back to article Mysterious algorithms, black-box AI recruiters are binning our résumés

When you submit a résumé for a position at a large company, you may or may not be contacted for further information or an interview. Either way, you probably won't know why. Applicant tracking systems (ATS), the software used by employers to manage employment applications, are not generally open to public scrutiny. "Unless …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No surprises there

    It is widely understood that the resume scanning systems are crap at best. In fact the scanning systems are so bad that they're risking irrelevance. The job seeker needs to find a way to get through that first-pass selection cut. I've been making lots of applications at companies where ex-coworkers sit in the hopes that they can help my resume get raised up in the pile.

    This is part of the reason why companies have referral systems - the general employee base handles the first level of screenings. Even more effective is to develop a relationship with a hiring manager, establish your credibility and suitability to the job, then that hiring manager contacts HR and tells them to put through the paperwork and generally get out of the way. That can take quite a long time. I had a couple of interviews via this method - in fact the one hiring manager said that he didn't have the time to waste waiting for an application to trickle through the application management system.

    Posting as AC as I'm currently "in transition" and have been trying to get around Human Resources functions for a solid year. HR is the biggest hurdle and detriment to getting the right people into the right jobs.

    1. Anonymous Blowhard

      Re: No surprises there

      "Posting as AC as I'm currently "in transition" and have been trying to get around Human Resources functions for a solid year."

      Try a hidden paragraph at the end of the document, stuffed with buzzwords...

      1. Static Cat

        Re: No surprises there

        This is actually a good tip. When CVs are expected to be 2 to 3 pages long it's hard to coherently get all of the key words in sometimes. Save a space for some white font size 1 text and get all of the keywords you want in. The search algorithms will pick up on these and highlight your CV for review.

        1. BillG

          Re: No surprises there

          I got my last two jobs by networking at LinkedIn. In both cases I participated in discussions on LI groups.

          I wrote my opinions which are a little different than the mainstream, making me stand out. In both cases I got the opportunity to connect with a hiring managers that liked my opinions, who months later messaged me and after a brief interview offered me a job.

          Uploading your resume we all know is a waste of time. Your resume is one of THOUSANDS uploaded. Because HR and hiring managers know that Applicant Tracking Systems are crap, they always end up hiring someone they are networked with anyway.

        2. WookieBill

          Re: No surprises there

          I specialise in customising CRMs used in the recruitment industry. I have a key skills section at the top my of my CV. It's not just machines you have to think about. Recruiters sit there going through hundreds of cvs in seconds. If your CV doesn't get attention quickly it won't ever be looked at.

          Also, if you really want a peticular job, customise your CV so you seem to be the perfect match. Don't lie but if you have relevant & non relevant skills make sure to talk about the relevant ones and minimise the irrelevant ones.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No surprises there

      Not clear humans are any better. This missive about how a dumbass HR person at Google tried to test a high level management candidate about network coding is comical.

    3. Kurt Meyer

      Re: No surprises there

      Mckay: Callahan, you've been transfered to Personnel.

      Callahan: Personnel? That's for assholes.

      Mckay: I worked in Personnel for 10 years!

      Callahan: Yeah.

  2. P. Lee

    Could be worse - you could be jailed

    This reflects my concern about AI - we consider it a success when it mimics human failure. If you then replace the humans with AI, you've got rid of your benchmark. After a few years that "mass of data" we need to train AI's is gone and all you've got is AI data. Any biases in the data will start to be exaggerated. You have turned the stats machine into concrete and got rid of your ability to improve.

    AI is not artificial intelligence. "Machine learning" might be a better phrase but we still mentally associate it with AI and many people (not those in tech obviously!) still think computers do a better job than humans and don't make mistakes. This is before we get into the fact that machines don't have ethics and machine learning discards outliers which might indicate problems.

    All this comes back to something fairly fundamental: as scale increases the importance/relevance of the individual decreases. This is true of most things I can think of from democracy/voting to corner shops to cans of beans to the justice system. Increasing scale rewards cost-cutting, not quality improvement.

