Does AI Signal the End of HR?

The email opens with that same compelling claim—qualifying the statement, again, with the word “might.”

Advertising hyperbole is just that, of course—hyperbole. Yet concern over what exactly artificial intelligence could do to HR and other professions is all too real. And certainly, some positions will be significantly impacted or eliminated altogether. In fact, a recent Goldman Sachs report found that as many as 300 million jobs around the world could be affected by AI and automation, including office and administrative support roles.

But replace HR? No. Not even close, according to both HR and technology experts. Not anytime soon, and quite likely, not anytime ever.

What Might Be Replaced?

Research by the Academy to Innovate HR identified HR jobs that are at high, moderate and low risk of automation. At high risk are administrative and process support roles, such as help desk employees, system testers, talent researchers and payroll administrators. At the low-risk end of the spectrum are C-level and organizational excellence roles, including industrial-organizational psychologists and HR systems architects.

“The bad news is some HR jobs will be eliminated,” said Mark A. Herschberg, author of The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You (Cognosco Media, 2021). “The good news is, we won’t lose HR jobs.”

That may sound contradictory, he said, but it really isn’t: “Technology has always replaced certain types of work.

“In some cases, like farmers and tollbooth collectors, the number of workers needed has simply diminished,” Herschberg continued. “In other cases, [technology] created more demand. Software developers are much more productive these days than they were 20 to 30 years ago, but that just means more companies can build their own software due to the lower cost, and demand increased.”

Similar shifts are likely to occur within the HR profession. Nilesh Thakker, managing partner and global head of the Talent Practice at Zinnov, a New York City firm that helps companies build, buy and sell technology, agreed that certain skill sets are likely to be replaced. However, “the complete automation of HR tasks is highly unlikely because there are certain areas that need to develop further,” he said.

For example, technology is already being used in HR to do a variety of tasks formerly performed by humans, including:

  • Candidate screening.
  • Employee support through chatbots.
  • Interviews and assessments.
  • Employee onboarding.
  • Performance management.
  • Retention through predictive analytics.
  • Employee engagement and feedback.
  • Compliance and risk management.

These tasks certainly cover a wide range of HR-related duties, but the replacement by AI will be only partial, experts said. Technology can augment and support HR processes to free up HR professionals to focus more on value-added tasks, but it’s unclear whether or how it could actually replace HR.

However, “[i]t is clear that AI has the potential to disrupt the HR profession,” said Cath Garcia, head of HR at Skill Success, an e-learning platform with an entirely remote workforce. “The extent to which this disruption occurs will depend on a number of factors, including the pace of technological development, the willingness of HR professionals to embrace new technology, and the demand for HR services from businesses.”

What Is Likely to Remain?

In a nutshell, generative AI and related technologies are not likely to replace the “human” in human resources.

“The risk of AI claiming jobs implies that we are ready to allow technology to own the decision-making process,” said Aaron Green, chief marketing and solutions officer at SAP SuccessFactors. “I don’t believe we are there yet. As long as people still desire human connection and a sense of control, we are a long way away from AI taking over jobs in HR.”

In the near future, “AI will play an important role in improving HR processes by taking on the brunt of methodical tasks,” he added. “However, HR professionals of all levels will still be needed throughout an employee’s career journey to build upon the insights AI brings forth and provide realistic recommendations and human connection.”

Alison Lands leads strategy for SkyHive Technologies, a skills intelligence platform that she said “may in fact be one of the AI innovations that prognosticators say might disrupt certain aspects of HR.” However, she acknowledged she is “skeptical about whether such tech can eradicate—in part or in total—the need for HR or a function in its entirety.”

Thakker pointed to some reasons why this is unlikely. “A persistent issue with AI-generated outputs is that they are often inaccurate and require fact-checking by human moderators, which makes it harder to displace or minimize the role of humans,” he said.

Emotional intelligence and other soft skills are also unlikely to be fully replicated by AI. “HR executives understand the importance of appealing and catering to the emotions of employees, partners and customers,” Thakker said. “And while AI has advanced to give customized responses to queries, it has a long way to go in developing a strong emotional connection with humans or expressing empathy.”

The ultimate role of AI in HR, said Thakker, is to “augment, not eliminate.” While AI can replace manual, time-intensive tasks effectively, it cannot take away the human component from human resources, he said.

HR tasks will be replaced, however, new roles and opportunities in HR will now become viable, so rather than seeing a net loss in HR jobs, we’ll see a shift in what those jobs are, Herschberg said.

Lands agreed, saying, “New HR jobs will also emerge.” For example, “safeguarding the enterprise and its users against risk caused by the AI or its misuse is likely to become a cottage industry of its own.”

But regardless of the ultimate impacts HR will experience, experts agree it’s important for HR leaders to be proactive in addressing inevitable disruption.

HR Must Now Evolve

AI will “force the role of HR to evolve to become more of a corporate strategy, analytics and technologist role, and on a level that would likely shock most HR leaders with more than a few years in the field,” Lands said. This is an area where “HR must lean in and rapidly gain conversancy on the technology itself and how it works, as well as on the use cases within the business, and larger policy and regulatory implications.”

She added that there is a huge opportunity for HR leaders to lead organizations through this disruption and turbulence, but “only if HR practitioners are able to get ahead of the use cases for this technology and anticipate the impacts it will have on their own profession and on the professional lives of those ‘human resources’ the function oversees.”

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