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Let’s talk AI: 7-point guide for a touchy conversation with employees

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Everyone wonders these days: Will AI take my job?

That’s why employers need to talk AI.

It’s a real concern as AI and tools such as ChatGPT get smarter and capable of handling human work. The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report predicts 85 million jobs will be disrupted by AI in the next five years. At the same time, there’s a good chance more than 95 million jobs will be created due to AI!

Even HR pros are a bit worried that technology can eliminate their jobs. So in most workplaces, HR, managers and employees need to understand and talk AI.

Talk AI, even if you don’t have answers

Even if you don’t have all the answers, employees want — and need — to talk about this technology explosion and how it will affect their jobs. These are conversations about how AI can impact their duties, change their roles or completely take over their jobs.

“The stakes are undeniably high when it comes to AI,” says Milan Kordestani, author of I’m Just Saying: A Guide to Maintaining Civil Discourse in an Increasingly Divided World. “But by acknowledging fears, bridging gaps, educating, fostering collaboration, considering ethical implications and encouraging long-term thinking, individuals can navigate the minefield of AI discussions with nuance and open-mindedness.”

Here are seven tips to initiate AI conversations and create comfort around the topic.

1. Know what to expect

The good news for everyone: AI won’t likely displace employees and functions in masses.

Harvard Business School researchers recently relied on data and outcomes from historical industry changes — such as the emergence on electric motors in factories and computing in offices — and determined we won’t likely experience radical shifts in employment.

In both of those historical cases, the new technology was adopted slowly enough that employees who were displaced by it temporarily were able to move into new roles created by the technology. Plus, new industries emerged to create new jobs and wealth.

Beyond this information for employees, make sure you have clear, concise and accurate explanations about AI. When you talk, avoid technical jargon and use simple language so everyone understands. Give examples and real-life applications to show how AI might be used or useful. Gather diverse voices and perspectives on the subject, too — ideally experts from various fields, policymakers, and people directly involved in or impacted by AI.

2. Set the stage for civility

And when it comes to AI, there’s potential for some discourse. Some employees don’t trust it. Some can’t get enough of it.

“Such deeply entrenched positions make it difficult to find common ground, and discussions often devolve into heated exchanges and stubborn resistance to opposing viewpoints,” says Kordestani. “Moreover, the rapid pace of AI advancements and the complex nature of its implications exacerbate the challenges, leaving little time for informed discourse and reflection.”

So when you talk AI, remind employees that it’s a professional conversation. Ask them to think about their position, reflect on potential biases and how they might open up to other perspectives so conversations remain respectful.

3. Cover regs

If they exist, talk about current regulations and policies in place that ensure ethical and responsible use of AI in your workplace. Some of your existing intellectual rights, data-handling, confidentiality and/or social media guidelines might play into this.

For instance, you might cover how governments, industries and researchers work together to address concerns and develop frameworks for AI governance.

4. Recognize, acknowledge fears

“The fear-driven perspective believes that the very survival of humanity hangs in the balance, while the unregulated development camp emphasizes the limitless possibilities and potential for progress,” says Kordestani.

Both sides have concerns. So when you talk AI, be ready to acknowledge people’s fears and concerns genuinely. Create a safe space where they feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and emotions.

Avoid dismissing or trivializing their concerns. Ideally, offer facts and research to rationalize.

5. Talk AI benefits, risks

Just like any HR-related conversation with employees, you want to address the benefits and risks you know of.

For instance, acknowledge the potential challenges, such as job displacement, ethical concerns and privacy issues.

On the other hand, emphasize the positive aspects of AI, such as improved healthcare, enhanced productivity and personalized experiences. Highlight how AI can augment human capabilities rather than replace them.

6. Focus on help, not replacement

Most companies aren’t sure yet how they’ll use AI tools, and many likely don’t plan to replace a workforce with artificial intelligence and machine learning. And employees need to know that.

“The reality is that while AI is a great tool, it cannot replicate human intelligence and ingenuity, especially when it comes to generating new ideas or concepts,” says Iterate.ai Co-Founder Brian Sathianathan explains. “AI programs like ChatGPT merely assist humans by reducing the number of tasks they face on a daily basis, it also enables humans to get started on projects faster by generating initial ideas that existed before.”

To the point that you likely don’t have all — or any — answers on AI, you’ll want to make sure employees understand that AI will more likely help them than replace them. What’s more, now’s when you might ask them for ideas on how they think the workplace can benefit from AI.

7. Encourage long-term thinking

When possible and appropriate, shift the conversation from immediate fears to long-term perspectives. Explore the potential for AI to amplify human abilities, solve complex problems, and enhance various aspects of daily life.

“Emphasize the need for open-mindedness and the exploration of shared values,” says Kordestani. “Look for common ground, such as the desire to ensure ethical AI development or the pursuit of technologies that benefit society as a whole.”

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