Present Value: ILR’s Ifeoma Ajunwa on the ethical challenges of technology in the workplace

By: Present Value Podcast Team
Ifeoma Ajunwa

Present Value, an independent editorial project produced and hosted by Johnson students, had the pleasure of interviewing Ifeoma Ajunwa, an assistant professor of labor and employment law in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. 

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Ajunwa investigates the negative impact of workplace technologies

When Ifeoma Ajunwa interviewed previously incarcerated individuals for her PhD dissertation research at Columbia University, her subjects frequently claimed to “hate computers.” The reason for this sentiment wasn’t due to their lack of technical knowledge but rather the algorithms that would sort, filter, and automatically reject their job applications as they attempted to reenter the working world. These interviews served as the basis for Ajunwa’s continuing research on the negative impact of workplace technologies on different categories of people in all stages of the employee life cycle. Drawing on her background in law to analyze the efficacy of existing legal frameworks to address this issue, she realized that “much of [the existing] frameworks did not contemplate and could not really conceptualize the sorts of issues that could arise from the use of the technologies that we have now.”

Quantifying workers’ activities or an invasion of privacy?

The concept of quantifying a worker’s activities and output is nothing new. Ajunwa identifies its roots in Taylorism, a 19th-century theory of management named for Frederick Winslow Taylor. Envisioning that increased productivity would lead to improved prosperity for both employer and worker, Taylor set out to create a “system of management that would maximize efficiency and would maximize productivity,” Ajunwa explains. Taylor achieved these productivity gains by timing with a stopwatch how long employees took to complete specific tasks. Fast-forward to today, and Ajunwa reflects that “the modern-day worker is quantified in a manner and to a degree that I believe is very much unseen in history” through the use of computer and phone monitoring, wearable employee-tracking systems, and wellness programs.

Ajunwa offers examples of cases where this tracking has gone too far. She cites the Myrna Arias case in California, in which a company monitored employees 24/7 via an app called Xoro. From her testimony, Arias recounted how, after being questioned on the limits of the tracking app, her boss bragged that he could see where she went on the weekend and even how fast she was driving. After complaining that this was an invasion of her privacy and then uninstalling the app, she was fired by her employer. She went on to settle her case, but Ajunwa reminds us that California has some of the best worker-protection laws in the country and the settlement might not have been achieved had the case been brought in a different state.

Company “worker wellness” programs created to promote healthy lifestyle choices among employees may seem innocuous enough, but Ajunwa’s research has uncovered several issues with them, beginning with the privacy of collected data. Many of these programs exist in a legal gray area allowing wellness program providers to sell data to third parties. Providers also may offer employers discounts as incentives to be given ownership of the data. Ajunwa encourages workers to read the fine print before signing up for a wellness program.

Employee hiring and “ideal” candidate algorithms

Returning to employee hiring, Ajunwa discusses the issue of over-relying on hiring algorithms to identify ideal candidates and reduce human bias. “We still have to understand that, at the beginning point, even the machine-learning algorithms are created by people,” she notes. In her recent paper, The Paradox of Automation as Anti-Bias Intervention (with a forthcoming revision in 2020), Ajunwa shows that hiring algorithms are not necessarily free of bias. She offers, as an example, an anecdote from an employment lawyer for a large corporation that was developing an automated hiring system. As the lawyer began to ask the algorithm developers what an ideal candidate was, as defined by the system, the developers began to realize that their ideal candidate was named Jared and played high school lacrosse. Needless to say, the efficacy of this particular hiring algorithm can be considered questionable, at best.

The future of technology in the workplace

As companies continually want to be on the cutting edge of applying technology, how do we move forward? Ajunwa believes that the law can be helpful in providing an auditing imperative for the application of technology in the workplace. Similar to LEED certifications for environmentally sustainable buildings, she believes a certification could be granted to employers that have their algorithms verified as largely free of bias. For her next phase of research, she will use a recent career grant from the National Science Foundation to work with the developers of hiring algorithms to understand their design motivations and their ethical guidelines for development.

Ajunwa expands on the above topics and more in her full-length Present Value episode. Listen, share, and subscribe!


About Ifeoma Ajunwa

Ifeoma Ajunwa is an assistant professor of labor and employment law at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She is also an associate faculty member at Cornell Law School and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Ajunwa’s research focuses on the intersection of law and technology in the workplace, with a particular focus on the ethical governance of workplace technologies.

Ajunwa earned a PhD in sociology from Columbia University and a law degree from the University of San Francisco. In her previous career as a practicing attorney in California and Asia, she worked on business and intellectual property law.

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