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Washington State University
Dividend - Fall 2022 Research

Artificial Intelligence in Human Resources Offers Many Solutions, but it’s No “Silver Bullet”

By Eric Hollenbeck

Photo by WSU Photos Services

Richard Johnson is exploring the benefits of AI-backed systems and their unintended consequences.

The allure of using artificial intelligence software to automate some functions of human resources is strong for organizations looking to improve efficiency and reduce costs. From chatbots that answer employee questions to virtual job recruiters, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in human resources (HR) offices is a growing trend worldwide.

Fortune Business Insights reported the global human resource technology market growth at $24 billion in 2021 and expects it to grow to $36 billion in 2028. That’s because AI offers unique advantages for human resource managers. For example, AI-enabled recruiting is more effective and efficient at reaching larger, more qualified applicants, and AI-enabled chatbots provide quality, self-service options for employees.

But HR managers should know the limitations of technology.

“It’s not a ‘silver bullet,’” says Richard Johnson, Carson College associate professor of management, information systems, and entrepreneurship.

Johnson, whose expertise is in information systems and human resources management, recently published a paper that explores the benefits of AI-backed systems and their unintended consequences.

“AI has a lot of benefits, but we really need to understand limitations and potential risks that come along with its use,” he says.

Risks include unintentional bias given to certain types of candidates over others. For example, Amazon leadership was trying to support promotions within the firm, and they discovered that no matter what they did, they could not remove bias against women.

“They were keen on promoting people who were successful in the past. And historically, males had been promoted into leadership roles at a greater rate than females; AI picked up on this pattern,” says Johnson.

Organizations must be smart about advantages and unintended consequences of AI

Organizations and HR managers interested in adopting AI-backed solutions must keep in mind or commit to developing a clear set of guidelines and policy audits to ensure things run smoothly, not a “set it and forget it” mentality.

“These systems use machine learning, which means they are taking in data and using AI to process it. Typically managers don’t have a clear understanding of the hows and whys of that process,” says Johnson.

When managers are not aware of what’s “happening underneath the hood,” they may not catch errors or recognize when the system makes choices with unintended consequences. In recruitment, for example, a candidate may be screened out of the process. “The hiring manager may never know why someone was denied an opportunity,” says Johnson.

The future of AI-backed technologies shows no signs of slowing, so it is imperative that organizations—both large and small—understand not only the benefits but also the unintended consequences of AI.

Johnson stresses the importance of HR professionals gaining the appropriate education and training for AI-enabled technologies prior to implementation, and for organizations to build solid policies and ongoing education to train its workforce to avoid costly, or even litigious, errors.

“This is particularly important in the context of human resources, because we’re making decision about people, right? People’s livelihoods are at stake,” he says.