Is Technology Taking the H out of HR? Chatbots VS Humans.

Chatbots will replace humans on routine, structured, labor-intensive HR processes

Human Resources (HR) has always been the “people” part of a company because people, humans have been its main concern. In a somewhat oversimplified sense, “Accounting” has always been about getting “the numbers” right, “Inventory” in many companies is about collections of things in warehouses, “Manufacturing” – all about machines and production lines, and “Information Technology” (IT) – about computers and the software they run.

IT, in some cases for decades, has been part of almost all of these company functions, keeping the books, giving real-time information on inventory and running the production machinery with little human help.

Although it is changing – for better or worse – HR has always had a significant element of human-to-human interaction. It starts with a job interview, then sometimes with a supervisor/mentor who gets a new hire started on the job. Performance evaluations follow, they are perhaps best as one-on-one talks with a supervisor where the “evaluee” can also see the body language and tone of voice of the person evaluating him or her. The human element is also there when a sudden change to a work schedule or vacation plans is needed – my child started soccer practice, I have to take her there, or my favorite cousin moved his wedding plans by two weeks.

All of this human contact makes the HR department of any company a rather labor-intensive undertaking, even when supported by IT solutions. In a big enterprise, the HR system will tell an HR manager that the “Jane Smith” who wants to see him is the one from Sales, not the other two Janes Smiths from Accounting and Customer Service and that she is due for an evaluation/promotion, but not the other two.  Still, a talk with Jane about her possibilities for advancement will take some 20 minutes of the manager’s day, and she is not the only one on the calendar – the new hire Jerry has to be led around to meet some people and fill in some forms.

Chatbots take on time and labor-intensive HR tasks

It should be no surprise that IT solutions have been developed to reduce the need for costly and “time intensive” human activities in the HR area as well. One effort to replace people for simpler, routine HR tasks has been the use of so-called “chatbots” – software with which one can have a “conversation” online in writing, sometimes even by voice.  Chatbots, when they work at their best, provide an immediate, interactive “human” touch to these interactions. Moreover, they are often available 24/7, an excellent feature if travelling employees are several time zones away from where the live human HR staff work.

By searching for “chatbots and HR” on the internet, one comes up with a range of online articles. Some enthusiastically argue that chatbots are the proverbial better mousetrap (well, with a few tweaks) and there is no stopping them. Others take the view that these software creations can play limited and specific roles in the HR process, but the “live” human factor will remain strong.

The chatbot is back in a big way, thanks to the rise of mobile texting and messaging apps. Its full name is actually “chatterbot,” and its has a long history, dating as far back as the 1960s, when the computing world first tried to build machines that could mimic humans.

It is generally agreed that chatbots can take over such routine and structured tasks as recruitment – the initial filtering of applicants for employment. This can be done by chatbots that play out a simple decision tree of choices for the applicant, with yes-no answers or a limited choice of responses – like education level, BA, MS or the like. The chatbot makes sure to get all the essential information, which is good for the potential employer, but it can also reassure the applicant that his/her application is complete and being processed.

In addition to “interfacing” with applicants, a good recruitment chatbot will have a powerful back office to evaluate and pre-select the applicants it has interviewed for rapid further processing. As HR expert Joseph Sogbaike wrote on last summer, “Just imagine for a moment: A chatbot reaches out to a recruiter and provides a list of 300 applicants that it has recently interviewed. The recruiter can review these applicants. However, the chatbot also offers a specific list of 10 very good candidates that are worth looking into.”  The chatbot’s back office has made that selection through criteria programmed by the company’s HR specialists into a decision-tree that makes this short list without humans going through hundreds of applications.

Can chatbots make “the first cut” when recruiting?

“These automated candidate-matching capabilities of chatbots can take the burden of scoring and ranking applicants off a recruiter’s shoulders. Now, recruiters can benefit from having more quality time to converse with outstanding candidates that have been pre-selected by chatbots,” Sogbaike wrote, emphasizing that chatbots complement, but don’t replace live humans in making important and final HR decisions.

Chatbots vs humans: who will win the war?

Another area where chatbots are playing an increasing and important role is in onboarding, the process of fully integrating new hires into the workplace. This also involves structured routines – filing tax information, bank data for payroll, selecting optional benefits, scheduling for medical and drug testing in some job categories, scheduling for workplace specific training. This also makes it possible to have the chatbot use yes/no or multiple-choice interactions – “can you take fire safety training on Monday, Wednesday or Friday”.

The online portal Recruiting Daily Advisor recently wrote that onboarding is an enormous task for US businesses with more than 60 million new hires in the year from June 2015 to June 2016. According to guest columnist, Lindsay Sanchez, Chief Marketing Officer at Kore onboarding often determines whether a new employee “sticks” with a company, or the company faces new recruiting costs if the employee leaves. “Not surprisingly, many of the Fortune 1000 companies view onboarding as a top priority. But there is no silver bullet. The best onboarding programs strike the balance of talent, training, tools, and technology,” she writes, making it clear that chatbots and software are not a panacea.

Chatbots can implement well-structured onboarding

Sanchez goes on to say that if used, as is the case at large enterprises with thousands of employees, the software must reflect a well-thought-out and sequenced onboarding routine regardless of whether it is executed by humans or a chatbot. The example given is a mobile phone application, apparently aimed at young new employees who are used to instant messaging and communication on their smart phones.

Chatbots are particularly useful for answering routine questions or questions with straightforward answers

In her example from a pharmaceutical company, the chatbot opens a smart-phone conversation with the new hire two weeks ahead of starting and, in “friendly terms”, offers to assist with paperwork and schedule a drug screening (these are clickable links in the chat screen). On the employee’s first day, the bot offers to arrange for a security badge, to set up payroll formalities, computer network passwords – again, through links that either schedule the activity or offer forms to fill in. In this case, the chatbot replaces humans for routine processes and offers a familiar way of interacting to younger new hires who are accustomed to self-servicing in other contexts, such as e-commerce. As the online Chatbots Magazine writes: “Millennials love instant messaging more than they love ordering things from the comfort of their home (maybe not more, but equally!). It is such a common thing to send messages during the working hours.”

Detecting employee moods and feelings is foggy territory

One past a set of processes that are based on set routines and “decision trees”, the HR chatbot landscape turns foggier. There are claims that artificial intelligence (AI) can be taught to detect the moods of people communicating by written or voice chat. Voice recognition requires a lot of computing power (systems like Apple’s Siri run in the cloud) and often create bad associations with frustrating voice-driven airline reservation or banking systems. Whether AI chatbots can be for coaching and evaluation “conversations” where the employee’s moods and responses are judged, initially, by computer system remains to be seen. In any case, it is good policy that employees always know when they are communicating with a chatbot and that they are not being judged by an anonymous human. Chatbots can facilitate evaluations by sending out questionnaires and having employees fill them out (within a reasonable time) at their own pace, in a “conversation” with the bot: “Got most of your answers yesterday. Could you please evaluate how the IT help desk performed with your recent problem?”

Should we be scared? We’d rather not answer for fear of offending any bots.

As for what chatbots are available (software structures that are adaptable to the user’s specific needs), there appear to be dozens and picking the right one is a joint task for HR (specifying what it wants the chatbot to do) and IT (picking and implementing the software). Oh yes – and will they take the H out of HR? For the time being, they can replace humans on routine, structured processes where they are not essential and will not be missed and where the user is aware that the “H” isn’t there.


Written By

Juris Kaža

Journalist, author of the blog Free Speech Emergency in Latvia and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal.