How Is Artificial Intelligence Changing the Workplace?

Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP November 13, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO—A workplace run by artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of the workplace and will continue to shape the labor market. Therefore, employers need to anticipate changes in job functions and be aware of legal pitfalls associated with evolving technology. 

In the past, automation was prevalent in manufacturing and other industrial settings, but AI and robotics are being introduced in the service industry, too, said Gerlind Wisskirchen, an attorney with CMS Hasche Sigle in Cologne, Germany.  

Eighty percent of U.S. jobs are service-oriented, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. AI developments in the service sector will have a dramatic impact on the labor market and the types of jobs that will be available in the future, Wisskirchen said Nov. 8 at the American Bar Association's 2018 Labor and Employment Law Conference.

"In the past, we saw trends coming slowly," she said. But now, new technology is disrupting whole industry sectors, and business leaders may not see it coming. "That's scary for companies."

Here's what business leaders should be thinking about now to anticipate changes and stay ahead of the curve.

Tasks Are Changing

Robots don't just passively do what someone programmed them to do anymore, said Brian Koncius, an attorney with Bogas & Koncius in Bingham Farms, Mich.

Historically, robots were used in a fenced-off area of a factory to perform physical tasks, but they can now work beside people to do complex and intelligent job duties. Algorithms are able to determine patterns, learn from them and make decisions.

But Wisskirchen said she doesn't think that intelligent robots will eliminate a lot of jobs overnight. "A high percentage of tasks—not jobs—will be changing soon," she said. Repetitive, monotonous tasks will be replaced. Even lawyers, journalists and other professionals perform tasks that are repetitive and monotonous that AI can take over, she noted.

It will be a gradual move for many businesses, but certain jobs and industries will see rapid change, she added. For example, labor-replacing technology for cashiers is already out there. Some casual-dining establishments and retail stores use kiosks to take orders and payments from customers. Making the switch to technology is a matter of investment for large retailers—and many leaders are waiting to see what their competitors do—but the change is already happening, she said.

What skills will still be needed in the future? Creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork will be important as the workplace evolves, Wisskirchen said. Education and training programs will need to focus on these skills.

AI will also impact workforce design, Wisskirchen said. For example, businesses will likely increase the number of freelancers they use. "From a business perspective, it's a new form of outsourcing," she noted. Employers will look at what tasks have to be done internally and what can be done through crowdsourcing.

Legal Issues

Compliance issues will inevitably arise as the workplace changes and the use of AI becomes commonplace. Challenges have already popped up when businesses use AI in the hiring process, said Heather Morgan, an attorney with Grube Brown & Geidt in Los Angeles.

Job applicants have claimed that employment screening systems that appear neutral have a disparate impact based on protected characteristics, such as national origin, sex and race. For example, a recruiting tool that screens out applicants who live more than 10 miles away from the worksite may have a disparate impact based on race or ethnicity, depending on the demographics of surrounding neighborhoods.

If the disparate impact is statistically significant, the burden is on the employer to show that the screening criteria is consistent with business necessity, Morgan said. Algorithms have been challenged in this context and continue to be a risk when they are used to make decisions, she noted.

The use of advanced technology in the workplace can also lead to age discrimination if there is a reduction in force and older workers are let go because they are not perceived as tech-savvy, she added.

Koncius noted that certain job requirements may unintentionally screen out older workers. What if a job description requires a degree in a field that didn't exist 20 years ago? Will that have a disparate impact on older workers?

Jobs are changing, and technology is leading the way. It is critical for employers to understand how these changes impact the workplace and to make sure that the criteria they use to hire, transfer, promote and fire workers are legally defensible, Morgan said.



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