Data Driven HR #7: People Data for Good

The subject of ethics continues to be top of mind for HR and people analytics leaders I speak to around the world, and rightly so.

With the surge of growth in the adoption of people analytics, the drive by organisations to personalise the employee experience and the multiple new sources of employee data available, the issues of ethics, trust and privacy are absolutely paramount.

The potential of people analytics is enormous but the risk of getting it wrong and losing employee trust – perhaps irrevocably – is high. We all have a responsibility in the people analytics field to ensure that people data is used for good.

In Don’t Forget the ‘H’ in HR , I put forward that ethics is not only the most critical ingredient of people analytics, but remains the field’s biggest challenge. The article, which was based on my speech at UNLEASH (the slides are included in the article), examines the challenges facing practitioners when it comes to ethics, draws on research from IBM, Insight222 and Deloitte as well as several case studies and provides a number of recommendations for HR, which are summarised in .

Issue #7 of Data Driven HR is an ‘Ethics Special’ and highlights a collection of excellent resources on this topic, which I hope you will find helpful. If you do, please share with your network and encourage them to subscribe!


Three articles highlighting what companies are doing together and individually with regards to the approach to ethics and people data:

DIRK PETERSEN – 6 Steps to Ethically Sound People Analytics
Earlier this year, Insight222 (where I am a board advisor) worked with 15 Global500 member companies to co-create an ethics charter and guiding set of principles for the use of people data (see ). Dirk Petersen’s article describes the background and delivery of the project and six recommendations to help firms develop ethically sound people analytics. These include the need to i) align key stakeholders, and ii) demonstrate employee value. As Dirk concludes, getting management to take data ethics seriously is paramount to avoid a potentially fatal ‘Cambridge Analytica’ moment.

KATHLEEN HOGAN – Empower your employees to leverage their own data
Giving the insights from data back to those that provide it – namely employees – is a key step to ensuring everyone in the organisation benefits from people analytics. CHRO Kathleen Hogan describes how Microsoft is doing just that by using analytics to help employees and teams to become more productive. Kathleen emphasises that the purpose is to empower rather than undermine employee decision-making and goes on to articulate her vision of creating the ” ability for employees to own their data, improve their engagement at work, and enhance their work/life balance.”

PATRICK COOLEN – The 10 Golden Rules of HR Analytics
In rule #5 of his seminal 10 Golden Rules of HR Analytics, Patrick Coolen describes how the legal and compliance functions within ABN AMRO are involved at the outset of a people analytics project and also before any results are communicated to the business. As Patrick writes, it’s best to get legal on board as soon as possible.

Recent research from IBM and Bersin by Deloitte on the importance of ethics and employee data.

NIGEL GUENOLE, SHERI FEINZIG & DAVID GREEN – The Grey Area: Ethical Dilemmas in HR Analytics
This research from early 2018 by IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute saw 20,000 workers in 44 countries surveyed for their perspective on data use in HR analytics. The results showed that within the ‘grey areas’, where legal precedent does not exist, or data ownership is unclear, context and culture matter most. A Case Study describing how IBM implemented its employee listening program Social Pulse is provided along with recommendations for organisations and employees on the use and availability of data.

JOSH BERSIN – People data: How far is too far?
Included as part of Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends for 2018, Josh Bersin describes the rapid growth of people analytics, the increase in the number and type of data sources being used, and the consequent risk this poses to privacy and data security. Josh highlights a potential blind spot (see ), where only a quarter of organisations are managing the potential impact of using people data on their consumer brand.

Organisations are approaching a tipping point around the use of people data, and those that tilt too far could suffer severe employee, customer, and public backlash”


Four resources providing an outside-in view on how organisations and the data science community are approaching ethics from a wider perspective. All have particular resonance with regards to people analytics and employee data.

DJ PATIL – A Code of Ethics for Data Science | Ethics and Data Science
A series of resources from the former US Chief Data Scientist (under Obama not the current incumbent of the Oval Office). First, DJ Patil outlines an initiative for data scientists to co-create an ethics charter for the profession. Then, he previews the Ethics and Data Science paper he wrote together with Mike Loukides and Hilary Mason (download to Kindle for ). Finally, you can watch Patil in conversation with Charles Duhigg at this year’s Wharton People Analytics Conference (it’s definitely worth 40 minutes of your time).

McKINSEY – Ten red flags signalling your analytics program will fail
McKinsey outline ten issues that hold organisations back when it comes to analytics. Red flag #10 covers a lack of focus on identifying ethical, social and regulatory implications arising from analytics initiatives and highlights people data as a particularly high area of risk.

JOSH BERSIN – The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence: It’s Trickier Than You Think
Companies like Google, IBM and Microsoft (see example in below) have introduced standards and codes of conduct for AI (and ethics). As Josh explains, the challenge is as much about leadership as it is engineering.

TOM CASSAUWERS – Doctors swear to ‘do no harm.’ Why don’t data scientists?
Interesting piece that examines whether data science needs an equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath.

