Can AI Screen for Purpose?

Organizations need more motivated employees, says best-selling author Dan Goleman, but automated job application systems could be inadvertently screening those candidates out. 

Daniel Goleman is author of the international best-seller Emotional Intelligence and Optimal: How to Sustain Personal and Organizational Excellence Every Day. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

Although unemployment in the US is near all-time lows, layoffs occupy the headlines. A big tech firm reduces VP positions from 300 to 250. A logistics company cuts 2,000 jobs in layoffs in Europe. Retailers, consumer-products groups, entertainment companies, and others are all reducing their workforces in an effort to curb expenses.

While layoffs are a dreaded part of a leader’s job, hiring may not be any easier. As AI becomes a more integral part of the process, the pros and cons are something leaders will continue to wrestle with.

Pros: AI has upped recruiter productivity and, in some companies, dramatically decreased the time it takes to hire.

Cons: Automated screening tools are rejecting qualified applicants even before their résumé makes it in front of an actual human.  According to data reported by Korn Ferry, 75% of résumés are rejected by applicant-tracking systems, AI-powered or otherwise.

The rejection rate wouldn’t be a problem if the number of successful hires was actually panning out. But the opposite appears to be true: 93% of hiring managers said they were having problems finding the skilled professionals they need and 67% of large companies say lack of talent is the main reason they haven’t filled open positions.

This brings to mind a familiar adage in the business world: “Hire for culture, train for skill.” The thinking is that it’s far easier to develop someone's skills than it is to change their values. Bringing in employees who are on board with the mission, purpose, and motivating values of the organization often results in higher retention and greater productivity. As many of the Best Places to Work will tell you, hiring for culture fit is an essential strategy towards long-term success.

This means AI needs to not only scan résumés but also pick up on the subtle cues that indicate someone is aligned with the deeper ethos of the organization. We all know that purpose is something that doesn’t always come through on a résumé. Instead, it’s often observed in the way someone perks up when they talk about values or mission; the stories someone tells that hold meaning for them; and the small things people communicate in conversation that transcend their list of degrees.

As Korn Ferry’s CEO, Gary Burnison, recently shared, “We know them when we see them—those people who are different. They love what they do.”

Burnison describes some of these people: that person who greets you by name at the grocery store, or the healthcare professional who looks you in the eye and assures you everything will be okay.

“It’s not just what they do—it’s who they are,” Burnison points out. “They believe. And that’s how the show goes on.”

The people that are getting laid off in these weeks and months are the same ones whose résumés will be floating around applicant tracking systems. Some of these people may be the ones who leaders in their former company tried desperately to hold onto – the ones no one wanted to let go because they were so committed and team-oriented.

They may have been the believers – the ones who went above and beyond but left because their entire department got downsized or eliminated.

They may be the most passion-filled and purposeful employees out there – the ones who would make a great addition to any team no matter the industry or business.

According to the Society of Human Resources Professionals, on average, more than 40% of large firms are using some sort of AI in their recruiting process. AI tools scan résumés for keywords, and sort candidates according to a variety of metrics.

But can they assess for purpose and passion?

Probably not.

After all, the great things that make us human can’t always be measured by technology. Until AI can look someone in the eye and really see what holds meaning for them, it may not give companies the new employees that actually move the needle. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon


Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.