Wokewashing + AI = How Faux Diversity & Recruiting Automation Practices Push Profits over People
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
I've been reading a lot of articles over the years about recruiting automation and the push towards AI, one-sided video 'interviewing', and other tactics that large companies are using. This past week, I listened to a 2018 podcast created by a journalist I recently connected with, and it spurred me to get my thoughts down in writing about this topic.
For years we've been hearing about companies who claim to be investing in software to reduce bias in the hiring process, right? Yet we also hear simultaneously that these companies are making little if any progress in hiring more diverse teams, nor speeding up their time-to-fill. In addition, we also hear more and more from pissed off job applicants about how horrific the application and interview processes are at most companies. Everyone knows about the 'black hole of recruiting' where you apply and never hear back, and everyone knows about the frustration of doing multiple initial phone interviews then either never hearing back, or getting a generic decline email that tells you nothing about why you weren't selected.
So what does that mean? Are companies really all that concerned about diversity? Are they really stressing out about bias in the screening process?
Short answer - no.
Corporations are concerned about profits, first and foremost. Always have been, always will be, no matter what their professed mission statement is. They are ONLY truly concerned about bias if they are getting bad PR, or if they see that promoting diversity initiatives will result in increase sales (which doesn't always mean hiring more staff, but can instead simply be a tax-deductible donation to a well-known charity). Period. While you may have some great managers and individual contributors who are dedicated to building diverse teams, who really "get " it, when it comes down to the company as a whole, they aren't focusing on demographics and saying from a moral perspective, well golly gee perhaps we should look inwards and examine our biases in recruiting and interviewing, and attract more women/minorities/disabled/LGBTQ/older candidates!
What is really happening? Automation for profits' sake. As most managers know, lowering headcount is the key to lowering expenses, and even Business Insider reported in September, when discussing the disconnect between the stock market and the economy, that "companies are likely to reduce headcount to increase profits". Less recruiters means less expenses. Yet recruiting still needs to be done, so companies are choosing software automation tools over human expertise and abilities...claiming "bias elimination" and touting a variety of diversity initiatives as their excuse...and PR. People love a company where the spokesperson and the campaign promotes diversity...but how many are digging deeper to look at the diversity data of their actual staff?
"In 2020, companies like Amazon have aired ads championing front-line laborers and their work during the coronavirus pandemic—which critics quickly panned as a “tactic for papering over the risks of working in warehouses and grocery stories, and easing our own tensions around benefiting from such work”...After the police killing of George Floyd, companies including Nike, Adidas, Spotify, Apple, and L’Oreal took flak for professing to care deeply about racial justice while operating with overwhelmingly white leadership teams." (MSN)
This is what is now referred to as Wokewashing - companies doing the equivalent of individuals' passive hashtag activism, except in large-scale, broad-based campaigns that usually involve a high-profile, tax-deductible donation to a charitable cause, an updated mission statement on their website with lots of references to "inclusion" and often a picture of an employee of color or employees holding a rainbow flag, and perhaps a diversity leadership hire to finally add a black or brown person to their Leadership page (the latter kind of like adding the female head of HR to the executive team - often tokenistic)...all while doing nothing when it comes to changing true recruiting and hiring practices that positively impact staffing data.
With this, many will say they are investing in software to help them reduce bias in the process...because they assume that it is simply racist, ageist, homophobic and/or sexist recruiters who are causing the systemic problems in their organization. Basically, they're saying that recruiters in general are the problem. Not WHO they hire as recruiters, or HOW MANY recruiters they hire, or HOW their recruiters are directed to screen candidates, but instead making a direct causation between recruiter and end-result employee demographic data, when the problem is much more complex and systemic.
What does that mean? They are blaming their poor organizational structure as it relates to recruiting and HR, and its quality, to why they are lacking in gender, racial, and other forms of diversity...even though recruiters A) don't write job postings in a bubble as hiring managers tell recruiters what the person will do, and B) don't make hiring decisions. And with that, this seeps out into the general public, where you see constant verbal and written assaults on recruiters, blamed for the decisions of higher-ups...and all the while paid very little for the amount of work they are tasked to do.