    How would you feel if AI was used instead of a jury, if it produced the same statistics? We'd never allow that of course... but trial by jury has been cut significantly in the UK and as the BBC article points out, parole by AI is already in effect in the US. With prisons becoming increasingly commercial (a third of US whitegoods being made by prison labour according to the, admittedly dubious, Mr Fry), scale and profit become the standards of measurement. Appropriate justice for a crime becomes just an obstacle.

    But back to the article. We are moving from someone being an expert in their domain to management by stats. Marking academic essays by machine learning? Its been done. But how do you rate improvement? One in the field might work... what happens when a wealthy school reverse-engineers the algorithm and teaches its students in methods which game the system? Oh look, the good expensive school produces excellent results - its improving its already fantastic teaching. Shame for everyone else. Luckily for the good school, there's no incentive to mix things up as that would mess up the marking algorithm and we'd have to employ a large number of markers for years to retrain it. I don't think government can afford to do that...

    We need to be less in awe of tech.

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Could be worse - you could be jailed

      It's not AI, it's a search and sort algorithm.

      The first thing we need to do is stop calling it AI. That would help us be in less awe of tech.

      1. John Styles

        Re: Could be worse - you could be jailed

        An 'AI' system is any system more intelligent than the sales person trying to sell it.

    2. Mark 85

      Re: Could be worse - you could be jailed

      We are moving from someone being an expert in their domain to management by stats.

      We already have gone there at least for management. Think about how many companies and management work out who's getting the great raise and who's getting the crappy one. Stats are everything to someone who has the beancounter ethic. HR is getting there.

  3. Crazy Operations Guy

    In my experience

    It seems they are all coded as "If candidate already has a job, spam them with contract offers. If candidate is unemployed, stay silent"

    1. dajames

      Re: In my experience

      It seems they are all coded as "If candidate already has a job, spam them with contract offers. If candidate is unemployed, stay silent"

      You forgot: "If candidate is a contractor, spam them with permanent positions".

    2. J.G.Harston Silver badge

      Re: In my experience

      Well, it's clear from any required recent skills in any vacancy that being unemployed is an immediate disqualification. You only qualify if you are already doing the job being advertised.

  4. cd

    Eventually resumes will have paragraphs of keywords like a Craigslist ad. 'Fact, I'm off to try that now.

    I've been holding it wrong.

    Just recalled a conversation I had with a person from a federal agency; their software ranked people like Olympic medals, bronze, silver, gold. Only gold were typically contacted. Which required certain keywords. "I'm not going to tell you to lie, but if certain words aren't in your resume we'll never see it."

  5. DCFusor

    Slightly OT but 5% is not the unemployment number except in some government addled dream. Tax receipts or other info vs people of working age show a much higher, 2 digit number of "wish I had a job" but don't. Politics.

    That aside, when I ran a company, I learned things. One of which is that in lean times you don't lay the winners off, but the least productive. When hiring back...hmmm, it is as the article says - that person you want probably has a job already. Works as a ratcheting mechanism as society evolves to need fewer workers but still has more people, some of whom are probably actually worth it to pay to stay away and not distract the people who get things done. Wish I knew an unambiguously good answer for that one.

    It's all too easy to confuse being equal under the law (a good thing we seem to be losing) - with being equal. We're not, no two of us are the same (good) but some are just never going to be the high productivity types in a complex environment. You can't fix stupid, in other words. Wish I had the answer to that one too.

  6. a_yank_lurker

    HR = lowest end of the IQ curve

    The problem with any screening system involving HR is the total stupidity of HR. Applications are nothing more than buzzword bingo not a competent review of skills against requirements.

    1. herman Silver badge

      Re: HR = lowest end of the IQ curve

      Getting past HR is an IQ test. The only way I ever got jobs is through networking with people, so my resume gets to the person that needs it, despite the best efforts of HR to prevent it from getting there.

