IO psychology

Found Out About You: Should your Organization be Passively Observing Employees?

Note: Thanks to Dr. Gordon Schmidt for the band suggestion to base this post on. In case you’re wondering the lyrics are from the Gin Blossoms song ‘Found About You’

Rumors follow everywhere you go
Like when you left and I was last to know

A trend in the HR technology space is that of passive listening or monitoring of employees. While these tools have existed for almost 10 years they have primarily been used to monitor customer comments and sentiment. This technique has gained some traction in conversations with human resources as talent becomes scarcer and retention becomes a larger issue. The technique involves evaluating employee communication (i.e. email) for sentiment to offer a real-time ‘pulse’ for employee attitudes.  

                On LinkedIn, an article about a new tool that scans employee emails and evaluates sentiment has been making the rounds. The company is called Receptiviti, a Toronto-based startup co-founded by Dr. James. W. Pennebaker, a giant in the field of natural language processing (NLP). The science behind Receptiviti is more than likely sound since it is likely based on much of Pennebaker’s seminal language work. The creators also claim that it has some ability to assess mental health. However, the idea of this tool and similar tools gives me pause.

                I shared this article with some I-O psychology colleagues. In this case Dr. Vivian Woo and Dr. Daniel Meltzer. We ended up having an interesting discussion and I’ll be referencing some comments they made in this post.

Is there a line that I could write
That's sad enough to make you cry?
All the lines you wrote to me were lies

                Organizations that would attempt to use this tool are operating under some core assumptions and like all assumptions its important to interrogate those assumptions to identify what those assumptions mean. This piece isn’t criticism of Receptiviti in particular. I have not used the tool, nor have I read anything about it other than the Quartz article. However, Receptiviti and tools like it are turning into a more viable options in the HR tech marketplace and we should think about what these tools offer and what they mean for organizational life.

Assumption 1: Employee surveys don’t contain honest feedback.

                One reason to use a passive sentiment analysis tool is because an organization may feel it doesn’t receive honest feedback from its employees. Survey researchers and organizational practitioners are aware of the potential faking problem and have suggested some solutions to it. Survey research has been the tried and true method of assessing employee satisfaction for over 70 years. Most organizational survey practitioners use reverse coded items and other techniques to assess for consistency. Natural language processing has yet to show that it measures employee sentiment more effectively than traditional surveys.

Assumption 2: Employees will consent to this use of email communication.

                The Receptiviti tool includes employee consent and reports data by gender and by department not at the individual level. Some employees are allowed to opt out which mirrors the nonresponse bias we see in traditional survey research. The consent issue is one of great interest. When I spoke with Dr. Meltzer he mentioned that like many software agreements, people rarely read informed consent forms. In fact, most people won’t read the consent form at all especially if the implication is that it’s a condition of using email which is an absolute necessity in the modern workplace. Most consent forms are challenging to read and are often ignored completely by employees. The same would most likely be true for employees. Most people cannot remember what they consent to nor do they completely understand what it is that they’ve agreed to. In addition, its your employer asking you to participate and there’s additional pressure.

                An automated email sentiment analysis tool differs from other forms of surveillance. If cameras exist in the workplace, employees don’t believe that they are used to assess them in any way. Reviewing emails for feelings has a distinctly darker tinge.

Assumption 3: The data will be consistent and reliable

                Once employees realize that their emails or other forms of communication are being analyzed by department and gender to measure sentiment there’s no guarantee what the reaction would be. Dr. Woo mentioned that there’s a possibility of gaming the system by including only positive language in email and finding alternative routes by which to communicate. Or using the system to create a sense of negativity or positivity where that wasn’t the case. Organizations will also need to develop their own dictionaries including unique acronyms and terminology so that the NLP will better understand employee communication. This would require some effort to determine how language is used in the organization and what specific terminology means. Regional issues may also arise.

In addition to the gaming the system, Dr. Woo mentioned the potential for abuse by those in power with the introduction of any new tool or system. Imagine being brought into your boss’ office for sending too many funny emails. A manager could use the tool to conduct a sentiment analysis to find out what you really think about them based on emails.

 I found out about you
I found out about you

Assumption 4: Companies will take action on real-time sentiment analysis and create healthier workplace cultures

            An issue that Reciptivi hopes to address is toxic workplace culture involving harassment and stress. This is a laudable goal and it seems that many of these tools have arisen to help organizations unover hidden activities happening within the workplace as we have seen in the #MeToo movement. However, this assumes that organizations will take action on what they find. In a piece I wrote (along with my colleagues, Dr. Zoe Zhu, Dr. Holly Jacobs, and Dr. Ranjit Nair) for Industrial Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, we identified that most harassers were not punished by their organizations despite organizational policy. In a recent SHRM #NextChat, the topic was toxic culture and a consistent theme was a lack of consequences for abusers and follow through on company policy.  Ultimately, the issues around workplace culture don’t seem to be around whether an organization used a survey or not. The real issue is following through on what an organization has learned from a hotline, a survey, or even a sentiment analysis tool.

