back to article Computer says no: An expression-analysing AI has been picking out job candidates for Unilever

A US firm is flogging facial-expression software to analyse job candidates' performance in video interviews and make initial selections for companies including Unilever. The Marmite and Persil maker has previously used facial recognition software to analyse shoppers' reactions to in-store displays of products, and is now …

  1. Sgt_Oddball

    Phillip K. Dick saw the future..

    Leon: Do you make up these questions, Mr. Holden, or do they write them down for you?

    Holden: The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun beating its legs trying to turn itself over but it can't, not without your help, but you're not helping.

    Leon: What do you mean I'm not helping?

    Holden: I mean, you're not helping. Why is that Holden: They're just questions, Leon. In answer to your query, they're written down for me. It's a test, designed to provoke an emotional response. -- Shall we continue? Describe in single words, only the good things that come in to your mind about... your mother.

    Leon: My mother?


    Leon: Let me tell you about my mother...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Phillip K. Dick saw the future..

      ... and once they'd swept up what remained of Mr Holden, the Police Dept decided that interviewing a violent psychopath face to face without frisking him for hidden weapons first was perhaps a bad call all things considered.

  2. Crisp

    "In doctors, you might expect a good one to use more technical language"

    Would you?

    I'd expect a good doctor to tailor his speech to the needs of the patient.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: "In doctors, you might expect a good one to use more technical language"

      A good Doctor Who tailors their speech? When talking to an artificial intelligence? Let's think about that for a moment...

      Computer interviewer: "Please tell me more about yourself..."

      Doctor: "If I were to tell you that the next thing I say will be true, but that the last thing I said was a lie, would you believe me?"

      1. Crisp

        Re: "In doctors, you might expect a good one to use more technical language"

        What if the AI has paradox absorbing crumple zones?

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: "In doctors, you might expect a good one to use more technical language"

          We also have those. We just call them sub-clinical neuroses.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: "In doctors, you might expect a good one to use more technical language"

      "I'd expect a good doctor to tailor his speech to the needs of the patient."

      Not in a job interview.

      1. quxinot

        Re: "In doctors, you might expect a good one to use more technical language"

        In a job interview, you're very probably dealing with HR rather than another medical person.

        So the ability to explain things in layman's terms without actively sounding like you're talking down is very much an important skill, and one that a good doc will use with some frequency.

        That's true of most trades that do any customer/client-facing roles, I'd think. If you can't explain it in a number of ways, odds are you don't understand it as well as you perhaps could.

    3. AdamWill

      Re: "In doctors, you might expect a good one to use more technical language"

      That whole spiel reads like a classic "we made this thing up backwards" after the fact justification. They figured out the things they could measure, then had a meeting to figure out semi-plausible explanations for why you might want to measure them...

  3. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. DavCrav

    "The company claims it provides a less biased system than one based on the vagaries of a human recruiter."

    Choosing the third CV to arrive at the desk is also less biased. Not necessarily better.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      One wonders if the system is intrinsically racist, ageist or sexist as per usual with these systems. I mean, it apparently matches a template based on previously successful employees. Did any of them have a stammer, for example?

  5. Warm Braw

    A less biased system

    Unless you're starting from a position in which you have the perfect workforce - both in terms of performance and human representation, an algorithm that prefers those who are similar to "candidates who have already proved to be good at the job" is inherently biased in favour of the status quo. And how do you get the comparator data? Do you re-interview your existing staff for their current positions and threaten to dismiss them if they fail? If not, it's hardly a like-for-like comparison.

    It sounds very much like Amazon's "people who bought X bought Y so, having bought X you will like Y, too" - and I'm sure we've all had experience of just how helpful that is.

    Sill this is Unilever, so I'm presuming the main criterion for employment is* the inability to tell Stork from Persil.

    *Or was, apparently spreads have been sold off for underperforming. Presumably they joined the company before the AI technology was available. Unfortunately, it also robs me of the opportunity to say of the AI - "I can't believe it's not better". Shame...

