Can an Algorithm Replace a Recruiter?

Apr 16, 2015

We at SAP, recent winners of ERE awards for branding and technology, thrive on pushing the envelope, disrupting existing norms and perceived recruitment wisdoms. One of the hot topics in the recruitment industry today is whether an algorithm can replace a recruiter.

In seeking to answer this, we challenged the very traditional university recruiting model.

As far as the question we posed in the headline: WOW. That’s a controversial question!

Perhaps it’s a sensitive one for recruiters to read.

It’s an age-old question that has never truly been answered. Until today …

In a high-tech world, can a computer replace a recruiter? Or more precisely, can an algorithm replace a recruiter?

One of us — Matt — is going to talk about this more in San Diego this month on his panel, but let us say for now that the answer is yes. And we proved it in the field of university recruitment.

Cultural Fit Assessment_ScreenshotUniversity recruiting is an area that seriously needs disruption. In some ways it can be viewed as archaic, some may say elitist. Why elitist? Companies follow the same tired techniques of going to only a handful of the top universities. You know the ones: MIT, USC, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. Companies build relations with the professors to curry favor and be able to attract the “best” graduates from that university, and if targeted, from a specific course. They sponsor the course or invest time in curriculum development to forge even closer relations with the university and be in a better position to attract the “best” graduates.

Does that feel right in 2015? Is that an effective strategy in an interconnected, high-tech society? Do the best students always go to the best universities? What if a student cannot afford to study at a top university? What if they have to stay in their local area to stay with family if they are old/ill? What if a student simply chooses a different university? Are companies best served by effectively excluding students from other universities? That surely can’t be the best strategy in 2015.

We quickly came to the conclusion that the best graduates for our Sales Academy may not study at the top universities. A great salesperson has many different skills and characteristics. Sales requires mental toughness. A great salesperson possesses drive and revels in the thrill of the chase of the sale. They are addicted to achieving results against the odds and they don’t get flustered when presented with an obstacle (a client saying no for the first or even tenth time). The best salespeople have a Zen-like ability to focus on the task at hand, accept rejection, and bounce right back. They close deals because they challenge decision-makers but build great trusting relationships. Those are skills that don’t just come from the best universities. Many are inherent, natural character traits. Why limit the talent pool?

Hence we set ourselves the goal at SAP to move away from the old “elitist” strategy and achieve the democratization of university recruiting. Let’s throw the SAP doors open to all the students of the world. A truly meritocratic selection process, no matter what university they attend. If they are a great salesperson and we see that potential, #BOOM, let’s hire them!

Not all innovatory ideas gain initial applause or recognition. Imagine the confused and scared reactions: “Oh my, you are opening the doors to thousands of applications, and we don’t have the recruiters to assess them all. How do we pre-screen them? A chorus of sceptics sang.”

This was very true. Of course, recruiters want to revert to traditional sifting techniques. They would select by: looking at the university the student is attending; exam results; degree grade projections; and maybe differentiating between the “usual crowd” if the student has work experience, be it an internship or gap year experience. But that would be reverting to type and employing the subjective stereotyping of the system we wanted to replace.

What if we generate applications through social media and digital marketing campaigns and then drive those thousands of interested applicants’ online response through an online assessment tool? That would remove the pre-screening of CVs/resumes by recruiters. What if the online assessments could provide the candidates with the ultimate experience: real-time candidate feedback. Getting a pass/fail in real time. Now that would be truly special.

Situational Judgement Assessment_ScreenshotSo that was our goal — create a unique process that would actually mean something to candidates. We partnered with an assessment specialist to create an online assessment tool that was split into two valuations. The first, a 10-minute SAP cultural test that was pass/fail. Next, if a graduate passed the cultural assessment, a 20-minute situational judgment assessment. Again, this second test was pass/fail. Pass and the recruiter calls and arranges a bootcamp, a day-long assessment. Fail, you get that feedback in real-time and can move on. No waiting for weeks of never hearing back from a recruiter wondering if your application would be successful. No resume rotting in an online database, gathering dust as each day passes with no feedback, all the while the employment brand deteriorates in the eye of that applicant. Sometimes “no” is the best answer to get. It is closure.

Online assessments can be tricky. We wanted it to act as the cultural guardian for SAP as well as test the candidates’ reactions in different situations. How did we create an online assessment that worked for us?  Hours of focus groups with business leaders, graduates, recruiters, HR. We needed to define WGLL (“What Great Looks Like” at SAP). Those key components were defined as:

Enterprising: Thrives with change, high energy, challenging the business

Team Orientation: Shares and cares for others

Impact:Leaves their mark. Entertains, engages, and influences

Tough-mindedness: Resilient. Able to work under pressure.

Curiosity: Insatiable curiosity for their area and clients. Thinks different.

Gathering info: The depth and breadth of inquisitiveness that someone will show when they are trying to find information and how they then keep and share this info.

Influencing Others: Creating win/win relationships within broad networks. Understanding the needs of key people and presenting mutually beneficial solutions.

Creating Ideas & Processing Information: The level to which someone will evaluate different ideas, selecting an effective solution. Forming ideas as a result of seeing patterns from an assortment of information.

Building Confidence: The ability to be decisive and build morale in others.

So we launched an ambitious online digital marketing campaign. We partnered with LinkedIn to use the many thousands of graduates in their network. We drove awareness via Facebook, Twitter, various targeted job boards, and university mailing lists. For us, targeted digital marketing was key. All these applicants were driven to our assessment tool, a tool that was designed to wow candidates, provide a good experience, and most importantly tell them, there and then, if they were successful in their application. Successful candidates went to a bootcamp at one of SAP’s key locations across the world to face a day of fun assessments and insights into our company.

The results:

In assessing the key achievements, several measurements were employed:

Number of website visitors: 1.2 million visitors to the site globally

Number of people ‘applying’ and starting assessment: 50,000+

Number of hires: 500 globally

Number of complaints received: Zero complaints about candidate experience

Projected cost saving: Projected cost saving of £250,000 in year one (less recruiter screening time)

Number of dropouts in application: Huge improvement from 93 percent to 25 percent

Applicant questionnaires revealed:

  • 75 percent of candidates said that the online tools boosted their motivation to progress to application
  • 88 percent said online tools were more engaging than other graduate applications
  • 100 percent said that the bootcamp increased their motivation to work at SAP, were happy they took part, and thought the experience provided a great insight into working at SAP


This new direction in graduate recruitment represented a strategic change for SAP. It was innovative. Some have told us that it is potentially industry redefining. You can be the judge of that.

What did we achieve?

  • Real-time candidate feedback: Immediate pass/fail result
  • A great candidate experience: You know where you stand
  • “Democratization of recruitment”: Candidates from hundreds of universities were targeted via social media and LinkedIn and could apply
  • “Meritocracy of application”: Selected on fit and ability, not the university
  • Defining SAP’s culture fit and what makes a great salesperson
  • Reduction of recruiter admin and time

So can an algorithm replace a recruiter? Yes. We have shown that. Technology blessed us with a high potential graduate pipeline that has demonstrated a quality-of-hire prowess through an ability to hit quota, faster than previous graduates, and at higher levels.

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