Five HR and people management controversies from 2018

Anna Roberts

Dec 2018 ⋅ 5 min read

Man in business attire holding his classes and rubbing his temples.

2018 has been a big year for HR, recruitment, and people management. The continued emergence of technologies like AI are switching up traditional HR processes, whilst GDPR enforcement has sent recruiters scrambling to tidy up their candidate data.

There have been plenty of recruitment controversies and incidents that hit the headlines over the past 12 months, many of which involve the use and misuse of technology.

Here are five that caught our eye during 2018...

Amazon's sexist AI recruitment bot revealed

The thing about today's AI is that it doesn't matter how clever it is — if the data you give it to process is poor quality, the output will be just as shoddy. It's the old 'garbage in, garbage out' principle.

In 2014, Amazon started building software that would assess which candidates would be best for the job based on their CVs. The idea was that the system would be fed a large batch of CVs, and it would score each of them, helping the company immediately discard applications that weren't up to scratch.

However, it was recently revealed that the company had to ditch the tool, because it kept making 'sexist' decisions.

That's because the system was trained on data from 10 years of prior applications where the successful applicants tended to be men — largely because most applications were from men.

That meant whenever the system saw a phrase like 'women's chess club captain', it downgraded the applicant's score — the algorithm only saw that previous successful applications hadn't had the word 'women's' in. Graduates of several all-women's universities were also downgraded.

The system was ditched back in 2015, but algorithmic sorting is now common in recruitment, to the point where candidates are often advised that they should optimise their CV around robots.  

Amazon's early tinkering with recruitment algorithms should serve as a warning that the computer isn't always right. We expect to see many more algorithm fails in 2019 and beyond...

Morrisons' game-changing data breach

Supermarket chain Morrisons look set to be liable for a data breach that involved a rogue employee leaking staff payroll data back in 2014. In what could be a landmark data protection case, the supermarket's appeal to the high court failed.

It all started when Andrew Skelton, a senior internal auditor at Morrisons, leaked the payroll data of almost 100,000 employee and posted them online. The info included names, addresses, salaries, national insurance numbers and bank account details. In 2015, Skelton was sentenced to eight years in prison.

The case didn't end there. In 2017, the High Court ruled that Morrisons was 'vicariously liable' for the breach and should compensate the affected staff. Morrisons appealed the case, and lost its appeal.

The supermarket argued that they couldn't have prevented the breach, and that it shouldn't be held liable for criminal misuse of its data. However, the court disagreed.

The outcome means that companies should place even more stringent controls on company data, and implement extremely thorough policies on data protection — including restricting the access of trusted employees.

The judgment recommend insuring against financial losses associated these sorts of data breaches.  

Morrisons have spent an estimated £2 million fighting the case and responding to the breaches, and now face paying out compensation on a 'vast scale'.

It's also important to note that Skelton had previously had disciplinary issues at Morrisons — think about how this might affect HR procedures at your company.

Tesla and Elon Musk's very public 'break-up'

It hasn't been a good year for PayPal founder and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. He went from being a cult-like figure leading two of the most exciting tech brands (Tesla and SpaceX), to stepping down as Tesla chairman and frittering away goodwill after some highly questionable remarks about one of the Thai cave rescuers (amongst other things).

We could write an essay about what Musk got wrong this year, but it was his Twitter rants and in particular a series of tweets about taking Tesla private that dealt the most damage to his relationship with investors.

The tweet drew the attention of US regulator the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), as Musk had claimed that he'd secured funding at a premium price, which was misleading. The SEC wanted to oust Musk as CEO.

The news unnerved investors, particularly when coupled with Musk's other strange behaviour throughout the year. Eventually, a deal was made with the SEC which required Musk to step down as chairman, and both he and Tesla to pay a £15 million fine to reimburse investors.

That's one expensive tweet.

The lesson here? Communicating company strategy and finances so publicly is almost always a bad idea. And one outspoken director can inspire investors one moment, and infuriate them the next.

Wayward email to jobseeker labels her a 'chav'

Accidentally forwarding an email to the wrong person is one of the most stressful office experiences. The moment of realisation. The desperate attempts to find out how to stop the email sending, before the stomach-sinking moment when you realise it's too late. And now, there's the risk of a hefty GDPR penalty if sensitive personal data falls into the wrong hands.

This embarrassing email faux pas affected Paige Bond, a candidate for an open position at Forest Whole Foods, an organic food shop and online retailer.

She'd sent in her application, and later received an email that had been meant for another staff member. In the email, Bond was called "chavvy" and predicted to be "irritating", stating that "she is probably worth interviewing if you think you can cope with having someone like her around."

The email ended with "delete this email in case you took her on and she found it."

As soon as the company realised their mistake, they left an apologetic voicemail and offered her an interview. Bond attended, but wasn't impressed with their conduct — not least because they didn't offer another apology.

It appears that Forest Whole Foods looked at Bond's social media profiles before deciding whether to offer an interview. While this practice is widespread in the recruitment world, it could be classed as discriminatory — and lead to an embarrassing email mishap!

Manager's empathy deficit almost causes PR disaster

Across the pond, workers' rights are far more limited than in the UK, but this example of corporate cruelty will make every manager wince.

Crystal Reynolds Fisher, who works at PS Food Mart in Michigan, texted her boss to tell them her son was still on life support so wouldn't be able to make her shift in two days' time, and that she'd let them know as soon as he started to recover.

The manager's response: "That isn't how we do things, so I'll accept that you're quitting."

Fisher questioned this response and asked if she was being fired.

"There is no reason you can't work, and I will not tolerate drama. End of conversation."

Fisher posted the conversation on social media and it went viral. The company responded on Facebook with a careful apology, and the manager in question was fired. While some commenters expressed doubts that action would've been taken if the incident hadn't gone public, most appreciated the quick and decisive response.

PS Food Mart managed to contain the situation as swiftly and professionally as possible given its highly emotive nature.

Final thoughts

It's more important than ever to keep your HR and recruitment processes up to scratch. With staff able and willing to air their grievances on social media, you must know how to prevent and resolve incidents should they arise.

Handling these controversies is a real test for any business. Don't learn these lessons the hard way — take steps now to tighten your processes, train staff, and build action plans so you know how to respond to PR disasters in the making.