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Don’t Talk To Me About Recruitment Algorithms

By October 9, 20145 Comments

The word “algorithm” still makes me shudder, even 25 years on from when I reached my limit in the mathematics field.  I’ve always found basic maths pretty easy and managed to complete GCSE Maths (UK version of NCEA level 1…I think…) in a year rather than the usual two, getting a grade A to boot.  Problem was this didn’t mean scoring an extra free couple of hours each week to slope off into town instead, oh no.  Instead it meant doing a year’s study towards “AS-Level” Maths, which sits between GCSE and A-Level and is the UK education system’s equivalent of a Para-Consultant, some confused limbo-like recruiter neither managing candidates nor meeting clients, and generally regarded with distrust by the rest of the business.

I went from an A to a Fail in the space of one year and I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with discovering girls and cigarettes around the same time.  Instead I apportion blame on the replacing of words like multiplication and algebra, with ramping up study to things like calculus and…yes…algorithms.  It was a step too far for my young mind, especially a mind getting particularly deep about the lyrics of Guns ‘n Roses.

Algorithms didn’t really feature in my life again until after Uni, sat in a pub, when a song came on the jukebox that no-one in our group could remember its name and the knackered jukebox refused to cough up either.  Then one of our group did something incredible.  They typed a code into their mobile phone (NOT a smart-phone, note), held it aloft for about 20 seconds, and then the green screen blinked and there, in resplendent black digits, was the name of song and artist.  I was amazed.  I asked him how the hell it did that and, being a student of “Communication Studies” said, “Errr….I dunno.”

It was, of course, Shazam, which was pointed out to us by a neighbouring student who probably studied something to do with numbers due to his obviously lacking social skills and description of things like algorithms and acoustic fingerprints.  I wasn’t best pleased to hear about algorithms again then, believing instead that it must surely be some guys sitting in a room listening to the song and quickly discussing what song it was before texting back the answer (an assumption amazingly true for Card Munch which always makes me smile).

But having spent the last decade in the recruitment industry I am coming across the use of algorithms more and more every day.  Or I should say, the attempted use.  It seems to have become the cause celebre of disenfranchised recruiters or opportunistic technologists (or combination of both) to build a software product that removes the need for 3rd Party Recruiters from the hiring process.  It’s no surprise really.  We are an industry with low barrier to entry, but high returns of profits for those who are good at it.  Easy targets, some might say, and easy targets we are as more and more clever people try to make us irrelevant with technology.

The latest article was out yesterday, this time some PR issued via Australia’s Business Insider declaring that “The Recruitment Industry Could Be About To Face Its ‘Uber’ Moment” due to something called Expr3ss! (exclamation mark included):

“…Creating an algorithm which automates candidate selection, Expr3ss founder Glyn Brokensha told Business Insider the number of recruitment startups is growing and they’re reducing friction across the hiring process.

“We’ve got [recruiters] on the ropes,” he said.”

Hmmm.  It seems to me like the use of the word “algorithm” *shudder* has become some kind of weapon to wield against the traditional, the tried, the tested.  It’s something where you can capture Intellectual Property, which can’t be done in the ethereal thoughts of a human brain, and the capturing of IP is where start-up owners can start to dream big, start to dream of the day Google will come knocking.  But the reality is that they’re usually pretty useless when compared to a recruiter’s mind, capable of emotional intelligence (often covering for the lack of actual intelligence in many recruiters), reason, influence, empathy and, yes, guile to achieve the desired outcome.

Naturally a spokesman for the large corporate global brand side of our industry was wheeled out, decrying all this fancy new talk as nonsense.  In this case Phillip Guest from Michael Page, but it’s usually the same predictable (albeit accurate) response necessary to protect their global interests and shareholder’s moods.  I think (and not for the first time) that Matt Charney probably puts it best though.  When asked recently “Will software programs and computers replace recruiters?” he responded saying:

“Software and computers won’t replace recruiters, because it’s unlikely you’ll develop an algorithm that can effectively overcome objections, represent a culture, and actually build a relationship with candidates. Even if we get really close, Asimov’s laws (which have worked so far) tell us that we’ll never trust our emotions to robots, and those emotions are what recruiting is all about.”

So I think that, for now, those recruiters who are skilled at recruiting, at an emotional level rather than just a process level, and are well-networked experts in their field, don’t have too much to worry about.  But then again, I heard through a third party this week, of one very prominent agency recruitment leader in Auckland who believes structural changes in our industry are less than two years away, and that the change will be fueled by big data and analytics helping the decision-making process rather than using the experience and consultative skill of recruiters…

Sigh…here we go again.

Jonathan Rice

MD at New Zealand rec-to-rec firm Rice Consulting and co-founder of on-demand recruiter offering Joyn. Recruitment agitator and frustrated idealist, father of two, husband of one, and lover of all things Arsenal and crafty beer.


  • Scott says:

    Hey Jonathan,

    Long time reader, first time commenter!

    I recruit in a technical space and the majority of my briefs are the result of an organisations failure to identify resources that meet the cultural, behavioural and leadership requirements of a role, this technology entirely fails to address those issues so naturally I’m not overly concerned – a piece of technology needs to solve a problem, this just facilitates the same failures of existing processes, especially if the ‘algorithm’ is simply being applied to the same pool of active job board talent that an organisation already has access to.

    The feedback about this kind of technology in the US and the damage it does to employer brands (which I’m guessing you’ve read about) should be a consideration to businesses going down this path. There might be a place for this technology, but I hardly think it’s the end of the modern day recruitment consultant.

    • Thanks Scott, first of many comments I hope! The potential damage to employer brand is a very good point, but this wouldn’t be the first instance of companies sacrificing brand integrity and customer service for technology-based cost-cutting measures, sadly.

  • Spot on, Jon. I can’t get excited about algorithms taking over recruitment either. Matt’s comment says it all – these entrepreneurs seem to think finding candidates is what recruitment is all about. As well all know, finding the candidate is just the beginning of what a skilled recruiter does. Good luck to the shareholders of Expr3ss!, history suggests they’ll need it. So far the recruitment industry has continued to grow in the Internet Age and I predict it will continue to do so, despite the regular media headlines to the contrary.

  • Matt Charney says:

    Great post – and impeccable citations. Can’t wait to meet you in person, since you’re apparently my antipodal doppelganger.