Is your AI application tracking system rejecting talented candidates?

Recruiters who rely on AI technology to sort through a deluge of applicants need to pay close attention to their vendors.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Artificial intelligence is great for certain things, like turning human beings into batteries or replacing newsletter writers with automated content creation software. But the rise of AI in HR’s hiring process is bringing its own set of problems to recruitment.

A recent report from Harvard Business School suggests that application tracking systems (ATS) used by hiring managers are excluding scores of applicants from jobs they’re actually qualified to perform. And some experts are now urging HR professionals to rely less on bots and more on their own discernment.

The HBS report examined the phenomenon of “hidden workers” who are regularly overlooked by ATS résumé-sorting programs. The ATS tech reviewed in the report uses a rigid protocol, scouring résumés for keywords that correspond with job descriptions for open positions. When an applicant’s résumé isn’t loaded with the right terms, it’s automatically rejected. With ATS used by 75% of companies in the US, per the HBS survey, and 99% of Fortune 500 firms, it creates a huge problem for both employers and job seekers.

With reliance on the technology, gaps in employment history or the lack of a college degree instantly throws droves of résumés into a rejection pile. As the report notes of the systems it reviewed: “If an applicant’s work history has a gap of more than six months, the résumé is automatically screened out.” Though developed to allow more applicants to apply to jobs, the technology has often perpetuated discrimination: An audit of a Fortune 500 company’s ATS conducted by the ATS developer Headstart noted that “compared to white candidates, Black candidates were 18% less likely to proceed past the screening stage.”

In another example, the Wall Street Journal report found that retail clerks whose résumés don’t contain the word “floor-buffing” won’t make it past most systems, despite the skill being a minor part of the job and easily trainable.

Less AI, more DIY

As US employers grapple with a daunting labor shortage, the popularity of ATS could be compounding the issue.

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“There’s an artistry [in hiring] and AI doesn’t understand artistry,” said Charles Handler, the founder and president of talent consultancy Rocket-Hire. “If [candidates are] getting left out for reasons that aren’t related to the job, that’s a huge problem.”

One reason Handler says ATS has become pervasive in today’s economy is because employers don’t hold the systems—and the people who develop them—accountable for their shortcomings. “All of these companies don’t hold their vendors accountable. They don’t do the studies to see if this stuff's really working,” he said. “[If] AI is...programmed on a dataset that’s biased, then you’re just building more bias into the process,” Handler added.

There are technological workarounds—namely, scoring algorithms that parse applicants' employment history and viability via a series of questions—but Handler said companies can turn to more grassroots campaigns to actually get to know candidates on a more human level.

For example, one of Handler’s clients has used brand ambassadors to hit the streets of local communities. “They had champions on the ground recruiting, and trying to get people aware of a job in communities where people might not have known about that job.”

Advocates of ATS software have consistently lauded the techs usefulness, despite instances of bias that have cropped up in the HBS report. Handler believes it will only take a bit of refinement to train AIs to account for the kind of subtleties that crop up in so many applications.

“I do think well get there, to where these systems will continue to get better and better,” Handler said. In the meantime, companies will have to hold their systems accountable and insist that those tasked with developing them make the hidden worker more visible.—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Sam Blum via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SamBlum_Brew) or simply email [email protected].

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