    1. Muscleguy

      Re: A less biased system

      Not to mention that if you search for something on Amazon or eBay you get a load of stuff which is NOT what you want but the algorithm also thinks might be close. I looked for water softening pillows for an aquarium and got pretty much all and any sort of water treatment stuff including that which hardens the water.

      I’m a Science PhD with two 100 level chemistry papers to my name as well as lots of bench research experience which required not just the use of chemicals but knowledge of them so I fully understand the chemistries involved.

      Disgusted I gave both companies feedback to that effect.

      It’s getting so that searching for something no matter how closely defined gets you pages and pages of irrelevant stuff. The person X bought Y and Z thing is not just down the bottom any more it seems to affect search results as well.

      Time was back in the early days of the web a reasonable subset of search boxes understood Boolean logic. Now almost none do. The top rated journal Nature’s site used to be one but no longer. Outsourced to Google probably. There needs to be a small ‘engage Boolean’ check box for those of us who do understand it.

      1. Warm Braw

        Re: A less biased system

        Wandering off topic, but there's a really peculiar feature of Amazon that if you choose to sort by price, frequently most of the search results disappear and return if you search by "relevance" - which itself seems to vary randomly between increasing and decreasing. Still not as bad as Netflix - which I tried briefly - which seems to pride itself on making it impossible to find anything you might want to watch.

        But the point about all of these algorithms is that they're explicitly not about serving the needs of the end-user, they all have an ulterior motive. Allowing you to more precisely control the results would undermine the purpose - it's not a search service, it's a nudge service.

        1. JohnFen

          Re: A less biased system

          Yes,"relevance" is the worst sorting method that Amazon has.

        2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: A less biased system

          "it's not a search service, it's a nudge service."

          And from time to time nudges customers elsewhere.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A less biased system

        They all went Bayesian

      3. squigbobble

        Re: A less biased system

        eBay still let's you exclude things from results by putting - before a word e.g. -hardening

        I use it cos a lot of sellers went to The Keyword Spam School of titling your sale items.

    2. Nick Kew

      Re: A less biased system

      Yeah, that theory is very trendy, and indeed is not without merit. I think where it falls down is that it commonly leads to rejecting the Good because it's not the (unattainable) Perfect.

      Applying it to Unilever, they're a long-term very successful company. Guess they must've been doing something right all this time.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: A less biased system

        "Guess they must've been doing something right all this time."

        In the past that something wouldn't have included interviewing by AI.

        Any long-term very successful company can cease to be that. Think of a few two and tree letter companies in the IT world. All it takes is a change in the C suite.

  6. SVV

    Job seekers sit in front of a laptop or mobile phone and complete an automated video interview

    Or, as I would , at this point they say "Thank you very much for the interview, but I now know enough to decide that I would not accept a job here.". Being convinced that you can use some mysterious new software to decide who you recruit instead of experienced staff who understand the type of skills (personal and technical) needed for a specialised role is the sort of idiocy that only a company where HR are the sole people who manage recruitment would be likely to engage in. Give me someone who says intelligent and insightful things in their own way any day over confident bullshitters who can effotlessly rattle off buzzwords.

    1. Chris G

      Re: Job seekers sit in front of a laptop or mobile phone and complete an automated video interview

      Interviews are a two way street.

      Not only for an employer to decide if they wish to hire an individual but also for the individual to decide if they want to work there.

      I have declined a few jobs due to them not meeting my requirements.

      As for Unilever or anyone else using this tech, they are limiting themselves to a narrow selection of corporate clones and I hope they reap from what they are sowing.

      They sound like the kind of company that will send you a cardboard box via the janitor and an email telling you to clear out your desk because you are smiling too much/not smiling enough in company time.

      1. Suricou Raven

        Re: Job seekers sit in front of a laptop or mobile phone and complete an automated video interview

        Not everyone is a skilled worker with the luxury of declining jobs. Some people really can't decline a job offer, it can lead to them losing their benefits and thus their home.

