HR Intel: Is HR Ready for the Robot Revolution?

rsz_istock_000046449728_smallA regular round up of news, legal trends and workplace developments to help keep HR ahead of the curve

Any time there’s a technological revolution, there are winners and losers. About this, historical precedent is clear. After all, elevator operators, scriveners and ice cutters have mostly retired or had to reinvent themselves because technology made their jobs obsolete. The advent of clean energy created winners in the form of oil, gas, wind and solar companies and the millions of workers they employ, but losers in the form of coal miners – an occupation which has all but disappeared in the last few decades.

The next revolution – robotics – is upon us, but it’s hard to say exactly who the losers will be. Early indicators are that big businesses stand to reap most of the rewards in the form of cost savings, efficiency and the reduction of human error. But identifying the losers is a lot more complicated. For example, Adidas closed one of its factories in China and moved it to Germany so it can experiment with using robots to make sneakers. That’s a win for Adidas but also a loss for thousands of Chinese factory workers.

Take truck drivers, for example, which is (by far) the most common occupation in over half of US states. There are about 1.8 million truck drivers in the US, and they made a median annual salary of over $40,000 in 2015. And those jobs are typically available to individuals without a college degree. Alarmingly, some industry analysts expect the robot revolution will make truck drivers go extinct. That’s a tremendous number of blue collar workers making a solid salary with solid benefits who will need to find a completely different line of work. Is the US economy prepared to handle that?

Think this is a problem only for blue collar workers? Au contraire mon HR frère.

The Washington Post is currently using robots and algorithms to write tweets and snippets about the Olympics to free up their (ahem) human reporters to write more involved stories. And when you consider routine surgeries like appendectomies or tonsil removal, suddenly the robot doctor with the inhumanly-low complication rate and the acceptable bedside manner doesn’t seem so bad. The robots are coming and they’re coming for all of us – surgeons, writers, drivers, retail and fast food workers, bankers. Nobody is safe – not even apple pickers. Hollywood, futurists and science fiction authors have made this abundantly clear.

The rise of robotics suggests a number of questions for the US economy at large, businesses that rely on technology and HR professionals:

  • What will US businesses do about this? Will they reinvest some of their cost savings back into the businesses to create new jobs for humans or will they simply pocket all of it?
  • What will the humans whose jobs disappear do about it? Will they languish on the government dime or will they reinvent themselves and/or get into different industries? Will they rebel against their robot overlords?
  • Will the robot revolution highlight deficiencies in STEM education? Will the US education system respond to the need for technical skills by gravitating toward more of a vocational education for students?
  • What can HR do to help their companies prepare?

For HR, the solution is to analyze various facets of the business including business model, skill level, education and experience of the current staff and data analytics regarding efficiency and performance. Understanding this data will enable HR and the business at large to establish a baseline of productivity. From there, understanding what robotics technology is capable of, where it’s going, what limitations are in place and the expected speed of evolution all will be crucial in determining whether a robot is capable of doing a human’s job, but also whether replacing humans with robots makes sense for that business.

But of course, this is called Human Resources for a reason. Robots don’t need a shoulder to cry on when they’ve had a rough day. They don’t call in sick or harass each other. They don’t hang nooses in each other’s lockers. They don’t tweet mean things about each other (at least not yet).

So if a lot of the human jobs disappear in favor of robots, will HR professionals themselves see a reduction in demand for their expertise? Perhaps that will be the final straw that sparks the resistance.

Olympic-Level HR

If you’re a sports fan, Olympic coverage every two years is must-see television. Thankfully this time around all of the good stuff is on during prime time (apologies to the readers who like watching archery) so we don’t have to worry (as much) about worker time theft or the distraction factor at work like we do during “March Madness” or “Cyber Monday.”

But of course, the relevance of an event like this for the business community and HR doesn’t stop with time theft. The organizers for Rio 2016 claim that the games added at least 90,000 jobs to the local economy in Brazil, with another 85,000 contractors hired by third-party companies. Additionally, the games are expected to leave a legacy of skilled labor in place, which, in theory, will pay dividends to the Brazilian economy in years to come.

