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"Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal." - Albert Einstein

With all due respect to one of the twentieth century's greatest minds, few among us would argue that technological progress has put us behind. (Do we really still want to be using carbon paper, Correct-o-type and only getting cash between the hours of 9 – 3 at the local bank?)

But Einstein's point wasn't to stagnate innovation; it was to highlight that we often get carried away with the power of technology, allowing it to overrule our wonderful—and sometimes quirky—emotional intelligence.

The discipline of human resources is a perfect example. In the age of analytics, why are we so enamored with reducing the “human" in order to embrace the data?

Software vs. Software (vs. Software?)

Nowhere is this encroachment of technology on the practice of HR more evident than with the use of Applicant Tracking Systems, or ATS software.

Undeniably ubiquitous, ATS products are used by 75 percent of companies in the United States alone. However, according to some studies, over 75 percent of applicants are rejected by them! Clearly, more than a few great hires are slipping through the cracks created by the very software that was developed to improve the recruiting process.

In an effort to capitalize on this problem, new software is proliferating, targeted at job seekers who are worried that their resumes don't contain enough of the right "keywords" to get past the ATS.

Companies such as JobscanResunate and Rezscore have developed their own software to analyze resumes against job descriptions, allowing candidates to optimize their keywords. In essence, it's software written for applicants to outfox the software developed to make the lives of recruiters easier.

What's next? Software to kill the resumes that overused the keywords? Software to predict cultural fit? Yes and yes.

The Value of Nuance in Recruiting

If this is all beginning to sound silly, then you need to upgrade “silly" to “scary." I'm sorry, data-loving colleagues, but the job of recruiting should not be left to software alone.

ATS software can't express human complexity—a good cultural fit is often more important than a 100 percent match on skills. Nor can it identify the outliers; I think of the many wonderful hires I've made despite resumes that seemingly didn't sync up on skills or experience.

ATS software is programmed to search for keywords that match those in each job description. It can't handle the dynamics that makes us human, so it strips away our unique "big picture" to find uniform, specific bits. ATS software seeks yes/no answers to questions that require nuance.

In researching this topic, I reached out to predictive analytics expert Jeffrey Strickland, Ph.D. His entire professional life focuses on data, but he urges us to recognize that data is not the whole picture.

“Data is only a support tool for human decision making … data is just really loud noise unless it is transformed into 'useful' information," he says. So when human resources relies on ATS models to entirely predict which resumes represent the best candidates, we are looking in the wrong direction for help.

Informed Intuition Should Have the Last Word

If I sound like a Luddite when I argue that instinct is often the best predictor of a good hire, I'm not and it is. Our power of intuition has been discussed brilliantly by author Malcolm Gladwell, who proved many times over that we hire based on an innate sense that one individual over another is the “right" person.

I don't dispute Suzanne Lucas' excellent points that data can prevent discrimination in hiring (conscious or unconscious) in “Data or Intuition: When Should HR Rely on the Numbers." Instead, I propose that we exercise restraint—don't hire someone solely because you “clicked" with him or her; don't hire because the ATS put a resume through. Hire because the person clicked and is qualified.

Algorithms have improved our lives immeasurably. We happily use them to avoid traffic and to find information on our favorite search engine. But do we really want to outsource our professional relationships to software?

Think about dating sites that try to predict compatibility based on a unique algorithm. What's the point if someone's a perfect match on paper, but there's absolutely no chemistry? Who would you rather work with? A candidate whose skillset keywords match 85 percent of your job description, but isn't a great cultural fit, or the one whose skills match 70 percent, who's smart and willing to learn the other 30 percent, and whom you and your team immediately liked?

For me, HR's role in building a solid workforce and a supportive community of coworkers is all about recognizing the potential of the latter.

Photo: Creative Commons