Even if you only have a casual interest in the world of hiring it’s not long before you’ll encounter someone touting a magic bullet, a panacea for the “broken” world of recruitment globally. Currently riding high on the buzzword bingo cards of these self-styled saviours is the humble “algorithm”. This isn’t the algorithm you might know from maths or computer science however, the “algorithms” of recruitment are like a sorcerer’s incantations able to transform the world and imbue those that utter the word with sage like prowess and a cloak woven from the finest of Thought Leader hair…
In other disciplines the word algorithm is well defined (a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer), yet despite this there is a shift in understanding when we talk about algorithms for recruitment. Because the discourse of recruitment is largely owned by those who wish to sell to practitioners the humble algorithm has become the magic in the box that’s too difficult to explain. Algorithms are the elves who make the shoes whilst the shoemaker sleeps. It’s because of this lack of understanding that each new tool that’s presented to HR, from personality quizzes based on dubious pseudoscience to true recommendation engines and all touted as having an algorithm with little or no distinction.
For the ease of understanding an algorithm is a set of well-defined instructions for carrying out a particular task. It must be sound and complete. That means it must give you the correct answer and it must work for all cases. Usually, an algorithm is predictable, deterministic, and not subject to chance. An algorithm tells you how to go from point A to point B with no detours, it doesn’t stop to look at the flowers or to consider other factors outside of it’s available data along the way.
Does that sound like a recruitment process to you? I’d struggle to find a recruitment process that supplies a “correct” outcome, and the notions of sound and complete aren’t interchangeable between organisations – what makes a developer a great fit for one company might be less relevant for yours. Recruitment processes are subject to chance and to that perfect serendipity of the right person available at the right time. When a recruitment process is good for both the company and the candidate it bears the unique fingerprint of the culture of the company that created it.
All this must be very disappointing for those fans of buzzwords but fear not! Here’s a new one for you! Whilst I don’t believe in an algorithmic approach outside of tools that aid human efficiency there is a way to describe the recruitment process and still get the reflected glory of using a lovely big word.
A heuristic is a technique that helps you look for an answer. Its results are subject to chance because a heuristic tells you only how to look, not what to find. It doesn’t tell you how to get directly from point A to point B; it might not even know where point A and point B are. Heuristics are a practical methodology not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient to accomplish the goals required. Examples of the use of this method include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, stereotyping, profiling, or common sense. In effect, a heuristic is an algorithm in a clown suit. It’s less predictable and it’s more fun.
There are many reasons that the application of technology can make recruitment so much better for all involved but the miscalling of the effects of these improvements won’t help the industry or recruitment as a discipline. The exaggeration of the effects, range and successes of the “algorithms” is hyperbole at best and at worst a thin veneer, attempting to add shine to the same old business practices shunted online. The majority of recruitment success stories that herald algorithms as earth-shattering go on to describe a single section of the overall recruitment process being automated not the utopian future in which we are awarded jobs by are robot overlords as they seem to suggest.
Remember that a first round online screen or adding an automated stage into an existing process is less advanced and has less effect than the introduction of the water frames and power looms of the Industrial Revolution, despite what the hyperbolic headlines will tell you.
In the blind solutionism of the HR Tech vendors and those who seek to build personal profile for their technical leaps-that-aren’t, there are real dangers. Not least of all at risk is the candidate experience, the diversity of our organisations and the objectivity to think critically to improve these tools further. That’s a high price to pay for the acclaim of an attention grabbing headline.
There are a great number of fantastic HR Tech tools and new ones are arriving all the time. It is the skill of a modern recruiter to know when to utilise which tool, at what time, to have the maximum beneficial effect. In seeking to replicate the processes of others or glorify ourselves for our own successes we aren’t embracing a bold new technological stance we’re contributing to the “broken” world we look down on.