How, and to what extent, should “big data” analytics play a role in workforce recruitment, development, and retention? These were some of the questions asked on October 13, 2016 at a meeting convened by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on the use of big data analytics in the workplace. Based on the exchange with the panel of seven experts, it is clear that the EEOC is cautiously approaching companies’ use of big data in informing employment decisions, and is beginning to think about its role in overseeing big data analytics as applied to the workforce.

Big data analytics in the workplace (sometimes referred to as people analytics) is the pairing of large data sets, comprising information gleaned from a variety of sources, with machine learning techniques in order to make successful, efficient, and non-discriminatory employment decisions. But panelists cautioned that big data analytics is not a panacea. Panelist Kelly Trindel, Chief Analyst of the EEOC’s Office of Research, Information, and Planning, expressed concern that the use of big data analytics may inadvertently perpetuate discrimination if the training set on which the analytical algorithms are based comprise a group that itself was the product of discriminatory decision-making.

Commissioner Charlotte A. Burrows suggested that while big data analytics may reduce subjectivity in employment decisions, errors in the data sets or flawed assumptions underlying the algorithms may compound discriminatory effects. Employers using or considering the use of big data analytics should be careful to take appropriate safeguards in designing (or working with a vendor to design) programs that will rely upon big data in order to make employment decisions. Such precautions may include validation of any such programs over time, conducting appropriate job analyses, ensuring the variables considered adequately correspond to the representative population, training managers to properly interpret the data and results, and informing candidates whenever big data analytics will be used in hiring, said panelist Kathleen Lundquist, an organizational psychologist.

Appropriate precautions are especially important given the EEOC’s likely focus on this topic going forward. Chair Jenny R. Yang announced the formation of an internal working group to study big data analytics in the workplace. Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum suggested that, in the future, EEOC may convene additional panels to further discuss the implications of big data analytics in the workplace, and may play an educational role, among other things.

Complete statements of all of the panelists can be found on the EEOC website. In addition, the EEOC will hold open the meeting record for 15 days, and members of the public are invited to submit written comments on any issues or matters discussed at the meeting. If you are interested in contributing, public comments may be mailed to Commission Meeting, EEOC Executive Officer, 131 M Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20507, or emailed to:

Any employer considering the integration of the use of big data analytics into its workplace management practices should discuss the implications of such usage, and development of best practices for same, with experienced counsel.