In Unilever’s Radical Hiring Experiment, Resumes Are Out, Algorithms Are In

To diversify its candidate pool, the company relies on software to sort applicants and targets potential hires on their smartphones


By Kelsey Gee

 When Saniya Jaffer arrived for a job interview at Unilever PLC’s Englewood Cliffs, N.J., office last October, she was a finalist for a summer position in information technology. After three rounds of interviews and assessments, the Chicago-native was about to encounter the first human in the process.

Before then, 21-year-old Ms. Jaffer had filled out a job application, played a set of online games and submitted videos of herself responding to questions about how she’d tackle challenges of the job. The reason she found herself in front of a hiring manager? A series of algorithms recommended her.

A radical hiring experiment is under way at the London-based maker of Dove soap and Axe deodorant. To diversify its candidate pool for early-career roles that are a fast track to management, Unilever has ditched resumes and traditional campus recruiting. Its new process relies on algorithms to sort applicants and targets young potential hires where they spend much of their time: their smartphones.

The company has made more than 450 hires across the globe this way since the fall of 2016. Its experiment provides a glimpse of a tech-fueled future of recruiting in which humans write job descriptions and make the final decisions, but software and algorithms do the rest. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Jet.com have begun using similar digital tools to hook young workers and broaden their candidate base.

Since young people live their lives online, Unilever decided to use the internet to recruit beyond the eight or so schools where recruiters had traditionally sought hires, said Mike Clementi, a Unilever human-resources executive.

“With all of the information readily available to us today about job candidates, why would we still choose to go to a small handful of college campuses?” Mr. Clementi said.

To get the word out about jobs, Unilever placed targeted advertisements on Facebook and career-advice sites such as WayUp and the Muse. Those who clicked on the ads were directed to a career site where they could apply for entry-level jobs and internships in just a few clicks, since Unilever pulls information from the candidate’s LinkedIn profile to fill out the application. An algorithm scans those applications—275,400 in all so far—
to surface candidates who meet a given role’s requirements. The software weeds out more than half of the pool, according to Unilever spokeswoman Joelle Hutcheon.

Candidates are then asked to play a set of 12 short online games designed to assess skills like concentration under pressure and short-term memory. The top third of those students or fewer are invited to submit video interviews on HireVue, through a website or app, answering questions about how they would respond to business challenges encountered on the job.

At both steps, artificial-intelligence can filter anywhere from 60% to 80% of candidates, Ms. Hutcheon said. To determine which candidates are most likely to be successful at Unilever, the AI uses data points such as how quickly they respond to questions, their facial expressions and vocabulary.

The first step involving direct human judgment is the last step, a final in-person interview with Unilever human-resources executives and managers. Last fall across the U.S. and Canada, around 300 candidates interviewed in person for 200 positions.

Unilever says hiring has become faster and more accurate—80% of applicants who make it to the final round now get job offers, and a similar number accept—and saved on recruiting costs, too, though Mr. Clementi wouldn’t say how much. Applicants hailed from more than 2,600 colleges for positions in the U.S. and Canada, tripling the numbers
of schools in its previous applicant pool.

“It was definitely a weird feeling to know that robots are judging you,” said Jordan Vesey, 21, a Pennsylvania
State University student currently interning with Unilever’s customerdevelopment team in New Jersey.

Andy McAllister,a Unilever director of supply chain, was skeptical that algorithms could successfully choose his interns. Having attended University of Maryland job fairs and other events for years, “it felt like we were taking away the personal touch,” he said.

Mr. McAllister became a convert after meeting the program finalists last fall. The caliber of students visiting the Englewood Cliffs headquarters for interviews with Unilever employees was as strong, or stronger, as the candidates he had hand-selected the prior year, he said.

“There’s tremendous opportunity here,” said Mr. McAllister, adding the changes prompted him to realize that the previous recruiting tactics left room for bias, since recruiters often compare applicants against their own experiences and unconsciously root for students they personally interview.

Algorithms alone cannot remove bias in the hiring process, since humans choose the traits they want software to look for, said Jeanette Maister, whose London-based staffing firm World Careers Network PLC recently began selling AI-enhanced recruiting services.

Unilever spokeswoman Ms. Hutcheon said it’s too early to say whether the new hiring practices correlate with stronger employees, adding that the company is closely tracking those hires’ success. Still, the company is rolling out its digital recruiting program world-wide, hiring for entry-level roles this way from Brazil to Indonesia.

“The new generation of matching technology is like Google in the world of Yellow Pages —we had a way of finding things before, but Google found a way to do it better,” said Frida Polli,chief executive of Pymetrics, which made the games used in Unilever’s hiring.


This article was supplied by The Wall Street Journal and was originally published on 27 June 2017.

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