  7. Barry Rueger

    First, the Gross Edit

    Algorithms seem to suck in 80% of the places they're employed.

    Maybe in a decade they'll be able to accurately sort resumes, or even serve up ads that I care about.

    Problem is that humans pretty much handle stacks of resumes the same as an algorithm.

    If you think someone hiring is reading every word of every application you're dreaming.

    Any decent job gets dozens of applications at a mininum, so the first cull goes roughly :

    1) Ugly fonts or layout - GONE!

    2) Photocopied photo of applicant on cover page - GONE!

    3) Gross spelling mistakes, especially the name of the person hiring - GONE!

    4) Names of pets - GONE!

    5) More buzzwords than content - GONE!

    Now that you've eliminated 60% of the applications, you can do a FAST skim for any with major qualification issues.

    That's when the person doing the hiring actually starts looking at them in detail.

    The sad truth is that a significant number of resumes received are sad, deficient efforts, and don't get a second glance.

    It's not about being "fair," it's about keeping a time-consuming job under control.

    1. Korev Silver badge

      Re: First, the Gross Edit

      2) Photocopied photo of applicant on cover page - GONE!

      That's normal in many countries, you could be binning a very good Swiss, German etc. candidate.

      1. small and stupid

        Re: First, the Gross Edit

        ..who couldnt be bothered to do basic research

    2. Swarthy

      Re: First, the Gross Edit

      And then take about half of them, out of the middle of the stack and bin 'em - after all, you wouldn't want to hire someone who is unlucky, would you?

  8. Thaumaturge

    Not a new problem.

    This has been an ongoing problem, not only in AI but in technology in general for decades now. No matter how good my resume (which went through many, many revisions) the biggest trick was getting past HR to managing supervisors. If I could ever get an interview with those I'd actually be working for I usually got the job. If it was strictly up to HR, I didn't. Even with decades of experience there was almost always someone in HR who merily sorted resumes into neat stacks of degreed, non-degreed. The non-degreed stack usually went to the trash. I imagine that is even worse with AI doing the sorting.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: Not a new problem.

      Exactly; particularly if your skills are in closely related but not exactly what are asked for. If you can get contact with the person who needs the job filling, rather than the HR drones, you have a much better chance of convincing them to hire you.

      HR is the blight of modern employment. While there *may* be jobs for which one person is a plug-in replacement for another, interchangeable at a moment's notice, I'm struggling to think of many... HR assumes that what works for a low-skill repetitive job also works for a high-skill job being performed by someone approaching retirement. It ain't necessarily so.

      At least 'Personnel' kept the pretence that you were a person and not a hot-swappable part.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Not a new problem.

        >there *may* be jobs for which one person is a plug-in replacement for another, interchangeable at a moment's notice, I'm struggling to think of many

        HR ?

  9. DCFusor

    Skip HR

    Thaumaturge has good advice here. Back when I got jobs (vs creating them, including my own), 100% of the good ones skipped the HR process almost entirely. That first one is indeed a problem, but after that, word of mouth, customers, co-workers who move on to other companies and your general network are where the really good jobs are. Of course, that means a good job for a deserving productive person, not a sinecure for a lazy laggard, for which I have little to no sympathy. No one handed it to me on a platter, I had to earn it.

    By the time some idiot in HR finds out, you've been hired already and are beer buddies or the equivalent with whoever your new co workers or boss is to be. HR hands you a stack of papers to sign and/or fill out, and you do the top and bottom ones, they go in a file, and that's that with those idiots. This once saved me an invention I made with my own time and money - company claimed ownership as they assumed I'd signed that ridiculous form. But I didn't...heh. Attempted theft turned into promotion once they realized their error and how critical I was to their operations.

    HR are indeed the dumbest of the group most places. One wonders if they aren't hired more for looks or some other aspect...

