Want a job? Employers say, talk to a computer

The pandemic has heightened demand for online services that interview job applicants remotely and use artificial intelligence to assess their skills. But is that a good thing?

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Dana Anthony at her workplace at The Daily Tar Heel newspaper in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Dana Anthony at her workplace at The Daily Tar Heel newspaper in Chapel Hill, N.C,, was rejected after two separate HireVue interviews for other jobs.

AP

A day after her interview for a part-time job at Target last year, Dana Anthony got an email: She didn’t make the cut.

Anthony didn’t know why, though — a situation common to most job-seekers at some point.

But she also had no sense at all of how the interview had gone because her interviewer wasn’t a person. It was a computer.

More job-seekers, including some professionals, might soon have to accept impersonal online interviews in which they never speak with another human being — or know whether behind-the-scenes artificial-intelligence systems are influencing hiring decisions.

Demand for online hiring services, which interview job applicants remotely via laptop or phone, mushroomed during the COVID-19 pandemic. And it remains high amid a perceived worker shortage as the economy begins to rebound.

The people behind these systems say they save employers money, sidestep hidden biases that can influence human recruiters and expand the range of potential candidates. Many of the systems now also use AI to assess candidate skills by analyzing what they say.

Anthony prefers to look an interviewer in the eyes.

“I interview better in person because I’m able to develop a connection with the person,” she says.

But all she could see was her own face reflected in the screen.

Some experts question, though, whether machines can accurately and fairly judge a person’s character traits and emotional signals. Algorithms tasked to learn who’s the best fit for a job can entrench bias if they’re taking cues from industries where racial and gender disparities are prevalent.

And when a computer screens out some candidates and elevates others without explanation, it’s harder to know whether it’s making fair assessments.

Anthony couldn’t help wondering whether her identity as a Black woman affected the decision.

“If you apply for a job and are rejected because of a biased algorithm, you certainly won’t know,” Oxford University researcher Aislinn Kelly-Lyth says.

In a face-to-face interview, by contrast, a job-seeker might pick up discriminatory cues from the interviewer, she says.

New rules proposed by the European Union would subject such AI hiring systems to tighter regulation. Advocates have pushed for similar measures in the United States.

One of the leading companies in the field, HireVue, gained notoriety by using AI technology to assess cognitive ability from an applicant’s facial expressions during interviews. After criticism centered on the scientific validity of those claims and the potential for racial or gender bias, the Utah company announced it would end the practice.

But its AI-based assessments, which rank the skills and personalities of applicants to flag the most promising, still consider speech and word choices in its decisions.

The privately owned company helped create a market for “on-demand” video interviews. Its known customers have included Amazon, Target, Ikea, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, oil giants, restaurant chains, supermarkets, airlines, cruise lines and schools. The Associated Press contactedo numerous brand-name employers that use the technology. Most wouldn’t discuss it.

HireVue CEO Kevin Parker says the company has worked to ensure its technology won’t discriminate based on factors such as race, gender or regional accents. Its systems translate speech to text and sift for clues about team orientation, adaptability, dependability and other skills.

“What we’re trying to replace is people’s gut instinct,” Parker says.

Providers of broader hiring-focused software such as Modern Hire and Outmatch have started offering their own video interviews and AI assessment tools.

HireVue says most customers don’t actually use the company’s AI-based assessments. Target says the pandemic led it to replace in-person interviews with HireVue interviews but that it relies on its own employees to watch and evaluate the videos.

The systems’ inscrutability poses one of the biggest concerns about the rapid growth of complex algorithms in hiring, Kelly-Lyth says.

In one instance, Amazon developed a resume-scanning tool to recruit talent but abandoned it after finding it favored men for technical roles — in part because it was comparing candidates against the company’s male-dominated tech workforce. A study released in April found that Facebook shows different job ads to women and men in a way that might violate anti-discrimination laws.

Governments across the United States and Europe are looking at possible checks on these hiring tools.

HireVue has begun phasing out its face-scanning tool, which analyzed expressions and eye movements and faced derision by academics as “pseudoscience.”

HireVue also released portions of a third-party audit that recommended minor changes such as modifying the weight given to the especially short answers disproportionately provided by minority candidates.

“I don’t think the science really supports the idea that speech patterns would be a meaningful assessment of someone’s personality,” says Sarah Myers West of New York University’s AI Now Institute, which studies the social implications of AI.

For instance, she said, such systems historically have had trouble understanding women’s voices.

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