Harvard Business School Report Calls into Question the Viability of Automated Hiring Technologies

Automated hiring software and other HR technologies have been sold on the pitch that they can streamline the hiring process considerably. However, according to a recent Harvard Business School report, these technologies may indeed be backfiring on the employers that use them.

The technology in question is the resumé-scanning software that many employers have adopted over the past decade or so. On the one hand, this type of software offers a lengthy list of attractive benefits. Top employers can draw hundreds or even thousands of job applications for open positions. Sorting through those applications in real time is not an option for busy hiring managers. Automated hiring software, by scanning and sorting resumés rapidly based on customizable criteria, theoretically makes it possible for employers to narrow down that insurmountable flood of resumes into a more manageable pile.

Per the Harvard report, though, these types of software contribute to a nationwide problem of “hidden workers.” The problem? There is valuable talent in the labor pool—people who are ready to work and qualified for open positions—but find themselves locked out by various barriers. Harvard researchers say that automated hiring software has become one of the most significant barriers of all.

The study's authors argue that the root of the problem is that more automated resume sorting tools are using overly simplistic criteria to filter out resumes. The lack of nuance in some of these criteria means that well-qualified candidates are getting excised from the applicant pool before any human even sees their resume—often for unfair or even discriminatory reasons. 

For example, the study notes that nearly 50 percent of companies using resumé sorting software tend to disqualify candidates for work gaps of six months or more. “Such filters obviously cannot infer what caused such a gap to occur; they simply express an absolute preference for candidates with no such gaps,” the researchers report. “As a consequence, candidates who left the workforce for more than six months for reasons such as a difficult pregnancy, the illness of a spouse or dependent, personal, physical, or mental health needs, or relocation due to a new posting of a military spouse, are eliminated from consideration. Such candidates would remain ‘hidden’.”

Based on the report, most employers are at least aware of the problem. Nearly 90 percent of survey responders said they knew their automated hiring software was eliminating qualified candidates. Some were looking forward to resolving the issue. However, employers may not all feel the urgency to fix the problem because the software is ultimately doing its job—reducing the resumé stack to a more manageable height.

Ultimately, though, all employers using automated hiring software should at least review those processes. It is a worthwhile exercise to take a closer look at how your resume sorting software is working, how many candidates weeds out, and why those candidates are being removed from the applicant pool. Hiring is always a nuanced process, and abandoning that nuance can leave employers vulnerable in unexpected ways. 

For instance, there are laws around employee background checks that require employers to observe nuance. A hiring manager cannot simply disqualify every candidate whose background check shows a criminal conviction. Instead, the hiring manager needs to consider candidates on a case-by-case basis, to determine whether or not a conviction has any relevance to the job at hand. Less nuanced use of employee background checks in hiring can risk lawsuits for discrimination. The same could prove true for overly broad resume sorters. Rather than just disqualifying candidates for lengthy work gaps, employers need to consider the circumstances that might lead to gaps in a resume.

Read more about the risks of data bias in hiring.

Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is Chief Marketing Technologist at EY-VODW.com and has over two decades of experience in digital consulting, online product management, and technology innovation. He is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments.

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