            Before investing in a sentiment analysis tool like this, make sure that your organization plans on using what you discover. If your organization doesn’t action on employee survey results will they really action on sentiment analysis? From a scientific standpoint, this idea is very cool. It’s great that Pennebaker and co. are innovating in this way. But be mindful of investing in something like this if you’re not actually going to do something with it. If your employees trust your organization enough to participate in this program it may prove useful. However, if your organization has challenges and problems be aware of unintended consequences.

Building Wakanda for #TeamSIOP


We've been a little quiet here at the Talent Metrics blog. As a boutique consulting firm we've been more focused on delivering to clients over the past few months. I had promised myself that I'd write about my experience with I-O Shaken and Stirred  (I plan to write about the experience and provide a Joel Lefkowitz reading list that I had promised to Beth Melilo.). However, teaching, consulting, and life have gotten in the way. 

io sns what if.png

After #SIOP18 and the I-O Shaken and Stirred experience I was awestruck by the level of engagement in the #IOPsych community. I was able to receive feedback from many of you regarding my talk about values in I-O Psychology. We ran a caption contest based on a fantastic picture that Ben Hawkes took of one of my furtive glances. Lisa Kath won the caption contest but I couldn't believe how much engagement that one tweet received. It left me with an indelible sense of the intelligence and power of the #IOPsych community. At the very least I realized that the IO psych tweeps appreciate making jokes about my nervous glances. Since there's no end to oddball pictures of the Talent Metrics team, we've got a few more caption contests coming up!

world of wakanda.PNG

My S&S talk was about the dream of Wakanda and why it had struck such a chord with the general audience  beyond Marvel movie fans. But it was also about building the science that we wished for in the future and in turn offering a vision of the world of work to people outside of our community. Each of the S&S talks highlighted a different element of I-O psychology's values whether it was the need for open access science, civility in the workplace, utilizing neurodiverse talent, valuing the feminine, or becoming an I-O entrepreneur . Each of these speakers spoke about what they cared about. I would recommend checking out the Shaken and Stirred YouTube Channel to see the level of innovation and intelligence on display in each of the S&S talks. 

But if we're serious about the dream of an #IOpsych Wakanda it can't just be S&S speakers that express the values in their hearts. We need all of you to participate. Which brings me to the beauty of Talya Bauer's Presidential call to action She gave some clear action steps about how to get involved in SIOP the organization. I want to support those remarks and ask each of you to take your IO Advocacy (#IOadvocacy anyone?) and bring your whole selves to SIOP whether its through submitting a poster, a panel, an IGNITE session, or an alternative session. Try to submit something this year that you truly care about. Maybe it isn't something that you think will be a slam dunk to get accepted but something that's true to who you are.

Submissions aren't the only way to affect SIOP. You can express your I-O Psych values as a SIOP reviewer. The conference has grown enormously and its important for all of us to not only submit but to review and participate in the content curation of our conference. Beyond the conference, there are many activities that we wish SIOP could take on. If you want SIOP to take on a project or see an opportunity for SIOP in an area that you're passionate about, join the organization, volunteer on a committee or just advocate for the science. 

Finally, I ask everyone to participate beyond SIOP. Whether that's by participating in other conferences (APS, APA, AOM) or bringing some new initiative to your workplace that's rooted in the science of I-O Psychology, or even talking about I-O psychology with a new audience (i.e. a high school class). You can even get involved in a Global Organization for Humanitarian Work Psychology project  It's up to us to express our pride for our field. By advocating for what we believe in I-O Psychology we can get true workplace science out into the world. If I can get my IO tweeps to create such funny, amusing jokes based on 1 silly photo then I hope I can encourage you to represent #TeamSIOP in a new setting where you can advocate for a Smarter Workplace. Let's build the community we dream of starting with SIOP but not stopping there.

With only a few days left before the SIOP submission deadline, there's no better time than now to get involved. Good luck with your submissions, your reviews, and your advocacy! 

caption contest 1.jpg
Everyone who participated in the caption contest was a winner (Though technically Lisa's tweet is the winner, so Dr. Lisa Kath is the winner) 

Everyone who participated in the caption contest was a winner (Though technically Lisa's tweet is the winner, so Dr. Lisa Kath is the winner)