Few in leadership demand answers to key questions like:
Are our recruiters experienced enough? Many hire those with no experience to 'do recruiting', ignoring the essential qualities and skills needed to be successful and treating it like an entry-level admin role, or they hire agency recruiters for corporate positions without providing them the essential training they need to overcome the vast differences between the two worlds. And with that, what does 'experience' mean? Do they have some random internet certificate, are they simply looking at this as a stepping stone to HR (many assume Recruiting is Entry Level Work, because many organizations diminish it as such) or do they have examples to show you about how they've performed as a recruiter, like time-to-fill and how they've led and transformed processes, how they've increased diversity in their candidate pools? I've encountered so many teams at smaller companies where the recruiter is often the office manager, a person from another team 'put in charge of recruiting because they didn't have anyone', or simply a person they thought 'had good potential' but who never received any training or professional mentorship from someone in the field.
Are our recruiters seen as partners, empowered on the job to share their feedback as well as negotiate on position requirements, compensation, internal systems/processes, culture fit, diversity outreach, etc., or are they merely at the beck and call of the hiring manager and/or senior HR leadership? Too many are simply following orders, and told they are not being 'team players' if they disagree with a superior (which includes the dotted-line relationship to Hiring Managers, who they often work with much more closely than Recruiting &/or HR leadership), and what they've learned in their hands-on work is disregarded. When recruiters speak up about unrealistic position requirements or salary ranges that decrease candidate pool size, they often deal with hiring managers or senior HR leadership who insinuate that they simply aren't looking hard enough. I've seen it so many times where the perception of recruiters' jobs are as those who simply implement what they want, rather than as partners with expertise who can help them hire better, and faster. Setting turnaround timelines as a consultant was always par for the course for me...but something I was rarely empowered to do as a corporate recruiter, because hiring managers were never tasked with the same level of accountability.
Are our recruiters held accountable on key metrics like time-to-fill, diversity within candidate pools, and turnaround time on incoming applications, or are they instead punished on metrics beyond their control, such as turnover? Recruiters and hiring teams, like it or not, are equal partners in the Candidate Experience. Both can make or break the feeling an applicant gets and whether they trust them with the next stage in their career. Hiring Managers blaming recruiters for turnover is the oldest game in the book. A manager makes the decision to hire the person, and then blames the recruiter (who simply did the initial pre-screening) for why they left or were fired, even though the recruiter does not and never has made the hiring decision...and doesn't usually even work on the same team as these folks after they're hired! In addition, time-to-fill metrics are only valid if there are turnaround time metrics also in place for the hiring teams. I can't count how many times I've gotten back to applicants within 24 hours and then a hiring manager will sit on a submitted pre-screened candidate, or one who has completed the entire interview process, for weeks. As the saying goes, if you don't measure it, you can't manage it.
Are our recruiters paid sufficiently, as well as incentivized on goal achievement? Or are we paying recruiters less than we pay administrative assistants and entry level staff in other areas? Only companies who truly value recruiters pay them at a truly respectful salary - and sadly, it's not a huge number of companies who do that. Ask any senior recruiter who's seen a junior developer with nothing more than a boot camp certificate and barista job on their resume be hired at a salary higher than theirs. Why? Because great corporate recruiting is rarely translated to great paychecks. The nationwide average salary for a Recruiter is a pathetic $51,000, folks. Google's been reported as paying engineering interns $71,000 as starting pay. Staffing agency recruiters usually come into the business not from HR but in support or sales jobs, with extremely low base pay and a focus on commissions over candidate experience. Corporate recruiters are paid higher base salaries, yet rarely with any bonus/incentive structure on top of that to reward their impact on finding the people who make the company what it is. Personally? I worked in both agency, corporate, and independent roles for two decades, and didn't break the six-digit mark until I opened my consulting business...and that was achieved even with charging half of what large agencies did.
