Our visions of the dark future accurately predicted evil machines oppressing the human race. We erred slightly in thinking that they’d walk and shoot; in reality, all they do is stop us from getting job interviews because of subtle biases that affect application screening.
We all hate applying for jobs. No one enjoys the gruelling hours spent updating your CV followed by more hours spent painstakingly re-typing your CV data into a web form. All in the pursuit of an automated e-mail that acknowledges your application and insinuates that you might be contacted later if some anonymous HR person deigns to allow you to interview. Job hunting can be exhausting, but at least it’s fair, right? An Applicant Management System  can’t discriminate against you on account of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion or any other factor the way that a human can. Your skills and experiences alone will win you an interview … At least, that’s the promise.
In reality, AMS’s are often just as biased as flesh-and-blood people. Why? because people program their biases into the ‘automated’ systems that screen incoming applications. Back on 12th February, Vice’s Nick Keppler wrote a great article on this topic called – seriously – Cost Cutting Algorithms Are Making Your Job Search a Living Hell. Mr. Keppler explained how companies that can afford to are increasingly placing automated screening solutions between job applicants and their own human resources people. This allows the HR crew to ignore the majority of applications; anything deemed uncompetitive by the AMS is simply rejected before a human gets involved.
This makes some sense from a resource management standpoint. As Keppler explained: ‘According to data from the job site Glassdoor, 250 people apply to the average corporate job. Many ATS vendors sell their products on the suggestion that hiring managers are overwhelmed by applicants. When almost half of Americans work low-wage jobs, a good job of any kind will generate a long line of hopefuls, despite the official government unemployment rate being at a 10-year low of 3.5 percent.’ 
I wrote about this back in 2013 in a column titled The Résumé Screener’s Paradox.  I hear my own argument echoing back at me in Keppler’s piece: ‘Thanks to online application systems, the HR folks are usually inundated with applications. Thousands of strangers clamour to be considered for every open req. There’s no reliable way to accurately screen reams of résumés. Lots of fully-qualified applicants simply never get considered because their qualifications are simply lost amidst the noise.’
I empathize with my HR friends. Yes, it can be intimidating to sift through hundreds of CVs. Still … it is your job … and every one of those application packages represents a living, breathing, human being.
Keppler takes the argument a bit further, though, by explaining how the filtering happens: ‘Some advanced ATS have “learned” bias by incorporating variables that favored people who are already advantaged. Amazon abandoned its development of an AI-based hiring process when the predictive models favored male candidates. The system was relying on résumés submitted to the company over ten years, and because of the prevalence of men in tech jobs, the system began to downgrade résumés that included all-women’s colleges or female-indicating phrases like “women’s chess club.”
‘The makers of more advanced applicant tracking systems are acutely aware of the bias problem, but are not certain of a solution.’
Think about that for a second: activities and accomplishments that you have every right to be proud of, like interesting courses taken, leadership positions held, or awards received can cause a bias-fed AMS to drop your application from consideration because it’s been programmed to view certain protected characteristics as undesirable. It’s lightning-fast discrimination, and it lets the employer off the hook because no one living human can be blamed for making the decision. It’s insidious.
So, what’s to be done about it? One school of thought is that applicants should sanitize their CVs to be as generic as possible. That is to say, to resemble the CV of a white, straight, middle- or upper-class protestant male from the ‘right’ post code. Strip out or obfuscate everything that could trip an AMS’s programmed biases. Get the application past the first automated sentry in order to win an interview slot. I’d wager that this tactic is unlikely to succeed given how nearly anything can trigger an automated system’s filters since the assumed biases they’re acting on are based on the hiring company’s established historical practices.
Remember: people unconsciously prefer to be around people that remind them of themselves. It takes effort to suppress your own unconscious biases.
Another tactic would be to go through a recruiter or search firm. Let a professional advocate your fitness for the role to their client. I’ve heard that this technique works … when you’re an established executive. It seems unrealistic for us working stiffs; the cost (in time and money) of employing someone that knows you well enough to coherently advocate for your hiring seems out of reach for working-class people.
I’ll grant that there are some exceptions. I’ve worked with placement firms that did an amazing job ‘selling’ their ‘product.’ Kudos to some of my favourite recruiters for putting in the hours outside of office hours to get to know their candidates well enough to represent us effectively. Still I don’t find this approach realistic for most people. There are millions of people looking for (new or improved) work every day, and not nearly enough agencies to represent them.
I’d wager that the best way to defeat this is the same as it’s always been: leverage your personal network. As I said in Paradox: ‘How, then, do we get to the interview stage? That’s the problem that vexes me … and everyone else that I’ve discussed this problem with. It’s a Catch-22; you have to get an interview to be considered, but won’t be considered for an interview until you’re already known … It’s a mess, and I don’t have any advice for you on how to overcome the problem other than to perpetuate the advocacy route.’
Network early, network often, and maintain your professional relationships. Don’t let pride or shyness stop you from reaching out to people you know at the companies that you’d like to work at. Nothing is more effective at defeating an AMS than having a known insider drop by HR and say ‘This applicant is really good. Make sure they get an interview.’
There’s no substitute for a personal endorsement. Something as simple as ‘I’ve worked with this person before and respect their skill in X’ can be enough to save your application from the ‘meh’ bin.
Should the modern hiring system work this way? No, it shouldn’t. Hell, we shouldn’t have the fates of human beings decided by an unthinking and bias-choked algorithm but here we are. Until we achieve the transcendent rank of Managing Director, Vice President, or Chief Something-or-other where normal rules no longer apply, we have to play the hand we’ve been dealt. That means defeating our robotic adversaries with good-old-fashioned human cooperation.
On reflection, this is probably the lamest pitch I’ve ever for a new Terminator film in the entire series … and I spent at least an hour every day keeping up with social media. I doubt that anyone would anyone would flock to their neighbourhood cineplex to watch a gleaming alloy death machine mercilessly gun down job applicants’ hopes and dreams with a fast keyword search and a recycling bin. Still, life imitates art. This is the ‘dark future where killer robots crush humanity’ that we created for ourselves, only watered down like a homeopathic lager.
Still, the lessons from James Cameron’s 1984 masterpiece still hold true: only other humans can save us from the technological horrors we’ve created to oppress ourselves. Get out there and give one another a hand up.
 Or ‘Applicant Tracking System,’ depending on the vendor.
 Hyperlinks are as they appear in the original article.
 No longer available online; the column has since been expanded into an entire e-book called Why Are You Here? A Curmudgeon’s Guide to IT Interviewing.
Pop Culture Allusion: James Cameron, The Terminator (1984 film)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.