Ibrahim Diallo’s story is a cautionary tale about taking the ‘human’ out of human resources.
We’re often told not to fear automation. The robots are here to make our lives easier, not to run us out of a job. With their help, we are told, we will have more time to focus on the things that matter.
But perhaps our baser fears are warranted, especially when you find out you’ve been sacked, not from your manager but from a machine, as was the case for US-based software developer Ibrahim Diallo.
When you’re fired by a machine and the humans can do nothing
It was a regular work day for Ibrahim Diallo, he recalls in his now viral blog post. Arriving at work, he attempted to scan himself into the building with his ID card. It was denied. Annoying, but not a major concern. Thanks to a friendly security guard, he was buzzed through and went about his day.
The second issue occurred the following day, when his ID card failed to allow him access to the staff car park. Assuming it was some kind of malfunction, he ordered a new card.
As the day progressed, Diallo kept encountering new problems – he had been logged out of his computer and various programs. Then he got a call from his recruiter asking if he was okay, as she received an email saying that Diallo been terminated from his role.
This was the first he’d heard of it, and after speaking with his manager, he found out it was the first she’d heard of it too. It was passed off as a technical issue, and he was given the go ahead to come into work the next day. Diallo tried to go about business as usual the following day, but after lunch he was faced with two security guards standing at his desk who had received a “very threatening” email telling them to escort him out of the building.
Diallo says: “I was fired. There was nothing my manager could do about it. There was nothing the director could do about it. They stood powerless as I packed my stuff and left the building”.
The system was “out for blood”
While the issue was being resolved, Diallo was cc’d in on various emails and watched his case escalating higher and higher up the organisational food chain.
“From time to time, they would attach a system email. It was soulless and written in red as it gave orders that dictated my fate. The system was out for blood and I was its very first victim,” he says.
The root cause of the issue was eventually discovered. It turns out this system error had a human beginning. Diallo’s previous manager had been laid off and was working out his notice period from home. Diallo suggests that perhaps his former manager had neglected certain responsibilities following his shock termination, responsibilities such as renewing Diallo’s contract.
Diallo explains that once the order for termination is put in, the system “takes over”. Eventually, things were sorted out and Diallo was able to return to work, following three weeks of unpaid leave. But things weren’t the same. After being escorted from the building “like a thief”, Diallo faced many uncomfortable conversations with colleagues, having to explain his sudden disappearance and subsequent return. They became distant, except for his manager who was “exceptionally supportive”. Despite having previously enjoyed his role, Diallo decided to leave the company in pursuit of new opportunities.
Is there room for automation in HR?
If it’s this easy to accidentally sack an employee you have to ask, can we rely on automation to undertake certain HR functions without human oversight? While automation can be an effective tool for, say, recruitment, perhaps we shouldn’t be relying on it for HR tasks that require a more delicate approach.
Diallo agrees: “Automation can be an asset to a company, but there needs to be a way for humans to take over if the machine makes a mistake. I missed three weeks of pay because no one could stop the machine.”
Photo by Andrew E Weber.
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