Do we have enough recruiters on staff? Sadly, the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) states a recommended requisition (recruitment) load of 30 for most recruiters. And worse, large organizations like Amazon often have req loads of 75-100 per recruiter. Do the math for 30 job openings alone, and how many applicants come in (usually double if not triple-digits), as well as the sourcing that is needed for many of these. This makes it impossible to build relationships with applicants and turning the experience into a transaction at best...and they still expect recruiters to attend career fairs and other types of outreach/networking. Relationships are out, responsiveness is devalued, and applicants are told they'd be lucky to work there - rather than the other way around. Companies will hire entire teams to do their social media, and an administrative assistant (or two) for an exec who can't bear to schedule their own meetings, but do the bare minimum to staff the core function that brings in those and the staff who build, sell and market the product/service key to the organization's survival? Recruiters are more often than not the red-headed stepchild of the corporation, busting their arses to keep their heads above water, checking emails 7 days a week, coming home from the office and flipping open their laptops after dinner to 'catch up'...but never truly catching up.
Do we care about candidate experience? AKA: Do we have policies and practices in place that require recruiters to respond to ALL applicants within a specific turnaround time, that require recruiters to formally decline non-selected candidates in writing rather than 'black hole' them (or, just as passive-aggressive, auto-reply to applicants telling them they'll ONLY hear back if they are selected to move forward), and do we require hiring managers and their interview teams to respond within a specific turnaround time (which in turn allows recruiters to stay connected to their candidate pools)? This relates directly to the prior question about sufficient staffing levels and the second question about empowerment. If you can't respond to an applicant because you're overwhelmed with work, and aren't respected as a partner to the hiring team, candidate experience suffers...and directly contributes to losing the best candidates, who know their worth. In addition, most companies refuse to correlate the fact that the folks who want to work there might also have influence in other ways - like buying their product or service in the future. Do they understand that candidate experience translates to CUSTOMER experience?
So rather than ask these tough questions, corporations fall for the 'easy' solution that is pushed on them - 'just' automate! Let's pretend we are 'helping' recruiters do their job by not hiring more senior staff or more recruiters overall and have them use automation software to depersonalize applicants into transactions. Let's then also buy into Recruiting AI software's unproven claims that their products 'eliminate bias' and use that to sell ourselves as a Woke organization! Not only will you save money on headcount, you can claim you are advocating for your team AND look like a corporate diversity ally!
The problem? The automation tools out there, from assessments to one-sided video interviewing to AI options tacked onto traditional Applicant Tracking Systems, are not only a disaster for candidate experience and highly dismissive of the expertise that so many great recruiters bring to the table, but also highly discriminatory. The ACLU summarized the problems extremely well:
"All such tools used for hiring measure success by looking for candidates who are in some way like a group of people (usually, current employees) designated as qualified or desirable by a human. As a result, these tools are not eliminating human bias — they are merely laundering it through software...With video analysis, patterns of speech and eye contact have cultural components that can similarly lead to the exclusion of people from particular ethnic or racial groups. The same goes for certain physical or psychological disabilities...Many vendors who market these hiring tools claim that they test for bias and in fact are less biased than humans. But their software is proprietary, and there’s currently no way to verify their claims." - American Civil Liberties Union
As an HR and recruiting professional since the late 1990's, I've seen a lot of tools tossed my way and suggestions for how processes can be made faster by software, with lots of sales pitches related to diversity hiring. When it comes to improving diversity, a software tool is not going to change how applicants are viewed by the human beings who ultimately make the hiring decisions. Why?
Humans decide how realistic job requirements will be.
Humans have the power to view applicants from every perspective - not just an algorithm.
Humans decide whether their "culture" is one that can go from whitewashed, brogrammer-heavy to one that is reflective of the world in which they live.
I read this week that Google has their ATS set up to automatically decline any resume with a typo, and have talked to recruiters who've said HR policy is to decline any applicant with even one misspelling or grammatical error. Me? One typo, one misspelling is not the end of the world for 99% of candidates (writing roles obviously are the exemption). If they are materially qualified for the role based on their resume, when I talk to them I'll point it out so they can choose to send me an updated version. Most are terribly embarrassed - and grateful for the recruiter's humanity. A rash of errors indicates a clear lack of attention to detail, but a one-off? I am not looking for perfection, I'm looking for folks who can do the work. After all, it's not the one-off mistake, but how they respond to the constructive criticism that tells me way more about the person.
