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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 38
Artificial intelligence

Is an algorithm your next hiring manager?

11 May 2023

Have you ever talked to a computer during an interview? Have you ever been made aware of a machine screening your application and CV? Or did you get the impression that you had been selected by an algorithm for a job you interviewed for? And how did this make you feel? In this edition of the Future of Work podcast series we want to explore the rising use of Artificial Intelligence in the hiring process. And to explore this topic, we could not have a better guest than Mona Sloane, Research Assistant Professor at the New York University (NYU) Tandon School of Engineering and Senior Research Scientist at the NYU Center for Responsible AI.

Mona Sloane shares with us her research on the uses of AI in recruitment, specifically experiences of both recruiters and tech vendors that have specialised in this field. She shares with us her insights in how AI shifts, changes and shapes professional decision making in the profession of recruiting. We talk with her about the importance of transparency and ethical use of AI tools in recruitment, and the role policy makers and trade unions should play in this process.



Hello and welcome to this edition of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

I'm Ekkehard Ernst, Economist at the ILO.

I'm Ayisha Piotti,

Director of Artificial Intelligence Policy at the Centre for Law

and Economics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich,

as well as the Managing Partner of the Swiss-based firm, RegHorizon.

This edition of the Future of Work podcast

is a coproduction with Geneva Macro Labs, RegHorizon,

and the Centre for Law and Economics at the ETH Zurich.

Have you ever talked to a computer during an interview?

Have you ever been made aware of a machine screening your CV,

or did you ever get the impression that you had been selected

by an algorithm for a job you interviewed for?

How did this make you feel?

Today, we want to explore the rising use

of artificial intelligence in the hiring process.

To explore this topic,

we could not have a better guest than Mona Sloane.

Mona is Research Assistant Professor

at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering

and Senior Research Scientist at the NYU Center for Responsible AI.

She's also Principal Investigator at the Tübingen AI Center

of the EbEkkehard Karls University Tübingen in Germany.

Mona, welcome to the Future of Work podcast.

As you have worked extensively on the role of AI in the hiring process,

can you tell us a bit more about your research?

Of course. Thank you so much, Ekkehard and Ayisha, for having me.

It is an absolute pleasure to be here.

I am very happy to talk about my work.

I should say that I am a sociologist, and as such,

I am mostly interested generally in the ways in which AI expresses

and constitutes social relations

and how AI has become integral to how we organize society.

One of my main interests is how AI affects

discretionary decision-making in the professions

and in recruiting specifically.

I currently conduct extensive research,

extensive qualitative research by way of interviews with recruiters,

with talent acquisition managers, with sourcers,

and also with HR tech vendors

to understand how AI shifts and changes

and shapes professional decision-making in the profession of recruiting.

Excellent. Thank you.

We have heard that policymakers

have become increasingly active to ensure safe

and fair use of these tools

and to prevent discrimination during the hiring process.

The European Union, for instance, has been particularly active,

but we also see regulatory activity in other countries,

such as the United States, where you are based.

Mona, you're based in New York, in particular,

can you tell us a bit more about

the discussion among policymakers in the US

and compare this with the situation

in Europe that you also know very well?

Thank you for that great question.

I think it's very important

to have a good understanding

how AI regulation is forming on both sides of the pond, as it were.

Indeed, there's a similar spirit but a very different approach

to how policymakers actually come at the problem of AI regulation.

In Europe, of course, we have the European Commission,

who has crafted the EU AI Act

that we are all expecting to kick in sometime this year.

That regulation is what we would call an omnibus regulation,

so a big regulatory framework that has been in the making

for a very long time that has one approach

for AI as a sort of almost super technology

that affects all areas of social life.

That approach is risk-based.

We have almost a top-down way of mitigating

the risk that AI is posing potentially to citizens and to society.

Then in the United States, on the federal level,

we have comparable attempts

in that there are attempts to introduce

bills that similarly regulate AI

as a general purpose technology.

For example, we had the Algorithmic Act that was introduced in 2019,

but those haven't really come to fruition yet.

What we see instead in the United States is a more localized

approach whereby local policymakers either on the state level

or on the even more local level, so in city governments,

approach specific AI problems in smaller regulatory frameworks.