Tell that to the people who were promised a working sewage system though, and you’re likely to hear some Portuguese profanities. Organizers are struggling with the logistics of the games in the form of bacteria and viruses in the water, the Zika virus and a depleted local police force. They can’t even keep the diving pool blue.

But if logistics aren’t enough to deal with, the IOC is also grappling with a PR issue caused by their stunning lack of understanding about how the Internet works. Apparently the IOC has told its sponsors that if they use #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA in tweets that they will be sued. Why not just save everyone some time and invite Internet trolls to harass you?

Compliance Carousel

Supercuts has agreed to a $2 million settlement after tangling with the wage and hour buzz saw. The suit alleged that the haircutter failed to pay managers overtime and failed to provide meal or rest breaks in (you guessed it) California going all the way back to 2010. Supercuts elected to get out clean (shaven) rather than get involved in hairy litigation. Sometimes the puns just write themselves.

Last year’s “joint employer” decision from the NLRB is starting to have an impact. At the time the decision was made it was considered alarming, but most experts suggested a wait and see approach. Well, we’ve waited and now we see a ton of lawsuits. According to Littler Mendelson, at least 50 joint employer claims have been filed against franchises since September 2015, most of which are against McDonald’s and a variety of service industry businesses. Another 80 charges may lead to joint employer claims in the future, and an additional 150 joint employer claims were made against non-franchised businesses. The upshot of this activity is that many small businesses are now cancelling their plans for expansion and franchisors have scaled back worker training and guidance from the top, fearing that this kind of activity will expose them to joint employer lawsuits.

HR’s anonymous Internet complaint department – Glassdoor.com – is under attack for allegedly pulling back the curtain on 600,000 anonymous users. Back in June, Glassdoor changed its terms and conditions and informed clients by sending a massive group email out to them, revealing the email addresses of previously anonymous users who probably had really mean things to say about their companies. One person is now suing Glassdoor, claiming that revealing her email address and identity damaged her business reputation. The plaintiff has retained celebrity attorney Mark Geragos and is seeking to form a class of plaintiffs who have been similarly sabotaged.

HR Grab Bag

Credit to the EEOC. When they say “equal,” they mean it. The EEOC just won a judgment against a Louisiana staffing firm that was accused of refusing to hire women for trash collector jobs. A federal district court ordered the company to pay $179,000 in damages – a drop in the bucket compared to other fines – but the message seems pretty clear – gender-specific jobs are on the way out with very few exceptions.

Littler Mendelson’s annual Executive Employer Survey is out, completed by over 800 in-house counsel, HR and C-Suite executives. Some key findings were that 82% of respondents expect DOL enforcement to impact their workplace next year, 70% expect a rise in joint employer claims and 74% expect a rise in discrimination claims made by LGBT workers.

Internet pioneer Monster.com has been acquired for a paltry $429 million by Netherlands-based HR consultant Randstad. The new owner will keep the Monster name and business independent, but intends to wrap Monster’s job board into a larger, full suite of HR services. Monster itself recently acquired a startup job board in June called Jobr, demonstrating that you can be both a buyer and a seller in this fast-paced technology mergers and acquisitions market.

How is this song related to HR?

In the last edition of HR Intel, we asked you how “War” by Bob Marley & The Wailers is related to HR.

“War” is one of the signature songs of the post-Civil Rights era and represents a full admonishment of institutionalized racism around the world. The lyrics of the song make it clear that people of color were fed up with inequality and laid out what they wanted to see changed in order to achieve peace. In writing the song, Marley drew inspiration from the former emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, who famously addressed the United Nations in October 1963 regarding racism and injustice. The song is perhaps a window into the psyche of those who are still fighting for equality and justice, so if you ever find yourself trying to identify with demonstrators or “Black Lives Matter,” give this song a quick listen.

We leave you with “Subdivisions” by Rush.

Tell us how you think this song is related to HR in the comments section below.

 

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