Are Evil ATS Robots Secretly Eating People’s Resumes?

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Sep 15, 2021

It’s clickbait as good as gold: Technology prevents people from getting jobs! If employers want to complain about labor shortages, maybe they should fix their ATS first! 

That was what mainstream coverage of Harvard Business School’s report “Hidden Workers: Untapped Talent — How leaders can improve hiring practices to uncover missed talent pools, close skills gaps, and improve diversity” focused on. 

The report’s broad conclusion was one that most people should agree with: There are certain classes of workers — hidden workers by their measure — who have a more difficult time navigating the structures around hiring today. As a result, they suffer from prolonged unemployment. 

But social-media-grabbing headlines, like The Verge’s “Automated hiring software is mistakenly rejecting millions of viable job candidates” are meant to encourage clicks, not tell the true story behind what Harvard Business School found was happening at organizations that caused these issues. 

That’s too bad because what’s really happening isn’t a secret or a mistake at all. 

What the Report Actually Found

It’s easy to sum up finding if you aren’t just looking to stoke the outrage mob that is quick to point fingers at technology for all the ills of the world. On page 20 of the report, buried within paragraphs of text, is this (emphasis is mine):

“These systems allow employers to indicate specific requirements, such as possessing a specific academic or professional credentials (e.g., a bachelor’s degree, a professional license, or certification) to filter the applicant pool and reduce it.”

Advanced AI isn’t picking off candidates mistakenly or behind closed doors. Some employers are choosing to use the software this way. 

More importantly, employers overwhelmingly agree that the way they set up their hiring systems and processes filters out potential candidates who could successfully perform the job but don’t fit the exact criteria in the job description. Only around 5% of employers were in denial, saying that this never happened. 

Let’s get very specific here. Some companies bought an ATS or recruitment marketing system, used filters in certain cases, and this either excluded or made it difficult to find some candidates. They overwhelmingly know that this decision keeps viable candidates from getting a shot at a job, but they keep doing it anyway. This broken system is then used to inform AI solutions, which simply amplify and accelerate poor results. 

Ignore the clickbait. The conclusion from the report is simple: Talent acquisition processes need revamping. The report says:

“Our conclusion rests on the striking irony that companies consistently express concern about the availability and the quality of the talent available to them, while acknowledging that their hiring processes exclude qualified candidates from consideration. It is unimaginable that management would tolerate an equivalent error rate in mission-critical processes associated with operations, supply chain management, distribution, or customer service. Talent acquisition should be subject to the same discipline as other key management processes.”

The Blame Game

Blame the ATS. Blame automated hiring systems. Blame AI. But the blame for selecting, configuring, and using technology in a way that employers openly acknowledge ignore candidates who could help them in an alleged labor shortage eventually comes back around to people. 

The only questions that I wished the report answered are around understanding why employers configured these systems this way, why they continue to use them in a way that’s clearly detrimental, and what, if anything, are they doing to fix them? 

Troubles Beyond Tech

You’d be forgiven if you thought that evil technology was all the report covered. But there are a whole host of issues it also uncovers: 

  • There’s a widening training gap that largely relies on people to be employed to keep up on the most rapidly evolving skills.
  • Job descriptions are poorly thought out, have outdated and unnecessary requirements, are rarely updated, and the employees in those positions currently are infrequently consulted.
  • Companies have relied on corporate social responsibility initiatives to drive hiring of the hidden workforce when these employees often outperform non-hidden workers.
  • There is often no senior-level internal champion for fixing all of the issues that leave the hidden workforce on the outside looking in.

The hidden workforce is a complex challenge. It’s going to take more than a technology fix to solve the problems involved. But pretending like the way these systems were set up is just a mistake or unintended isn’t helpful. 

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