This is a phenomenon that Stefaan Verhulst,

the co-director of the GovLab, and I have called AI localism.

In AI localism, we have, as I said, specific problems that are addressed.

One of the flagship bills that we have here

in New York on AI is, indeed,

on the use of AI tools in hiring and employment.

That bill was signed into law last year.

It was supposed to be enacted in January 2023.

It's currently a little bit on pause because regulators realized

that they wanted a little bit more input from stakeholders.

That bill has very specific mandates

with regards to how, essentially,

AI-driven technology in the HR sector

is being assessed as it enters the market and affects recruiting.

Very, very interesting, actually.

Indeed, we see the regulatory landscape changing, right?

You talked about EU, you talked about New York.

At the same time, I think we are also seeing much higher pressure

from the civil society for companies to, in fact,

comply not only with these changing rules

but also to ensure ethical development

and deployment of these technologies.

How do you see, Mona, companies handling this?

Specifically in terms of providers of AI tools, in your experience,

how are they reacting to these rising demands

and these additional requirements?

That is a great question, Ayisha.

The interesting thing about AI in recruiting

or AI in HR is that it often is sold

as the solution to human bias.

We do know that HR and recruiting, particularly,

has forever been prone to human bias.

It's a problem.

Employment discrimination is an old problem.

Employment discrimination is a problem that is addressed through existing

and long-standing non-tech-focused regulation, both in Europe, of course,

and in the United States.

Some of these technologies are marketed

as actually fixing various kinds of bias in the recruiting

and assessment process.

That's I think an important piece of information.

When it comes to questions around compliance,

we really are a little bit in a limbo space right now,

whereby we know a lot about the regulatory frameworks

and regulatory approaches but they haven't actually been passed yet.

Again, we're waiting for the EU AI Act.

The New York City bill hasn't kicked in yet either.

There are various bills that have kicked in, for example,

the Illinois Interview Act, which focuses on regulating, specifically,

interviewing software that is used in the recruiting process.

Other than that, we're still waiting for those regulations to fully kick in

and to see what compliance actually looks like.

That means when I talk to companies who design these tools

and deploy these tools and make money off these tools, they do,

of course, have a pressing interest in either being told

or finding out what sufficient compliance

actually could look like because, of course,

not knowing is a risk for them.

I think there is an urgent need actually

for innovating compliance

in the context of AI regulation.

The reason why I'm saying that is because we have this uncertainty

going on, and in absence of clearer guidelines,

we will inevitably fall

into a precedent rhythm whereby powerful actors

will show us what an interpretation of this legislation could look like.

That doesn't necessarily mean

that those precedents are truly independent

or they are sufficient.

I think we really need an investment,

and I mean that quite literally into figuring out

what compliance in the HR regulatory space could look like.

I think it's imperative that money is made

available for this as a research problem, as a problem for NGOs,

for interdisciplinary research, for collaborations with industry,

of course, with standards bodies, and so on,

but it is currently a little bit of a race

to define what compliance means by precedent, I would say.

Oh, I think that's really relevant, right?

What you've pointed out is this gap in a way that exists.

On the one hand, we're asking for compliance,

we're saying you should be doing many of these things,

but it's not so clear.

Thank you for that. Very clear.

When I talk to trade union activists, in particular,

but I think that's also true for people at business associations

or employees association,

I often get the impression that there's a strong sense

of urgency to address the challenges also that you mentioned

and others that these AI hiring tools pose while, at the same time,

there's a lack of knowledge

as to where and how these tools are being currently used,

and so what dangers they might pose.

We hear a lot about biases and discrimination,

but I think there's a lack of understanding,

what are these potential dangers that we haven't really fully understood,

and in particular, how trade unions can best support their members.

In your view, how should trade unions address these issues,

and how can policymakers support them, for instance,

by requiring HR departments to fully disclose the use of such tools?

Thank you, Ekkehard.

That also is a great and extremely important question.

I want to start answering that by stating that very often,

AI technology can lead

to a furthering of power imbalances,

just by way of being very complex

and being infrastructural to various organizational processes

or business processes in that AI technologies get secretly

or quietly embedded into existing processes

without knowledge of all the stakeholders

or literacy around how these tools work, what their assumptions are,

what data they're collecting, how they're analyzing the data

and interacting dynamically with the environments

that they're being embedded into.

