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STATEHOUSE REEDER: With job screening, human intelligence better than AI

SPRINGFIELD – A bill sits on Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk that would make Illinois the first in the nation to regulate the use of artificial intelligence in job interviews.

When I was reading about the legislation I was scratching my head.

What exactly is going on here?

Well, employers are creating video recordings of job applicants during interviews and then feeding the video into a computer program to analyze facial expressions and voice intonations to see if the candidate is a good fit for the job.

But can’t you tell those things by, you know, listening and watching during the interview?

I have interviewed a lot of job candidates over the years.

Almost 20 years ago, a fellow showed up for a job interview wearing a beret so cockeyed it almost slid off his head. He also wore a Daffy Duck necktie and a Yoda watch with ears extending three inches from each side of his wrist. 

I glanced at his resume and said, “I see you moved to Illinois from California. What brought you to the Midwest?”

“Well, came here to join a commune.”

I smiled and said. “Well, usually folks go to California to join a commune not the other way around.”

The candidate looked me in the eye and said, “Yes, but this is where the spaceship is going to land.” 

I didn’t need artificial intelligence to tell me this wasn’t someone to hire.

My dad was a farmer who hired lots of folks over the years. The first thing he’d do is shake the job candidate’s hand to feel for calluses. Then he’d hand the person a bolt and ask what size wrench they would use on it.

I remember after one interview my Dad looked at me and said, “That fellow had hands like a preacher. I’m not hiring him.”

One of my favorite tactics when interviewing reporter candidates was to hand them an assignment when they came in the door and tell them they had two hours to gather the information and write the story.

The real test was to see how applicants would respond to deadline pressure.

I remember one fellow who stared blankly at a telephone on his desk for two hours. Other, more successful candidates would hurry through the Illinois Capitol pounding on doors and asking questions. 

I suppose we could record such encounters and feed them into a computer.

But I don’t need a computer to tell me what a blank non-comprehending expression looks like or when a job candidate is trying hard.

One of my favorite questions to ask applicants is: What is your greatest disappointment? I ask the question because I like to hire self-starters and risk takers. And I have yet to meet a risk taker who hasn’t experienced disappointment. 

That said, it has elicited some interesting responses. One candidate started babbling about his divorce and stalking his ex-wife. (I didn’t hire him.)

But other candidates gave heartfelt answers about accepting difficult jobs or taking a class they knew would be challenging. I like those types of candidates, even those who failed, because they were willing to take a risk.

But some employers are moving away from these types of interviews and letting a computer do some of the thinking.

According to the Wall Street Journal about 100 major corporations — places like Hilton and Unilever — use artificial intelligence to assess applicants during interviews. 

The folks who produce these computer programs claim they can screen for customer empathy, teamwork and problem solving. 

The measure passed by the legislature would require employers to notify job interviewees that AI will be used to analyze their facial expressions and vocal intonations. 

The bill also requires employers to obtain consent from job applicants to be subjected to an AI analysis or to give them a chance to opt out. Employers may not share the videos and must destroy them if the applicant requests.

But I’m skeptical of the technology. When it comes to screening job applicants, I’ll take human intelligence over artificial intelligence any day.

SCOTT REEDER is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.

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