Is Automation a Threat to HR’s Job Security?

With all the talk of artificial intelligence in the press, it’s only natural that some professionals are worried about becoming obsolete. From driverless cars to chatbots and everything in between, there’s no shortage of emerging technologies that could make businesses more efficient than ever—and potentially lighter on headcount.

But will human resources always be human? According to a McKinsey report published earlier this year, the answer to that question is a resounding “it depends.”

The study identified a number of HR and payroll positions that could potentially go the way of the switchboard operator. Given the wide array of job titles in those two fields, McKinsey honed in on four common ones: HR Assistant, HR Specialist, HR Manager, and Payroll Administrator. The rest of the report’s findings across all industries can be viewed here.

Potential for Automation
Source: McKinsey Global Institute

Role Contribution Limit
Payroll Administrator 87%
HR Assistant 51%
HR Specialist 22%
HR Manager 14%

The report found that over half of junior-level HR responsibilities could be handled by software. That “automation potential,” as McKinsey calls it, decreases the closer you get to the manager level. They found that only 14 percent of the typical HR Manager’s responsibilities could be handled by computers.

Jovanny Chonillo, an HR Manager in Chicago, wasn’t surprised by the results. But while others in his field might find reason to worry, he finds cause for optimism.

“Embracing automation allows us to focus on delivering and acting on strategic insights,” Chonillo said. For him, automation isn’t as much of a threat to HR as it is an opportunity. It could also provide an opening to earn that elusive seat at the table so many in his field clamor for. “When HR pros get bogged down by transactional tasks, it’s difficult to be seen as a true business partner.”

Much of what Chonillo and his peers do focuses on the employee experience. In that respect, automation might really be more friend than foe. “We should start thinking about how we can leverage automation to deliver fantastic experiences. Onboarding immediately comes to mind. But even other multi-step processes, like recruiting, can be improved.” Rather than stunt face-to-face interaction, Chonillo believes technology gives teams like his more time to build meaningful, not just transactional relationships with employees.

But what about payroll, the practice seemingly hit hardest by the report? According to McKinsey, nearly 90 percent of payroll and timekeeping responsibilities can be automated. Given that paying employees accurately and on time is such a sensitive matter, should humans really be left out of the process entirely?

Payroll practitioners on the ground have their doubts. “Empathy is a human element that can’t be replaced,” argued Monica Joseph, a Payroll Supervisor in New York. For her, there will always be a part of payroll that needs to be available and sympathetic to employee questions.

Tasha Saffold, a New York Payroll Manager, agreed with that assessment. “So many employees do not understand their paychecks and W-2s. They rely on their payroll professional for assistance.”

While both Saffold and Joseph understand the benefits of streamlining certain tasks, they were skeptical that machines could really keep up with regulatory changes. With new tax regulations, IRS forms, and minimum wage increases being enacted throughout the year, even the best technology would have a hard time keeping up. “After all, the programmers that update computer software with legislative changes are human,” Joseph aptly pointed out.

It’s not a question of whether both fields are due for a “rise of the machines”—that much has already happened. According to one study, nearly half of companies are looking to purchase or upgrade their HR and payroll software in the next twelve months. But does this growing reliance on technology, coupled McKinsey’s findings on automation, mean that HR and payroll jobs are due for a reckoning?

The professionals we spoke were enthused, not worried, about what the future holds.

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