“People Data” Is a Scary Phrase for Employees

People data. It can feel like a dirty phrase for many workers, inciting feelings of unease and distrust. 

And it’s not hard to understand why in the wake of headlines like “Amazon’s AI tool uncovered a big problem that was sexist against female candidates,” “Nordstrom’s data breach exposed sensitive employee information,” and “McKesson Corporation found new ways to spy on employees in the workplace.”

These high-profile examples raise suspicions about employers’ intent around data usage. Notably, it’s not just workers who are feeling misgivings — 70% of business leaders say that they’re “not very confident” that they’re using data from the workplace in a responsible way. To change such perceptions, organizations need to think carefully about how they mine and apply their people data.

To use employee data responsibly and build trust, you should ask yourself three critical questions. 

1. Are we being transparent with our employees?

Adding more digital tools can seem well-intentioned, but it can come across negatively if employees don’t understand what information you’re collecting with new technologies. After all, it’s easy for people to fear the misuse of information and focus on worst-case scenarios. It’s therefore important to disclose how you plan to use the data you collect about your people.

A key way is to show employees how you’re using data; visuals can provide a lot of clarity. 

For example, displaying an admin dashboard in a feedback tool can eliminate ambiguity better than written or verbal explanations. Employees can then better understand how their feedback can translate into business insights.

2. Are we making full use of the data that we have today?

You probably already collect data in ways that employees are comfortable with. For instance, workers in many fields track their hours. You might also regularly track metrics like turnover and engagement. These and other data points can tie back to major workplace initiatives, goals, mission statements, or company values. 

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Consequently, before you gather new information, it’s vital to evaluate that data you already have. That entails knowing your process debt, or the overhead in your processes that aren’t adding value. In other words, do the benefits of your data collection outweigh the costs? 

Your people may view your use of data with skepticism if your organization has historically gathered information and failed to act on it. For instance, deploying a new tool without buy-in from other leaders throughout your company sends the wrong message. You can hardly expect employees to feel excited to use new technology if their own leaders aren’t actively championing it. 

3. Are we pursuing a good outcome? 

Make sure your people understand how data collection will line up with your company’s values. If employees know that you are using information for important initiatives — like diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; manager improvement; or employee experience actions — they’ll be more willing to participate because they will see how it connects to the vision of the company. 

Showing employees how people data can improve their lives is perhaps the most important step in getting their buy-in. That might mean showing people enjoying certain perks and benefits as a result of changes made due to an employee survey. It might mean highlighting employees recognizing each other as part of a recognition program you launched based on employee feedback. The more you can connect people data to real-life outcomes and experiences, the better your people will feel about your data-collection processes.

Ultimately, using data for good relies on employee trust and should be part of a long-term strategy for building a positive and productive workplace. 

Raphael Crawford-Marks is the founder and CEO of Bonusly, an enterprise platform that helps companies create high-performance, high-engagement workplaces. He's passionate about building products that help people connect with their work and each other in meaningful ways.

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