That's a general sociotechnical dynamic that is unfolding.

Of course, it becomes quite acute

when we have a growth of the mediating role

that this technology plays vis-a-vis workers and employers.

Because AI always is a scaling technology,

it's deployed to increase efficiencies in decision-making

and organizational decision-making,

so the opaqueness that is baked into the system is also scaled up

when that happens.

I think, at the minimum,

what should be required really is that,

as you said, Ekkehard,

HR departments provide registries for their workers stating,

"These are the technologies that we're using."

When they are large corporations

and they have significant purchasing power in the HR tech market,

so let's say McDonald's is buying a license for a tool, they have,

of course, significant purchasing power.

They could mandate more transparency from the AI vendor and could,

for example, as part of the licensing or purchasing process,

require more AI transparency and explainability.

For example, they could ask,

"What are the assumptions that you bake into your system?

What is the data that you're using?

What are you optimizing for?

What are the possibilities for AI transparency that can be provided

for the people that get enrolled into the use of the system,

so the workers?"

I think that is something that trade unions can concretely ask for,

so basically, create a space in which AI transparency

and explainability is mandated by way of purchasing

power because I think that's the more effective way.

Then, of course, I want to give a shout-out to Dr. Christina Colclough,

who runs the Why Not Lab and works a lot

with trade unions on the threats

and challenges, but also opportunities of new technology,

specifically AI technology.

There's a lot of need for increased literacy, of course, here.

I think that is something where trade unions

can more actively engage with scholars

and researchers but also with NGOs

who are working on these problems.

The space of accountable, fair,

and transparent AI is large and it is growing,

and there's a lot of appetite for impact

and for collaborations with organizations such as trade unions.

I think that's another thing that trade unionists could embark upon.

Mona, thank you so much, actually, for what you've shared.

What I see a little bit here is, of course,

the need for the work councils to be aware of what is happening and,

of course, to be involved, essentially.

I'm just wondering because I heard something in Germany.

I believe they have a process, which is in place.

I don't remember if this is because of the law

or it's just a practice where this is done.

I was just wondering if you know a bit more about it

and if you could share that

and also whether such a system of co-creation or consultation

would make sense in other parts of the world as well.

Yes, thank you for that question.

I will say that I'm not an expert in that regulation,

specifically in Germany.

I have read about it a little bit, but I'm not an expert.

What I can say as a native German but also as someone

who has conducted a little bit of research

on co-determination in German companies

is that the social organization

of a worker's council in Germany has tradition.

There's traditionally strong worker representation

and participation in fundamental decisions about an organization

by way of the elected workers' council representatives.

It is somewhat unsurprising that an important topic,

such as the use of AI systems in the selection assessment

and the evaluation of workers,

is a workers' council topic in that workers' council

representatives engage actively in questions around that.

What I'm trying to say here is that this participation

in questions around the use of AI and hiring assessment

and evaluation flows from the strong worker organization,

worker representation in German organizations.

It is not something that flows from tech regulation.

That is something I think that's really interesting

and relevant to understand

the cultural specificity but then to also explore,

can tech regulation actually be interpreted

as a way to strengthen worker organization and worker participation?

Almost to flip the script, if we look at it in other cultural contexts,

and if you look in the US, interestingly enough,

over the past three to four to five years,

we've actually had increased unionization,

actually in the tech sector among "white-collar workers"

and solidarity movements with "blue-collar workers,"

such as the Amazon warehouse workers.

There is something really interesting

that is going on here around worker organizing

and technology-driven organizational decision-making,

control, and surveillance.

Yes, that's how I would respond to that question.

I love that.

I think this idea of flipping it,

and perhaps that could be something to be looked more into,

I think absolutely.

Thank you for sharing that.

Yes, I think it's a great way of closing this podcast.

Mona, thank you very much for joining us today.

If you want to find out more about Mona's work and research,

you can find links on the web page of this podcast and on the ILO website.

My thanks also to Ayisha Piotti,

who you have been a wonderful co-moderator.

For now, let me wish you goodbye.

I hope you will join us again soon

for another edition of the ILO Future of Work podcast.