Hired by an Algorithm: HR's Technology Problem

Getting rid of paper applications speeds up the hiring process, but it can lead to the wrong people making the cut.
November 3, 2016
(Shutterstock)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Technology will be “very important in achieving HR priorities in the next five years.” At least that's the consensus of 94 percent of respondents to a survey by the International Public Management Association for Human Resources.

Hiring, of course, lends itself to an electronic boost. For example, having an easily searchable database of former applicants' names and resumes can turn the oft-heard comment, “we’ll keep your name on file,” into a reality and not just an easy way to say no. Technology helps states and cities find once-forgotten or -rejected people who may now meet their needs.

Electronic databases can also speed the hiring process by going through thousands of applications and winnowing them down to only those that have the necessary qualifications. In Pennsylvania, technology is also helping new hires get to work faster. Instead of spending their first few days (or weeks) filling out paperwork and waiting for it to process, they can do all of that online before they start.

"That means they have a computer and a phone waiting for them in their office on the very first day," said Chris O’Neil, interim deputy for human resources management in Pennsylvania.

But while HR departments have good reason to seek funding for more and better technology, there are many difficulties that arise when the world of real people comes head to head with the world of chips and bytes.

Consider Tennessee's experience.

In 2010, the state bid adieu to paper applications and moved the entire process online. Usually, the system filters out about one-third of applicants who don't have the minimum qualifications. But some less-experienced people still slip through because, according to Stephanie Penney, assistant commissioner in the state's Department of Human Resources, "you have applicants who are untruthful. They may answer that they have a doctoral degree, when they don’t."

"Curiously," she said, "when Tennessee’s HR analysts reviewed this issue, they discovered, that people tended to be more untruthful in an online application than on old-fashioned paper applications."

Tennessee’s solution was to make its questions more specific. If the state asked people if they had two years of experience in social work, they may have gotten positive responses from people who volunteered for the Red Cross. But that's not quite the experience they're looking for. So instead, a question like “Have you had two years of experience in social work that is specific to investigations into children being abused?” helps produce more accurate responses.

 

Then there are so-called “scantron” selection processes. In these instances, a resume is scanned based on keywords and phrases and scored accordingly. Though attractive to many at first blush, this kind of effort is “at best unpredictable,” according to a paper released by the American Society of Public Administration. “It is clear that many good candidates who do not have the time or inclination to rewrite their resumes or pepper them with appropriate terms will be skipped.”

Technology may speed the hiring process, but it also adds a layer of security vulnerability. That’s why, in Michigan, "everything goes through rigorous security checks. We make sure that any information collected and disseminated is in a secure environment," said James McFarland, director of agency services in the state's CIO office.

The bottom line here is that public-sector HR offices have to regard high-tech hiring in the same way a doctor does medication: Though both help, care must be taken to make sure the cure doesn’t lead to a new disease.