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Does People Analytics dehumanize data?

15 July 2022
Professionals from the HRM field are raving about People Analytics, the data program that purposefully collects and analyzes data about companies and its employees. However, business experts like Jakob Stollberger (VU Amsterdam) and David de Cremer (National University of Singapore) see organizations using it more as a surveillance instrument than as a tool to engage employees in the decision-making process. The danger of improper data use can "dehumanize" staff members, according to them.

The reason why the focus on People Analytics (PA) has increased over the past decade has to do with the data program's ability to clearly identify human added value within a work environment through specially developed algorithms. This allows business managers to make more informed decisions to both improve the company's performance and also meet the needs of its staff members, thereby increasing employee satisfaction.

At least, that's the theory. In recent times, the mindset of many companies has shifted from processes around job satisfaction to how efficiently employees have to work during office hours, even to the point of counting toilet visits. This is not only counterproductive for the work atmosphere, as Stollberger and De Cremer explain, but also creates a risk that people are reduced to a group of data sets that are easily replaced when company targets such as the number of sales or percentages of compliance are not met.

What really worries both business experts is that they observe PA's ability to violate the privacy of employees by extracting data through the digital network of Internet of Things devices, smartphones, office cameras and sensors. This creepy form of surveillance serves no one, Stollberger explains.

Put employees first
But PA doesn't have to be abused in this way, Stollberger and De Cremer argue. It can still be a valuable and empowering tool for companies and organizations, provided PA analysts adhere to the following three measures. First, that it's not a step towards automation. Supervisors must make it very clear to their staff that they are the most important asset of the firm and that the data will only be used to improve their skills. Not that they have to produce data continuously for a machine learning computer system.

Second, both researchers recommend that business managers guarantee to their employees that monitoring their performance will not be tied to efficiency processes. After all, surveying employee behavior leads to a growing distrust of management and is also an invasion of privacy. It is better that companies are transparent internally and emphasize that PA is only used for personal growth and offer any voluntary help in promoting competencies among managers and employees.

Finally, they advocate that at all times people are not seen as a data source. That's a trap most HR managers make who don't know what narrative or goal they want to pursue, Stollberger explains. Employees who are described in emails not by name but by their employee number, for example, get the sense that they are seen as a product rather than as a human being. Stollberger: "What no HR supervisor should forget is that people bring all their positive and negative character traits to the office every day. This also makes them sensitive to how colleagues value them, not only because of the knowledge or skills they bring to the foundation of the end product or service, but also whether they are viewed as a pleasant person."

Read the study Are People Analytics Dehumanizing Your Employees?