Automated assessments, in particular anything related to personality, are - no matter what they tell you - almost always used in making hiring decisions. Now this is illegal, and companies will claim they always have other reasons for declining a person, but I have witnessed enough discussions of higher-ups, particularly one well known local tech CEO whose company I once contracted with, discuss how their 'ideal candidate' will be in a specific category, and attempts to push me to not schedule interviews with those who, no matter how qualified they were, didn't meet their desired personality profile. The prevalent opinion out there that each type of position has a particular personality stereotype is both dangerous and inaccurate...and does no favors for diversity in candidate pools. Take for example common stereotypes, each one that I have blown up through great recruiting, such as:
The Software Developer with great people skills.
The quiet and analytical PR Manager.
The introverted Human Resources professional.
The Accountant who's a chatterbox.
The gentle and understated Executive.
In addition, my humanity also allows me in the phone screen to delve into the information they've provided and get greater perspective on what they bring to the table and the kinds of environments they've worked in. My humanity and care about making a good match also allows me to ask the kinds of clarifying questions that one will never get on a standardized assessment or AI-robot type of interview that is scanning someone's face for 'microexpressions' or evaluating their nervous voices as if they were in some normal type of environment. (NOTE: I have never supported video pre-screens because they have been shown to make many candidates uncomfortable, and my job as a recruiter is to make them feel welcome, establish a relationship, educate them, and provide information about our interaction to the hiring team...NOT make them feel like they are on TV. I also can't SEE them, which allows less opportunity for unconscious bias during that first impression.).
Finally, I don't scan for social media activity, beyond seeing if my applicants have a LinkedIn profile so that I can send them an invitation to connect and see if their profile reasonably matches their resume. I don't believe it is ethical as a recruiter to go beyond what we learn from their resume, during our interactions and from the references I check (references they gave me permission to check, not 'underground ones' that many hiring managers do that candidates aren't aware of...and can often compromise the confidentiality of their search). Personally, I don't use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, TikTok, etc. (Pinterest and LinkedIn, that's it, y'all), and won't work with organizations who required my use of it for recruiting purposes, internally or externally.
Rather than investing in hiring and partnering with qualified recruiters along with growing qualified staff organically (i.e., from within) via strong training and education programs, apprenticeships, and more, companies are looking to reduce headcount and use software automation. We've seen the effects of automation in nearly every other industry (look how automation has changed the face of manufacturing, for example, or how many companies are using robots to answer their phones, so much so that some companies have to brag about having humans on the line), where companies openly discuss these changes as cost saving measures... yet for some reason the same folks are rationalizing recruiting automation/AI software to both wokewash and cut headcount expenses.
Wokewashing and Recruiting Automation/AI's relationship are a stark reminder of the lack of authenticity when it comes to corporate diversity and the hiring associated with it. I've seen clients and employers of all sizes push, push, push for more diverse candidate pools and I've delivered through outreach, through relationship building, through my years of expertise and dedication to a transparent and positive candidate experience...yet have still encountered an all-too-large number of hiring teams who, even when diversity is delivered on a silver platter, find excuses to remain with the status quo. It's tragic to me that when I think back, I can only name on one hand how many of the many teams I've worked for or with who have exemplified a true commitment to diversity and inclusion in both hiring and organizational culture. And it's even more tragic to see that in 2020, corporations who claim to love people are still downright manipulating the truth to claim AI as the cure and human beings as the disease.
Recruiting? Hiring? Get real and do the work - and realize the solution to good hiring challenges is not going to be found in a software program. Looking for work? Don't move forward with companies who don't treat you with respect from the start, and go beyond their mission statement and look up who they are. Check out the executive and board pages (or look them up on LinkedIn) so see how diverse they are at the top, and look up their diversity data to find out how much hiring they are really doing that is any different than what it was before. Hint: if minority data is in single digits (or in tech, limited to Asian hiring), you've got your answer. If female representation is either in traditional female-dominated fields or in clearly tokenistic ways in male-dominated fields, you've got your answer. Just like you need to vote with your wallet? Work with your conscience.