    I find it funny when they demand say, 6 years experience in something that hasn't existed that long. Say no, only the 3 (maybe I even created that thing) - gone. Say 6, well, you've lied and now that can be held over your head. But their butt is covered, they think. Of course, such places aren't worth working for if you've got any talent and ability to produce value. If not, well...maybe you should work on that before trying to get paid for worthlessness. You special snowflakes out there are going to find out that the world isn't as you wish - it is what it is, and there are reasons for it being that way (not all of them good, but sufficient).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Skip HR

      I often her the phrase "intellectual graveyard" in connection with University HR departments, and they are probably better than many :(

  10. mrjohn

    So it's not what you know, or who you know, it's 101011101000101

    1. herman Silver badge

      It is not what you know, or who you know.

      It is what you know, about who you know...

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bad computer systems, lazy people...

    ALthough it is fun to look for conspiracies, in my experience cv management systems are abysmal (both front end and worse backend). Then managers are too lazy to regularly pick up cvs for the jobs that they are recruiting for, let alone be smart enough to say: "this guy isn't right for me, but would be good for team X I'll pass it along..."

    Applying for jobs is like selling viagra by email. Spam them hard.

  12. Elmer Phud

    Good scanning system

    I've seen someone operating very good CV scanning system.

    Any applicants will have read 'No photos with this application'.

    As soon as envelopes (it was a while back) were opened they were checked for photo's, if a photo was included the whole lot was binned without being read.

    "If they can't fucking read the application form I can't be fucking bothered to read either. I need people who do not just scan but understand, this is a fucking hospital, for fuck's sake".

    This is after getting fed up with people seeing the job description and assuming it was a PC World type hard drive replacement service and not a proper IT wonk job.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Re: Good scanning system

      If they can't fucking read the application form I can't be fucking bothered to read either

      My favourite version of that is "applications must be attached and in PDF". The mail filter can send most rejection replies, mainly based on the presence of a .doc attachment.

      1. Uffish

        Re: Good scanning system

        And there I was wondering how to staple a PDF to a sheet of paper, wouldn't get the job I suppose.

    2. PerspexAvenger

      Re: Good scanning system

      An old boss used to do something similar - "Apply quoting reference <whatever>".

      It was a random sequence of letters and numbers, irrelevant to everything else, but if they missed it? Sorry, poor attention to detail, you -are- the weakest link, goodbye...

  13. Korev Silver badge

    A colleague once received a CV with something like "Whilst I have no experience of technology X and Y, I'd very much appreciate the chance to learn". This meant it got past the HR droid's keyword searching. My colleague actually seriously considered getting the guy in for interview because he'd demonstrated good initiative.

  14. Arthur the cat Silver badge

    Obvious niche market here

    Generate random CVs(*) and submit them, get some responses, run a Machine Learning system to spot what works, offer tailored CVs, profit.

    (*) I'm British, and thus prefer Latin to French.

  15. Egghead & Boffin

    Algorithm arms race

    If we knew how the algorithms worked we would all write CVs designed to get selected, and then they're back where they started. HR then have to refine the algorithm and so the cycle starts again.

    Having said that, the Data Protection Act contains rights of the individual when subjected to automated decision taking. The right of subject access allows an individual access to information about the reasoning behind any decisions taken by automated means. The Act complements this provision by including rights that relate to automated decision taking. Consequently:

    1. an individual can give written notice requiring you not to take any automated decisions using their personal data;

    2. even if they have not given notice, an individual should be informed when such a decision has been taken; and

    3. an individual can ask the organisation to reconsider a decision taken by automated means.

    These rights can be seen as safeguards against the risk that a potentially damaging decision is taken without human intervention.

    The rights in respect of automated decisions only arise if two requirements are met. First, the decision has to be taken using personal data processed solely by automatic means. The second requirement is that the decision has to have a significant effect on the individual concerned. I suspect the firms would all argue that not getting an interview is not a major impact. It would be interesting for someone to take such a case to the ICO Compliance Officers for a ruling...

