Resolving Data Privacy Dilemmas in HR Analytics

By Dr. Nigel Guenole

HR professionals frequently confront moral and ethical dilemmas. The ever-increasing abundance of data can contribute to such dilemmas, while advancing analytics capabilities are not providing the answers. While organizations are keen to leverage employee information for HR analytics in ways that yield the most benefit for the business, employees might prefer to keep their data private.

For example, potential employee health risks can now be detected through wearables and sleep monitors. Would you use that information to make a decision about an employee? What if the potential health risk could be dangerous for customers?

In an ideal world, the answers would be documented in corporate data usage policies or data privacy legislation, such as the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe. Adherence to legislation must be an essential building block of all HR data policies. However, technology is advancing in directions that legislation might not anticipate, and in ways employees and organizations are currently unable to conceive. Therefore, a pressing question for HR practitioners is what to do in new situations that are not covered adequately by legislation.

How do you know if you’re crossing a line?

To find out what can organizations do to keep their decisions and actions in check, our research team at the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute surveyed more than 20,000 workers in 44 countries about their preferences regarding how data dilemmas are resolved in HR analytics. We clustered countries according to national preferences on how decisions regarding usage of workers’ data are made.

The results show that within the grey areas, where legal precedent does not exist, or data ownership is unclear, context and culture matter most. There are important differences between cultures that may impact employees’ receptiveness to having their personal data analyzed for workforce analytics. Even when examining countries in the same continent, we sometimes observed differing dominant ideologies.

Cultural preferences can guide your ethical policies

Through our research, we discovered most countries have dominant ethical ideologies.  This means you can look to the regions where your business operates to gain a better understanding of how your employees might react to a policy change.

In democratic countries, legislation tends to follow social norms rather than precede them. With this in mind, we recommend that organizations develop HR analytics policies that consider the attitudes of their employees. However, we recognize that this can be challenging for multinational companies that operate in different countries where its workers have different attitudes towards privacy. It may also be hard for small to medium-sized enterprises that do not have the ability to survey their workers.

Explore our interactive research map to find out how employee attitudes and cultural preferences in various global regions could guide your data privacy policies.