Help! My robot colleague is doing better than I am

Alex Mizzi
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Dr Who
From recruitment to being harassed by a robot, are we really ready for this new workplace? (Source: Getty)

It is not unusual for staff to moan about an unfeeling “robotic” manager or the “computer says no” mentality of their HR department. But if the predictions of technology soothsayers are to be believed, those complaints could soon take on a much more literal dimension.

A 2015 study by Oxford University and Deloitte suggested that around 35 per cent of existing UK jobs are likely to become automated in the next 20 years, with administrative jobs or those involving repetitive tasks most likely to be replaced by some form of automation. It seems likely that this will lead to significant job losses, as well as changing the workplace substantially for those whose jobs remain.

Read more: Here's how to stop a robot taking your job

So what could this look like in practice? Unfortunately for fans of glossy science fiction, our future robot colleagues/overlords are far more likely to take the forms of AI-based algorithms, delivery drones and highly specialised machines, rather than the glamorous androids familiar from films. But that doesn’t mean they won’t throw up some very human dilemmas for employers and staff alike.

Mr Robot will see you now

Recruitment is one area likely to be affected. The promise is a seductive one: an AI-bot could sift through CVs swiftly, identify the best candidates and eliminate the subjectivity and unconscious (or even conscious) bias that plagues much recruitment. Robots can even conduct job interviews – Australian researchers have developed a robot which analyses candidates’ facial expressions and body language as well as their answers.

However, it’s worth remembering that AI is only as unbiased as the people programming it – and any technology which is designed to learn from its users risks entrenching bias rather than eliminating it. It’s also not hard to see how using robots to conduct interviews could give rise to discrimination issues: older candidates might well respond less well to this form of interview and be unfairly disadvantaged.

Side by Side

The idea of working alongside a silent robot might sound like paradise for those of us in noisy open-plan offices. And it’s quite likely that robots and human employees will need to work in similar roles for some time, particularly in knowledge-based roles where the robot may need to learn from human users in order to operate more effectively.

But that idea might become less attractive once your boss starts comparing your performance to that of your robot colleague and finding it wanting. HR teams and lawyers alike will need to start grappling with whether – and how – an employer can fairly compare a human employee with a robot counterpart in order to justify performance-managing or even dismissing them.

Bully Bot

In the last 10 years, there has been a rash of employment tribunal cases concerning employees’ use of social media. A claim against the Carphone Warehouse a few years ago demonstrated that online harassment by colleagues which is linked to a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act may result in the employer being liable for that harassment.

Similarly, it won’t be long before we start seeing the first cases of workplace harassment by robot – whether it’s as a result of a bot being maliciously re-programmed or a simple malfunction. This raises fascinating questions as to when the employer will be liable, and when it will be able to pass the buck to the manufacturer.

Anyone who follows the news will know the danger of trying to predict the future, but it appears very likely that businesses, their staff and the courts will need to grapple with these issues before long.

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