  16. shrdlu

    Applicant Trashing Systems

    I saw the summary that one ATS generated from my CV. It said that I had no management experience. It apparently missed the sentence in my CV that said "I have more than ten years experience of managing people."

    This might perhaps explain the apparently incompatible "facts" that a) Britain has a skills shortage in IT b) unemployment in IT staff over 50 is running at over 50%.

  17. Aladdin Sane

    BOFH, as always, has the answer

    Link here.

    Also, if somebody is smart enough to figure out how to game the scanning algorithm, surely they're a good candidate for many tech jobs?

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Played the CV game once

    Not having a degree (the HND was a much better course at the time, and I hadn't thought out the long term consequences!) I usually get my CV thrown out immediately. So I played the game with hidden text once ("1st Class Honours Degree" being amongst the hidden text).

    I still didn't get an interview, so I identified the Development Manager at the company and rang him. It turns out that he did get my CV, but because I normally go on Tech Forums using a pseudonym, he couldn't find any digital life for me, and so I was rejected.

    I pointed him to a few of the pseudonyms and forums. An hour later I received a call promising me the job if the person he had already given it to earlier in the week left. I told him not to bother this time, reminded him why people use pseudonyms for security and suggested that he actually rings the people whose CVs he likes next time.

    Anonymous - what better pseudonym is there?

    1. herman Silver badge

      Re: Played the CV game once

      Goodness, you told him you are Anonymous Coward on Slashdot???

  19. GrapeBunch


    Bottom line, if I include "AI Programmer" or "AI Systems Analyst" in a CV, they'll regard it as a Good Thing, the fools. "AI Technician" maybe not so much, unless it's a farm job. Funny thing, though, the extraction and massaging of wordy data from text, which is the programming I did for a couple of decades, seems to pass as AI. AI, no lie.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If they want to automate this stuff

    They should have a web site where you go and check off boxes for various skills and add number of years of experience, etc. Ideally it would be a standard format so you could just attach it to your resume and your resume goes back to being the thing that people read, and the standard skills form is what goes into the database.

    It is ridiculous trying to alter a resume designed for humans to read to try to make it easier for machines to read, especially when different ones will like it written one way and others will like it another. You shouldn't have to do detective work on what sort of ATS the company you are applying to has and tweak your resume to fit.

    Maybe this is why tech hiring managers keep claiming there is a skills shortage - people with the desired skills don't have properly tweaked resumes to fit their system so they never get seen by a human!

  21. Herby

    You play the game...

    But you don't know the rules.

    Sounds typical of life in general.

  22. JeffyPoooh

    "A.I." ?? I'm moderately 'I.', but I'm certainly not 'A.'

    I have a reported 25 (I've not yet counted) resumes in my inbox for tomorrow morning.

    As far as I know, I'm a human.

    No A.I. involved here.

    1. Aladdin Sane

      Re: "A.I." ?? I'm moderately 'I.', but I'm certainly not 'A.'

      Mine's the one with a fiver attached.

  23. LaunchpadBS

    This AI term is being thrown around pretty loosely now

    And it needs to stop, no one has yet achieved Artificial Intelligence.

    This is just a sorting algorithm with crappy code behind it, not even advanced intelligence.

  24. Yugguy

    PHEW!!! I'm safe!

    I don't have one of these American resumes.

    I have a good old British CV.

  25. Matt Bryant Silver badge

    My advice - watch the defaults!

