they didn’t turn hiring and firing decisions over to Comcast.

According to Moise, AI in the workplace can help the HR department determine employee morale. Previously, HR used written surveys to measure your enthusiasm for your job. All you had to do was lie.

Now AI tools like the software program Xander can see through your tissue of lies to “determine whether an employee feels optimistic, confused or angry.”

Management loves this, since you can’t sue the company after you’re fired for harboring confused, angry thoughts. As the HR department will be first to point out, “Xander did it.”

Managers can also be victims of AI analysis. One top executive “learned from recent survey analysis that he needed to work on his temper.”

Forgetting for a moment that one doesn’t require artificial intelligence to interpret a manager who tears their surveys—and their employees—in pieces, the manager admitted he needs to work on maintaining his “composure under stress.”

Interestingly, Xander had enough artificial intelligence to also produce positive results, reporting that “the manager’s staff felt he was fair and honest.” So, the manager kept his job, and so did Xander.

Of course, “Companies have used technology to track employee actions and help boost productivity.” What’s different about the new AI software is that it can “sniff out differences between what employees say and how they feel.”

It’s a real step forward from traditional methods, like beating the soles of employees’ feet with truncheons or putting shock collars on the marketing department. This is arguably better for the employee, but it could make trouble for HR. If getting the truth out of employees no longer requires mental and physical abuse, it’s no longer necessary to have so many HR people.

(Hopefully, HR thugs can find work with like-minded organizations like the Mafia, though they may find the mob’s corporate culture too warm and fuzzy for their taste.)

Digital survey analysis can result in big changes for a company.

A steel company that used Xander learned that its health care plan left workers “confused and overwhelmed.” Based on this learning, the company introduced a new underwhelming health care plan through which employees received a box of Band-Aids, a healing crystal and an asafetida bag annually. The cost to the employees was the same of their previous fancy-schmancy medical plan, of course, but the simplicity was undeniable.

Though companies around the world are rushing to implement artificial intelligence solutions, there are some who question their effectiveness.

Julie Albright, a digital sociologist at the University of Southern California, points out, “Since most emotions are communicated nonverbally, programs that solely rely on text can miss the bigger picture.”

For example, an employee could convince an AI program that she is a committed, productive individual based on her written answers alone. There could be a somewhat different outcome if the computer could see that she had come to work slathered in spaghetti sauce, with a fake arrow through her head and a gerbil on each shoulder.

Only a 100 percent human HR professional would understand instantly the coded message the employee was sending—”Take it all in, dudes. You’re looking at management material.”

Another potential glitch is the loss of privacy. Not only will survey answers be scrutinized by AI bots but the software will also produce a detailed portrait of the employee’s inner life, scars, scuffs and blemishes included.

This could be problematic. With the help of artificial intelligence, even your dumb-as-a-post manager will be able to read your mind, or what’s left of it, anyway. But maybe this will not be a problem. If Xander and its artificial companions are really so intelligent, they’ll realize that your boss cannot be trusted with such sensitive information and crash.

Hey, that’s what Comcast would do.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He now works out of Bellingham, Washington. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com.