Case 9: Is Analyzing Employee Sentiment an Invasion of Privacy?
As scientists and information technology experts develop more ways to gather data, questions arise about whether limits should define the kinds of data that are appropriate to gather and analyze. When it comes to employees’ feelings, for example, is there an ethical limit to what organizations should know about them individually or as a group? Many people feel comfortable answering an anonymous survey, but what about collecting “data” in the form of the words people write to each other in emails, text messages, social-media posts, and online collaboration systems (which enable document sharing and group comments)?
Take the case of employee anxiety and depression, or even everyday stress at work. These conditions have obvious interest for employers, since an overly anxious or stressed-out employee could be more likely to have impaired judgment, take more time off, and run into problems getting along with customers or team members. If these conditions occur more often in certain parts of the company, management might want to investigate whether poor leadership or new work design is to blame. An organization could apply software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze workers’ communications, first learning which patterns of words tend to be associated with conditions such as high stress and then identifying where these patterns are occurring.
Another issue involves the limitations of artificial intelligence (AI). It can analyze straightforward messages, but so far, it does not always perform well at recognizing sarcasm. This would raise issues if the organization is trying to find sources of unhappiness, which might be when people tend to be more sarcastic.
The use of AI will continue to advance, and quite possibly, employees’ attitudes toward sentiment analysis will depend on the culture of the organization. If employees view managers as ethical – trustworthy and fair – they are more likely to believe that the organization will keep its promises to protect privacy and use only anonymous data. They also might be more forgiving if the software misinterprets some kinds of messages. In a culture where managers have a reputation for punishing employees they dislike, trust will be low overall, and employees are likelier to see the data collection as an intrusion.
Source: Noe, R.A., Hollenbeck, J.R., Gerhart, B. and P.M. Wright, 2020, 8th ed., Fundamentals of HRM, McGraw-Hill Education, NY, NY, p. 294.
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