    My first experience of "AI" and an ATS sums it up as far as I am concerned. I was working for an American company in the UK and they implemented the ATS system as used by their US HR team. Suddenly, our usual deluge of CVs for each opening shrank to nothing! HR insisted the ATS was fine until I insisted on having a dig through it. The system worked by allowing the HR grunts to select tick boxes to create the list of minimum requirements for a job spec - if you didn't meet the requirements, your CV was rejected and was never seen by human eyes. Selecting some of the tick boxes automatically included other tick boxes by default, the fun being that selecting "degree required" automatically included a scan your CV for the name of a reputable college or uni. If it found none from its default list it would assume you didn't have a "good" degree. The first problem was the default listing only included US-based colleges and unis! Not surprisingly, none of our UK applicants had studied in the US so all got rejected. Having edited the text file of reputable academic institutes to include the latest from UCAS, I thought we'd solved the problem. Not so! It still rejected all European applicants. A second pass turned out the fact that selecting the "degree required" option also automatically included the default search for an "HSD" in the applicant's CV. No-one in our UK HR department realised this meant an American highschool diploma, and - not surprisingly - none of our European applicants had one of those either! More manual editing of the default selection files later got us past that problem, but left me with a very dim view of ATSs.

    1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

      Re: My advice - watch the defaults!

      High School Diploma - in other words, 'A' levels. How do they think they manage to get to university (college) without 'A' levels (HSD)?

      (Tho', UK 'college' *is* where you go when you have no 'A' levels/school leaving certificate. Whenever I hear Americans talking about going to "college" I can't help but think: good for them, making up for completely failing to learn absolutely anything at all at school, and trying again from scratch. And then, weirdly, they "progress" to "school".)

      1. Cowboy Bob

        Re: My advice - watch the defaults!

        I hold an MSc in Compter Science. Yet I have no A levels at all (I went to university when I was 22 so was a "mature" student and they weren't required). It's perfectly possible. And yes, I've had agencies/HR tell me they can't add me to their system because it won't allow them to tick MSc without ticking A levels.

    2. martinusher Silver badge

      Re: My advice - watch the defaults!

      Other little tweaks are that English Universities used to have three year degree courses which would fail you because hiring required a four year degree.

      The American system is very different from the UK -- at least that was the case some years ago, you seem to have adopted all the worst aspects of our system over the last few decades so now a degree from a generic UK college is not that different from one from a generic US one. A high School Diploma doesn't tell you a great deal; what you need is the "transcript" that will tell you that such-and-such a course was passed with this grade either as Basic, College Prep or Advanced Placement, roughly equivalent to Was-At-Least-Present-For-The-Course, O level or AS level in UK parlance.

      (BTW -- My wife's a teacher -- Physics -- who has worked in both countries so is well placed to 'compare and contrast')

  26. Eclectic Man Silver badge

    I could be wrong, but I was under the impression that here in the UK (soon maybe not to be the UK, but that is another thread) the Data Protection Act gave people the right to know the algorithms they were judged by when decisions were taken by 'computers'.

    My own CV is not the problem - I interview really badly :o(

  27. martinusher Silver badge

    Trying to find simplistic answers to complex problems.

    The rot starts in school, at least in the US, where "Grade Point Average" is everything -- you assign a 1 to an 'A', 2 to a 'B' and so on, add 'em up and divide to get the average. Average of what? Who the hell knows. Another common magic number is Body Mass Index; its been proven to inaccurate over 50% of the time....but its a simple number to calculate so it endures.

    Hiring automation is the same kind of grading by a rough numerical score. The only problem is that at best its a guideline, not a gospel. At some point judgment has to be exercised. Its possible that AI type algorithms may finally get better results but my guess is that they'll never quite be able to get hold of those rough diamonds you come across from time to time, they'll just focus on finding the people closest to the specified formula (which is known in hiring circles as "knows how to write a good resume").

    This, plus a relentless focus on finding only superstars (preferably with exactly relevant experience), means that there will be a chronic shortage of talent for the foreseeable future. (As for me, its word of mouth only....I don't think I'd ever get hired for anything if I just sent in a resume.)

  28. Fayaz wassan

    The old style of working has been thoroughly replaced with the millennials entering the workforce and turning the whole system of how jobs were being done till date. The baby boomers and Generation X have changed the way business or work takes place and going forward we can only wonder how Talents will be recruited in a more efficient and long-lasting manner.

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