A day after her interview for a part-time job at Target last year, Dana Anthony got an email informing her she didn’t make the cut.
Anthony didn’t know why — a situation common to most job seekers at one point or another. But she also had no sense at all of how the interview had gone, because her interviewer was a computer.
More job-seekers, including some professionals, may soon have to accept impersonal online interviews where they never talk to another human being, or know if 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 remains high amid a perceived worker shortage as the economy opens back up.
These systems claim to save employers money, sidestep hidden biases that can influence human recruiters and expand the range of potential candidates. Many now also use AI to assess candidate skills by analyzing what they say.
But experts question 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 already prevalent.
And when a computer screens out some candidates and elevates others without explanation, it’s harder to know if it’s making fair assessments. Anthony, for instance, couldn’t help wondering if 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,” said Oxford University researcher Aislinn Kelly-Lyth. In a face-to-face interview, by contrast, a job seeker might pick up discriminatory cues from the interviewer, she said.
New rules proposed by the European Union would subject such AI hiring systems to tighter regulation. Advocates have pushed for similar measures in the U.S.
One of the leading companies in the field, Utah-based HireVue, gained notoriety in recent years by using AI technology to assess personality and job skills from an applicant’s facial expressions during the interview. After heated criticism centered on the scientific validity of those claims and the potential for bias, the company announced earlier this year it would end the practice.
But its AI-based assessments, which rank the skills and personalities of applicants to flag the most promising for further review, 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 retailers like Target and Ikea, major tech companies like Amazon, banks like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, oil giants, restaurant chains, supermarkets, airlines, cruise lines and school districts.
HireVue CEO Kevin Parker says the company has worked hard to ensure its technology won’t discriminate based on factors such as race, gender or regional accents. Its systems, which translate speech to text and sift for clues about team orientation, adaptability, dependability and other job skills, can outperform human interviewers, he said.
Providers of broader hiring-focused software such as Modern Hire and Outmatch have started offering their own video interviews and AI assessment tools. On its website, Outmatch touts its ability to measure “the must-have soft skills your candidates and employees need to succeed.”
HireVue notes that most customers don’t actually use the company’s AI-based assessments. Atlanta’s school district, for instance, has used HireVue since 2014, but says it relies on 50 human recruiters to score recorded interviews. Target said the pandemic led it to replace in-person interviews with HireVue interviews, but the retail giant told the AP it relies on its own employees — not HireVue’s algorithms — to watch and evaluate prerecorded videos.
None of that was clear to Anthony when she sat down in front of a screen to interview for a seasonal job last year. She had no way to know what sort of impression she was creating. “We’re unable to provide specific feedback regarding your candidacy,” Target’s rejection email said. She was rejected again after completing a HireVue interview for a different job in December.
“I understand companies or organizations trying to be more mindful of the time and the finances they spend when it comes to recruitment,” said Anthony, who obtained a master’s degree in strategic communications last year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Still, the one-way interviews left her uneasy about who, or what, was evaluating her.