Hidden Consequences of Online Screening
By: Dr. Helen Ofosu
Hidden Consequences of Online Screening
Last week I discussed how ‘hitting the streets’ with a resume in hand is a distant memory for many of us. For more recent graduates, it is nothing short of a nostalgic legend told by their parents and/or older contacts (click here to read part one of this blog post). In 2017, job hunting often means sitting at your computer for endless hours at home, typing yes or no to very strict and constrained screening questionnaires.
In some respects, online screening has replaced the skill of a well-structured, human-to-human interview. Although what I wrote last week might look like a nod to the ‘good old days’ of applying for jobs in person, I do recognize the advantages that business owners and hiring managers have when they use online screening methods. As with many things, the devil is in the details. In this context, my concern is more about what happens when these screening tools are not used well. I’m not entirely sold on how frequently these tools are relied upon or the implications of how they are actually used in practice.
For example, one of my more mature clients expressed total defeat over the phone, noting that navigating the web for work is just not going to be in her best interest.
“Maybe I’m just too old for what the employers are looking for? Each time I come across a job description I see things like ‘Must be able to adapt to flexible hours … looking for recent graduates with a Master degree(s) … or seeking fresh, vibrant workers.” This client is highly attuned to coded language, and because she has kids (which limits the flexible schedule requirement) and ‘only’ has a Bachelor’s degree from 13 years ago she already knows they aren’t looking for someone like her. (I’ve addressed the issues of academic inflation and the perceived need for a degree in previous blog posts.) Similarly, I hear from younger job seekers that they also feel ‘cut off at the knee’ by these super-specific online screening questionnaires and application processes. They find it hard to qualify for many positions because employers often expect 5 to 10 years of experience for positions that seem entry-level.
Now I realize some of you might think, “But don’t online job assessments and applications help filter, if not entirely prevent an employer/organization from rejecting someone due to their age or overall appearance?” The short answer to this is no. The main goal of online screening is to automatically focus on the essential criteria in applicants’ answers and applications to see if their background is a good fit for the role and organization. In theory, this should prevent the possibility of human bias. The problem that I see is that often the screening criteria prevent qualified people from applying. For instance, when a position as an Administrative Assistant requires a degree and 5 to 10 years of experience, many people with a suitable college diploma and 3 or 4 years of relevant experience are screened out from this fairly entry-level job. These people with transferable skills that they could instantly apply if they were hired don’t ever make it to the interview where they could normally make their strong case for being chosen. When poorly implemented, this screening method is creating many virtual barriers for high potential candidates who will never be considered for the position or receive the opportunity to be interviewed in person.
As an associate half-joked with me over this very topic said:
“I’m glad I have a stable job that I’ve stayed in for 20 years, because today, if I was applying for work online I would need to be fully bilingual just to answer the phone, have a Ph.D. or several degrees to stand out, and be willing to relocate at the drop of a hat. Not to mention the expectation that I have decades of work experience and am fully trained in a field/system even before getting the actual position. Who is this perfect employee? A unicorn?”
From where I stand, online screening casts a wide net in terms of high volumes of applications, but the prevalence of real opportunities where qualified people with relevant transferable skills can actually get the job seems to be getting smaller.
There are at least three ways online screening becomes problematic:
Online questions and descriptions can discriminate against candidates at both ends of the age spectrum. These algorithms can intentionally or unintentionally rule out younger and more mature applicants. “Willing to work flexible hours” often tilts things to favour younger staff who will tolerate an unpredictable schedule and/or last-minute overtime. A question like, “are you a recent graduate?” screens out a whole group of more experienced workers who graduated decades ago. The same question can also weed out younger contenders who are fresh out of school if the organization wants to avoid investing in any training (see this previous blog post on ageism).
These online screening questionnaires and criteria can create unanticipated problems. Sometimes, the person setting up the screening process hastily checks boxes to add screening criteria in a way that prevents suitable candidates from making it past the initial screening. For example, if a nonprofit is hiring a new manager, is it really essential that all applicants have a certain number of years of experience within the nonprofit sector? Isn’t it possible that someone who is coming from the government or a socially conscious business enterprise can do the job just as well? Fundamentally, I think it’s essential that the people tasked with setting the screening criteria understand the difference between what the right applicant needs to know from the first day on the job versus what they can learn on the job in the early days/weeks (learn more about this Bring vs. Learn Distinction in a previous blog post).
Those with observable and hidden disabilities might encounter trouble when completing online screening questions. Questionnaires that require a valid Driver’s License despite the fact that the job doesn’t involve driving inserts unnecessary negative bias into the process. During an interview, a candidate may note that they live two blocks away from the workplace … or they may have a condition or circumstances that are easy to explain that would not have a negative impact on their ability to perform the work. Due to the screening process, that candidate would never have an opportunity to explain the obvious and demonstrate that they are suitable for the vacant position.
Sometimes, these online job application websites are confusing to navigate even for someone who is fairly tech-savvy. This can make the screening process even more intimidating and discouraging for someone who has dyslexia or another challenge but who would do well in an actual interview and even better on the job.
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