Companies crawl the web with artificial intelligence to spot employee ‘red flags’

Businesses are crawling social media, email and internal instant messaging services for employees making sexist or bullying comments in an attempt to root out troublesome behaviour and avoid lawsuits.

Fama, a California start-up which claims to have 120 clients including Fortune 500 companies, said it is helping businesses weed out individuals likely to cause a rift among workers and expose the business to costly lawsuits.

Its artificial intelligence-powered snooping software identified 82,900 instances of misogyny, 40,200 instances of bigotry, 677 insinuations of violence and 589 instances of criminal behaviour in 2018. Fama claims to scan 15,000 workers per month, including a number in the UK.

“Building a great culture is hard as you scale your business,” according to Fama’s marketing material. “Hiring a misogynistic manager, for instance, could set you back months, or even years.”

Human resources departments hand over the names of interview candidates and current employees and the software will scan social media profiles and public message boards for offensive material.

It can also be used internally at companies  to monitor work emails and instant messaging services, like Slack, in order to find offending messages and send back a report within 24 hours.

Companies can select what kind of red flags they are looking for. Fama co-founder Ben Mones told The Sunday Telegraph that companies are most concerned with spotting bigotry, followed by sexism and predisposition to violence. The software is smart enough to pick up hostile phrases, rather than just swear words or expletives.

One example that the software would pick up is: “Why would I care about minorities if they act like animals and then ask that I pay for their degeneracy?”

Law requires that individuals consent to a background check, but many may not be aware of the in-depth investigation they are subjecting themselves to when ticking a box.

Mr Mones said business was booming after instances of sexual harassment, divisive political views and bullying in the workplace put a number of high profile companies under media scrutiny.

Most recent was the Google Walkout in November where thousands of Google employees left their desks in protest over sexual harassment and discrimination within the company.

The outcry was prompted by US news reports which alleged that the boss of Android, Google’s smartphone operating system, had been paid off to leave quietly after search giant found he had sexually abused an employee. Google executives and the board are being sued for signing off the payout.

Media giant Fox has admitted to paying $55m to settle harassment lawsuits and in 2017 received a $90m insurance payout to cover legal fees relating to sexual harassment cases.

Other tech giants, such as ride-hailing app Uber, have undergone extensive and costly internal investigations into workplace harassment. Uber fired 20 employees in 2017 after a whistleblower accused the company of failing to take action on employees accused of harassment.

And last year, Quinn Norton, a columnist hired by the New York Times, was fired six hours after the newspaper confirmed her appointment over tweets where she admitted to being “friends with various neo-Nazis”.

“This is the year of socially responsible enterprise,” Mr Mones said. “People are starting to wake up and realise that employee and executive behaviour is driving real business outcomes, and the market.”

Post-Brexit the UK is likely to introduce its own equivalent data protection law. In any case, companies which gather data on EU citizens will have to abide by the GDPR.

Fama’s website says it works with tech giants including artificial intelligence and computing giant IBM. It also signed a “global, strategic partnership” in 2016 with First Advantage, the world’s largest background checking company that checks up on employees at multinational companies around the world.

In Europe companies are bound by stricter data protection laws, meaning there is a limit to what information employers can gather on staff and the purpose they use it for. Privacy experts remain concerned of companies overreaching.  Guidelines published by Europe’s data watchdogs advised that companies should seek “legal ground” before snooping on candidates social media accounts.

Jim Killock, a privacy expert at the Open Rights Group, said: “Employers should be extremely cautious about using data in this way to judge future employees. They may make poor judgments and lose potentially good people. It would be very tempting indeed for factors like political views or someones propensity to drink to be taken into account by an employer. That could be extremely chilling.”

At a glance | Your data rights under GDPR

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a tough regulation regime for companies that gather personal data, introduced by the EU in April 2016. Enforcement begins 25 May 2018.

The GDPR legislates eight data rights for individuals:

  1. Right to be informed – You must be clearly informed when your data is collected and the purpose for which it is intended.
  2. Right of access – You must be allowed to view the data companies have gathered on you.
  3. Right to rectification – You have the right to correct erroneous information about yourself in a company’s data records.
  4. Right of erasure – Also known as the “right to be forgotten”. You have the right to request the deletion of personal data held on you, although this right is not absolute.
  5. Right to restrict processing– You can request the suppression of your personal data file, or restrict its processing.
  6. Right to data portability – You have the right to take the data a company has collected on you and share it elsewhere, eg. to get a better customer deal.
  7. Right to object – You have the right to object and prevent your data being used for particular purposes, eg. for direct marketing. This right is superseded by legal claims.
  8. Rights related to automatic decision-making – You may only be profiled with your explicit consent, where this is necessary to enter into a contract or where such processing is authorised by the state.

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