Business

AI is making applying for jobs even more miserable

Job interviews are rarely fun, especially when you are young. I will never forget the opening question in my first interview for the Financial Times graduate trainee scheme: “So, apart from the week before your interview, do you ever actually read the FT?”

Young people today face a different but no less daunting challenge. They find themselves smiling anxiously into their laptop webcams, answering questions as a timer ticks down with no human to interact with at all.

Large employers are using these “asynchronous video interviews” to whittle down job applicants to a smaller pool they can meet in person. Platforms such as HireVue and Modern Hire record applicants answering pre-determined questions, usually with a time limit for each answer. In some cases, the recordings will be watched by the employer’s hiring managers. In others, the platform’s algorithms will assess the candidate based on what they said or even their facial expressions.

AVIs are increasingly common. Of those employers using video interviews in the UK in 2019/20, 46 per cent were doing them with an interviewer, 30 per cent were using automated video interviews and 24 per cent were using a mix of both, according to the Institute of Student Employers.

These interviews can be done cheaply and at scale: one grocery chain in the US was gathering as many as 15,000 per day during the pandemic, according to HireVue. The platforms say the process is fairer and less biased than human recruiters, leading to better and more diverse candidates making the cut.

Of course, there is fierce debate about whether algorithms could in fact reinforce human biases rather than eliminate them. Others argue some AI products are merely digital snake oil lapped up by credulous HR departments.

But in addition to interrogating whether the technology works as intended, employers need to pay more attention to how the process affects prospective employees. Researchers at the University of Sussex Business School, in association with the Institute for Employment Studies, have warned that young jobseekers feel confused, dehumanised and exhausted by automated recruitment systems.

Jimeet Romen Shah, who is in his final year at the University of Sussex, has done seven or so AVIs in the past two years. He tries to “make eye contact” with the camera but finds it hard not to watch his own face on the screen. “It doesn’t feel natural at all. Especially because when I’m in an interview face-to-face I can smile when I’m talking, but when I’m in a video and trying to smile it doesn’t look right.”

He worries that if he glances down or up it will look like he is reading notes. “It does feel robotic,” he says. In most cases, he wasn’t able to review the videos and wasn’t told if a human or a machine would judge him. He has never received detailed feedback after a rejection.

While it’s hard to communicate naturally in such an unnatural situation, the platforms simultaneously urge jobseekers to “be authentic” to have the best chance of success. “Get excited and share your energy with the camera, letting your personality shine,” HireVue advises. On discussion forum Reddit, job applicants share tips to cope, such as to stick a smiley face next to the camera.

Some platforms are making improvements. HireVue told me it was best practice to have “anxiety-reducing features” such as the ability for applicants to practice questions and re-record their answers. It always tells candidates if AI will evaluate the responses.

Dr Zahira Jaser, an assistant professor at the University of Sussex business school, says students are led to believe the technology is flawless even as they struggle with it. She knows students for whom English is their second language who find the video interviews particularly stressful. “This is a recipe for disaster for the students’ self esteem,” she says. “I’m now looking at myself in the mirror in the crucial stage of my life, trying to enter the job market . . . and then I’m told all the mistakes are mine because this is perfect technology.”

Employers stand to lose too. AVIs select for people who can talk into a void, not people who can interact well with others, though the latter is more important in most jobs. What’s more, an interview is a company’s first real interaction with prospective employees, some of whom it will want to hire. It should be a chance for both sides to learn about each other.

It’s easy to get excited about new technology but employers should listen to the voices of the supposed “digital natives” now subject to it. “If I’m ever on the other side of the table,” Shah told me, “I’m always going to do a telephone call at the least.”

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