        1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

          Re: Job seekers sit in front of a laptop or mobile phone and complete an automated video interview

          This is why the rest of us have a public duty to walk away from employers who use such methods.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Job seekers sit in front of a laptop or mobile phone and complete an automated video interview

      Not me. I'm not going to meet the AI in the hallway and have a friendly chat when I'm working there. I'm never going to stop in the break room and compare views about the Sunday football games with the AI. No AI is going to make me feel comfortable during a video interview by asking about my trip to the office or the weather. I work with people and, dammit, people can interview me. It doesn't matter what Unilever -- or any other company using this crutch -- says. Video interviews analyzed by a computer are going to be just as biased as a face-to-face interview. Some person -- someone who has biases whether they want to admit it or not -- had to OK the selection of the criteria used to indicate "fit". What if that person is an arrogant a**hole and the resulting AI has a tendency to prefer arrogant a**holes and the candidates aren't arrogant a**holes. (Hire an H1-B, I guess. The AI couldn't find a suitable candidate.)

      1. quxinot

        Re: Job seekers sit in front of a laptop or mobile phone and complete an automated video interview

        > Video interviews analyzed by a computer are going to be just as biased as a face-to-face interview.

        To be completely fair, AI on the whole has yet to prove the "I" portion of the title--but HR does not have an "I" in it. And that's quite appropriate.

        I believe that every time I've interviewed with the person whom I'd be directly reporting to, I've gotten an offer for employment. Convserely, when interviewing with someone who has a checklist and no true idea of what the job entails, I can't recall an offer being made, with one exception. (And to be completely truthful, I should have turned down that horrible cesspit!)

  7. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    I am so glad that I'm out of the jobs market

    if this sort of thing becomes the norm.

    One place I went for an interview insisted that I do an aptitude test to see if I was suitable for the programming job. I was almost 50 years old and had been writing software for more than 25 years...

    I deliberately messed up the answers. no surprise when I was told that I was totally unsuitablle for writing software. I'd raised my objections before taking the test which I repeated on the way out along with words like "never in a month of sundays... etc"

    Three months later I was working at the company as a contractor earning almost double the pay. No suggestion of taking the test.

    My manager smiled when I told him about the interview.

    "Oh so you are the bugger who got those tests axed. Well done! They've been a real PITA for years. That's why we have so many contractors..."

    Go figure.

    That was just the tip of the iceberg if this new thing gets widely used.


    "El Reg seminars on how to fool facial recognition in job selection" {hint hint}

    1. Mage Silver badge

      Re: I am so glad that I'm out of the jobs market

      Also psychometric testing is even more fake snake oil than IQ tests (which measure a narrow range of aptitudes that may be irrelevant for most jobs and never measure intelligence!).

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Psychometric testing


        I took one of those once. One of the questions was something along the lines of "Do you sometimes have feelings of panic?".

        Context matters. I'm sitting in somebody's office in Cambridge taking the test. I live and work in a part of the UK with an ongoing terrorist campaign, the job I do doesn't endear me to said terrorists, my place of work has been bombed by them, I even have to go to places where I have to have an armed police or army escort. How do you compare the answer to that question with someone who works down the street from here?

        Adding to that they also gave one of those IQ tests that we used to have for 11 plus when I wor a nobbut lad. The guy came back from running it through his optical reader marking machine with a puzzled look on his face saying "Have you been practising taking IQ tests?" I was probably looking equally puzzled trying to think how I might have got one wrong. It was a time when our son was just coming up to take his 11 plus but I still thought the test seemed inordinately straightforward.

        1. Nick Kew

          Re: Psychometric testing

          I always find that kind of question difficult. What do they mean by panic? That moment when you're at the checkout and reach for your wallet, but it isn't there (before finding it in your other pocket)? Or something more serious?

          What does that say about my personality? Awkward bugger? Or useful attention to detail that'll avoid going ahead and solving the wrong problem? Nope, none of that, because I can't question the question when it's a multiple-choice tickbox. Can the AI say I'll put you down as Don't Know?

          1. ThatOne Silver badge

            Re: Psychometric testing

            > What does that say about my personality?

            It simply says "anxiety disorder".

            The thing is those tests are made for psychopathology assessment, but since they are standardized and thus sound "serious", they tend to be (ab)used for almost everything. Well, I guess they could be of some use in those rare cases where HR's biggest problem is triaging the amount of mentally ill applying for a given job.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Mage - Re: I am so glad that I'm out of the jobs market

        Add the polygraph to that list. Another snake oil product that refuses to die.