“We hear all the time about how data is the new oil, but I would argue that if mishandled, data can also be the new TNT”


A selection of seven articles providing guidance on building employee trust, taking ownership of the GDPR, protecting confidential data and rethinking the use of people data in organisations.

KIM BRADFORD – What HR departments need to know about the GDPR
Kim Bradford provides practical guidance on how HR can seize the opportunity offered through GDPR. Her message that ” HR is an ideal business partner for implementing GDPR compliance within businesses” certainly resonates. Kim has recently launched a course on GDPR for HR professionals on myHRfuture. Click to find out more.

TRACEY SMITH – 5 Ways to Better Protect Your Confidential Data
A really helpful article for people analytics teams from Tracey Smith outlining five practical steps to safeguard employee data. My favourite is #3 – remove sensitive data that isn’t crucial to your analysis.

DAVID D’SOUZA – People Analytics: Is Restraint a Constraint?
David D’Souza examines the delicate art of balancing technology and analytics whilst being considerate to privacy and data ownership, and sensibly advocates a cautious approach: “just because it has a mutual benefit – for employee and employer – this still doesn’t mean it is right”.

EDWARD HOUGHTON – 3 key steps for better decision making when using people data and analytics
Ed Houghton outlines the CIPD’s three key tenets for the people profession: being principles-led, evidence-based and outcomes-driven. As Ed outlines, “it’s important when applying analytics to workforce issues that HR keeps front-of-mind that the data being processed relates to living, breathing people.”

DIDIER ELZINGA – Why we must rethink ethics in HR analytics
The CEO of Culture Amp argues that the way organisations collect and use data must fundamentally change. Our responsibility as people analysts is to help our customers in the business (leaders, managers, employees – and HR) interpret and ethically use the data and insights we’re giving them.

ANDREW MARRITT – People Analytics: What’s in it for the employee?
If your employees don’t trust what you will do with their data they won’t give it to you, or won’t provide relevant, truthful data. Not only does it affect the quality of data available, it also makes people analytics initiatives unsustainable. The Virtuous Circle of Data Quality conceptualised by Andrew Marritt in his article provides a compelling case for placing employee trust at the heart of any people analytics strategy.

TAJINDER KUMAR, HEATHER MANN & CLAIRE NEAL – People Analytics: Ethical Considerations
A detailed article that examines the shifting legal landscape around industry uses of personal data as well as privacy from an employee and employer perspective before providing recommendations for organisations on building a data policy.


Increasing awareness from employees with regards to data and legislation like the GDPR has prompted some commentators to suggest that the balance of power with regards to ownership, use and company policy is shifting towards the employee. Here are three examples:

KNOWLEDGE@WHARTON – Can Employees Change the Ethics of Tech Firms?
A podcast looking at the rise of employee activism in technology firms and how this may ultimately lead to employees reshaping ethics within these organisations – mindful of the impact this has on the ability to attract and retain talent.

Gareth Jones looks at the thorny issue of data ownership and makes a compelling case that individual data is owned by the employee and merely shared with the employer.

THE ECONOMISTWhat if People Were Paid for their Data?
The Economist goes a step further than Gareth and ponders whether we are heading towards social media firms (and employers) having to pay consumers and employees for their data. That would certainly unequivocally tip the scales towards the individual.

Three articles that examine the evolution of people data in terms of emerging data sources, advances in technology and the consumerisation of HR and what this means for ethics, trust and privacy:

JONATHAN FERRAR – Ethics and Privacy in Workforce Analytics
Jonathan looks at the plethora of new data sources and their impact on privacy and ethics – including the revelation from Insight222 research that 81% of people analytics projects are jeopardised by ethics and privacy concerns. Jonathan’s advice includes the need for people analytics leaders to work closely with their Chief Privacy Officer, publish a code of conduct, establish a governance council and above all put employee trust and transparency at the centre of people analytics strategy.

BEN WABER – The Happy Tracked Employee
Ben Waber takes a look at the multiple opportunities advances in technology and real-time data collection offers to the people analytics discipline. After outlining examples of how these technologies are e.g. helping reduce gender bias, fatigue and attrition, Ben walks through a playbook for the ethical and smart use of employee data (see ). As Ben concludes, the potential of people analytics to improve decision making is astounding, but failure by organisations to protect employee data could erode this potential for good.

ANDREW SPENCE – The Quantified Workplace: Technology Vs. Trust?
Andy Spence offers a peak into the future with the story of Jo and her automated coaching partner, Sirius and their trip to work in the office of the future. The examples Andy gives on the insights provided to Jo by Sirius throw up plenty of questions around privacy, prediction and data sets. As Andy goes on to detail, from a technological perspective most of what he describes is already possible. However, and this is the crux, the low levels of trust most employees have in their organisations means that many of us believe that quantifying the workplace is still in the realms of science fiction.


People Data for Good is the overarching theme of the People Analytics & Future of Work conference I am co-chairing with Al Adamsen in San Francisco on 31 January and 1 February 2019. Speakers already confirmed include: Amit Mohindra, Dawn Klinghoffer, Piyush Mathur, Stacia Sherman Garr and Richard Rosenow.


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