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Employers Embrace Artificial Intelligence for HR

A man sitting at a desk looking at his laptop.

​Companies around the world are increasing their HR investments in artificial intelligence (AI) and related technology and, in doing so, trying to catch up with investments made by other business functions.

Sixty percent of companies plan to boost their use of workplace automation this year, including 59 percent in the United States and 55 percent in China, according to consulting firm Mercer's Global Talent Trends 2019 report.

"HR is actually late to the game. Sales and marketing were first," said Garry Mathiason, senior shareholder and co-chair of the robotics, AI and automation industry group at Littler law firm in San Francisco.

Common HR Uses of AI

Eighty-eight percent of companies globally already use AI in some way for HR, with 100 percent of Chinese firms and 83 percent of U.S. employers relying on some form of the technology.

Overall, Mercer found, when it comes to AI for HR, companies are:

  • Using chatbots to look up information such as company policies or benefits (56 percent).
  • Identifying the best candidates based on publicly available data, like social media profiles (44 percent).
  • Providing recommendations for learning and training to employees (43 percent).
  • Using chatbots to engage with candidates during recruitment (41 percent).
  • Screening and assessing candidates during recruitment (40 percent).

Companies planning to invest in AI this year are targeting:

  • Chatbots for employee self-service, such as changing benefits or requesting time off.
  • The ability to identify employees who are disengaged or at risk of leaving.
  • Suggestions of job openings or career paths for current employees.
  • Help in the performance management process.
  • Customization or improving benchmarking in compensation.

Different Approaches

"There is a high need for automation in HR processes if HR is to fulfill its potential in partnering on transformation efforts," said Kate Bravery, Mercer partner and career global solutions leader based in Hong Kong.

The United States and China, both investing heavily in AI for HR, are placing different bets, according to Bravery.

While companies in both nations use chatbots for employee information lookup, 80 percent of Chinese employers surveyed use AI for that purpose compared with 48 percent in the United States, she noted. Surveyed firms in both countries also use AI to recommend employee training and identify the best candidates, but the practice is more common in China.

More than 40 percent of U.S. employers currently use chatbots to engage with candidates during recruitment and 39 percent use them for employee self-service, while those functions didn't make Chinese companies' list of top five current uses.

Half of Chinese employers, on the other hand, use AI to nudge managers to take action or speak with employees, and half also apply it to succession planning, while those tasks don't land in U.S. companies' top five. More than half of Chinese firms surveyed plan to invest in chatbots for employee self-service this year.

"It is clear that AI investments within HR are different in China and the U.S., signaling what they believe will ensure their competitiveness. For the U.S., it is about supporting the employee experience and enabling self-serve HR. For China, it is about talent intelligence and automated talent management," Bravery said.

China's big tech companies—Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent—"continue to invest in AI locally and abroad, and many HR teams have been piloting AI in the last few years. China's stated intent to reach parity with the U.S. in AI by 2020 appears to be in their sights if not surpassed in the HR space," Bravery said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Global Human Resources Discipline]

Avoiding Unconscious Bias

Athena Karp, founder and CEO of New York City-based AI HR tech company HiredScore, noted that some employers attract more than a million resumes a year and handle 5 million to 10 million hiring decision points, "and yet we're still leveraging human instinct and manual processes to make hires," which can be influenced by unconscious bias.

Karp said she started HiredScore six years ago to help companies use technology to find high-quality job candidates without excluding qualified minority prospects who might be subject to bias-inducing keyword and manual search processes.

"We focus a lot on how AI can enable a much better and more fair candidate experience as well as enable a much better recruiter experience," she said.

AI, she explained, helps recruiters search through and analyze voluminous data so they get "a fair slate of all the people who meet the necessary requirements."

She said AI shouldn't replace recruiters or HR managers, but rather augment their capabilities so they can hire the best people and spend more time on candidate care and other strategic aspects of their jobs that require human attention.

"People like someone who looks like them" but HR should consider all qualified people, irrespective of gender, socioeconomic status or other preferences unrelated to the job, she said. "It's kind of the old world being replaced with the new" now that there is technology that can remove bias-inducing search terms like a candidate's fraternity name from the process of how people get selected for interviews.

Employers need to be sure their algorithms are transparent and their decision parameters explainable—and tested—so that their screening technology itself doesn't inadvertently introduce or perpetuate a bias, she said.

'Significant Industry Disruption'

Mercer's survey, meanwhile, found that nearly three-fourths of executives globally predict "significant industry disruption" in the next three years, a sharp increase from the 2018 report. They see it being most pronounced in life sciences, consumer goods and energy.

More than half expect AI and automation to replace 20 percent of their companies' current jobs, but Mercer noted that the World Economic Forum expects these technologies to create a net 58 million new jobs by 2022.

"This unprecedented shake-up demands new workforce strategies," the firm said in its report.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance reporter and writer based in Philadelphia.


​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.