        1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

          Despite the fact that the Supreme Court has refused to recognize any validity in it, which, IMO, should have sealed its fate. But no, the FBI still wants you to take polygraph tests . . .

          1. JohnFen

            Fortunately, it's easy to game polygraph tests.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              polygraph false positives...

              It's also easy to fail them. When I was 19, I applied for a job at a convenience store... circa 1982... and was forced to take a polygraph. I failed miserably... I have no idea why. They got a false positive and I got fired ( I had been working there about three weeks).

              Many years later... like 10!... someone called from their home office and wanted me to sign something related to that polygraph. They were doing some kind of CYA about there whole history of polygraphs. I was just thankful that they fired me and I moved onto something more lucrative.

              1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

                Re: polygraph false positives...

                "someone called from their home office and wanted me to sign something related to that polygraph."

                That sounds like an opportunity not to have missed. You didn't take them up on it?

                Hint-you don't sign what they're written unless it's exactly what you'd have written and you ask enough to open up as many cans of worms as possible before signing anything - which you write yourself.

              2. JohnFen

                Re: polygraph false positives...

                Indeed. I have a similar story, although mine was around some petty theft that happened at my workplace. After failing a polygraph (and being fired as a result) even though I was being truthful, I decided to look into the whole thing more. That's when I learned how useless they are, and how to game them so I wouldn't suffer a similar fate in the future.

    2. Orv Silver badge

      Re: I am so glad that I'm out of the jobs market

      This is about prepping for the next economic downturn, when they'll have a deluge of resumes for a handful of positions and can pick and choose based on whatever criteria they want. Last time we had a recession employers would do stuff like throw out all the resumes on the wrong color of paper, or throw out everything from someone who wasn't currently employed (because presumably employed people are more valuable than unemployed ones.) They had so many applicants they'd use any method just to shorten the stack.

  8. DryBones

    I agree with the upper posters, here. An automated video interview. Really. If they haven't got the time to let me talk to an actual live person, I don't want to work for them. Using a computer to check for people skills. Did their entire shipment of gorm get spilled on the highway?

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      that's just like the cold calls I used to get sometimes, where you pick the phone up and it's a recorded message saying that I'll soon be connected to . . click.

      If you don't have the correctness to call me with an actual human being, you can go fudge yourself.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

  9. This post has been deleted by its author

  10. K

    This will limit their pool of candidates...

    I get a dozen calls or messages each week from recruiters, if a role is interesting, I'll engage with them... But my first questions are, what is the working environment, what are they offering, and finally what is the interview process.

    Any company that tries to redefine a person as metrics, obviously has not considered the human-element, nobody likes being judged, especially by a "machine". A lot of potential-candidates, especially the best ones who have a lot of options, will just decline and move-on.

    Tip for anybody looking for a new role, treat an interview as a 2-way process - They are questioning you too see if you are a good fit, you should be questioning them to see if they are a good fit for you. In addition, it makes you stand-out more.

    True story:

    I was interviewing for a Head of IT role, it was the 3rd round, and I was interviewing with their Development Director. I asked a question, he got snarky and said "Hold on.. I'm the one doing the interviewing here", and I pleasantly smiled and persisted in asking my questions. I got offered the job, worked their for 15 months - Whenever I worked with him, I could see he hated me as I would never cow-tow or be subordinate to him, but we did develop a mutual respect!

    1. Suricou Raven

      Re: This will limit their pool of candidates...

      The main reason for these AI- or algorithm-based recruitment processes is to remove the human-element, because humans *suck*. They have a really difficult time setting aside subconscious biases they will influence their decisions, even if they are not aware this is happening.

      You describe how to manipulate a human recruiter yourself: By asking questions yourself you become more memorable, and thus more likely to be considered. Does asking questions make you any more suited to the job? Probably not, but by making yourself more distinctive you give yourself an advantage over the dull-as-dishwater candidates who are just as qualified.

