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Ifeoma Ajunwa, second from left, testifies in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor Feb. 5 in Washington, D.C.

Ajunwa to Congress: Help stop employers’ AI-fueled bias

Government measures are urgently needed to regulate automated hiring systems that often discriminate against women, military veterans, formerly incarcerated people, people with disabilities and others, Ifeoma Ajunwa of the ILR School testified Feb. 5 in Washington, D.C.

Speaking at a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor hearing on “The Future of Work: Protecting Workers’ Civil Rights in the Digital Age,” Ajunwa – assistant professor of labor relations, law and history – described how bespoke hiring practices such as automated video interviews are designed to sift job applicants for racial and other markers.

Ajunwa also urged legislators to protect privacy when data on genetics and other personal information is collected through workplace wellness programs and electronic employee surveillance.

Ifeoma Ajunwa testifies in Washington, D.C.

Silent and embedded in an increasing number of workplaces, she said, digital discrimination impacts millions of workers, who often don’t even know they are being assessed with an algorithm. Automated hiring began in the 1990s as a way to cut costs and improve efficiency. While humans were eliminated from many interactions, their biases were not; algorithms often reflect the biases of the people who wrote them.

In written testimony, Ajunwa explained how automated hiring systems can cull applicants by gender and race without retaining a record of that selection process, and how applicant data captured electronically can result in job applicants being “algorithmically blackballed.”

And once hired, workers’ emails and keystrokes are often tracked; some employers microchip their employees.

Technology has created “the quantified worker,” Ajunwa said. “Yet there are no federal laws to protect workers from excessive surveillance.”

A lawyer and sociologist, Ajunwa explores the intersection of law and technology in her research, with a focus on the ethical governance of workplace technologies. She also studies diversity and inclusion in the labor market and the workplace.

Ajunwa teaches labor and employment law at the ILR School. She also is an associate faculty member of the Cornell Law School; a faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University; and an affiliate of Cornell’s Center for the Study of Inequality, housed in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Ajunwa’s forthcoming book, “The Quantified Worker,” examines the role of technology in the workplace and its effects on management practices.

Mary Catt is director of communications at the ILR School.

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Rachel Rhodes