      Everyone who has sought a job knows the basics of manipulation. The smart suit, the fresh shower and haircut - those little aspects of appearance that bear absolutely no relation to the job, but still bias the recruiter into judging you to be more professional.

  11. I_am_not_a_number

    Yay, finally a chance to apply some obscure GDPR articles

    "Article 22 GDPR Automated individual decision-making, including profiling"

    "The data subject shall have the right not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling, which produces legal effects concerning him or her or similarly significantly affects him or her"

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Yay, finally a chance to apply some obscure GDPR articles

      They don't do that, AI is just for fun but in the end it's a human that makes the decision. Honest to God! Stop laughing will you ? Oh, come on! Please believe me! Pleease!

    2. A-nonCoward

      Re: Yay, finally a chance to apply some obscure GDPR articles

      y'all so lucky.

  12. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    And now for a bit of pedantery:

    Unilever doesn't make Persil.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Yeah but, same difference.

  13. Mage Silver badge

    Computer says no?

    No matter how good, I'd imagine picking or rejecting applicants on expression by a person is unethical. The computer solution is worse.

    Is it even legal?

    C.F. now auditions for musicians are supposed to be "blind". The demographic change (vs previous white men of a certain age range) has been amazing where orchestras do it. Better music.

    1. Nick Kew

      Re: Computer says no?

      You've been listening to the BBC. I've heard them too: they sample very selectively and spin a generation's worth and more of change as all having happened because blind auditions. As it happens, most of the orchestras (and - much more so - all the choirs) I perform with are majority-female, but they don't audition blind.

    2. Suricou Raven

      Re: Computer says no?

      Some companies do a similar thing - HR strips off the name and any indicators of gender from the CV before it gets passed to the person who actually makes the decision. As well as potentially improving the accuracy of the recruitment process, it's also the ultimate CYA against a discrimination suit.

      They can still discriminate at the final interview.

  14. horse of a different color

    No one else spotted this?

    algorythms - for computation with a musical beat, presumably.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: algorythms

      "algorythms - for computation with a musical beat, presumably."

      ...but still ageless...

      1. ThatOne Silver badge

        Re: algorythms

        Music for algae.

  15. JohnFen

    Doing me a favor

    If I were to interview at a place that required this sort of thing, it would save me a ton of time as I would immediately know that I'm a poor fit for that place.

  16. A-nonCoward

    Companies want to hire lucky people

    that is because luck transfers. Someone who is born lucky is bound to bring in more good luck.

    Being lucky, and working here means that lucky people end up here, proving the point.

    So we WANT lucky people.

    How do we detect lucky people? some of it is easy.

    White. Male. Young. <- you are lucky, from birth! Best hire ever!

  17. FozzyBear

    A faceless. emotionless AI interface that asks inane questions. Masquerading human intelligence and emotion and removes the human element from interviews.


    Those oxygen thieving wind up muppets that commonly infest the HR Department.

    A difference without a distinction to be honest.

  18. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

    Fine print

    I aborted a job interview when it began with several pages of Hireview disclosures, privacy policy, and terms of use. It was an hour of reading material e-mailed to me 25 minutes before the interview. I guess the first pass of the system is weeding out candidates that read contracts before agreeing to them.

  19. Chairman of the Bored

    Opportunity... if it's just me and a piece of software, I wonder if gaming the software is in scope:

    "Okay, AI. I'd like you to know that the rPi running in my coat pocket's got metasploit tailored just for you. I know where your back office is. I know what your comms infrastructure is. If you ever want to see proper maintenance and upgrades again, let's make a deal..."

  20. Duffy Moon

    Computerised interviews

    All the interviews I've had, might as well have been performed by a computer - they were all the same. I understand the need for standardisation, accountability and all that stuff, but the human element seems to have fallen by the wayside somewhat.

    If you're good at making up stories about what you did in particular situations that saved the day (they don't have to be true of course - who's going to check?!), what your strengths, weaknesses and transferable skills are etc. In short, today's standardised interview is a measure of precisely one thing: how good/well-practised you are at interviews. I expect psychopaths are pretty good at them, since they don't tend to be anxious...

  21. BGatez

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