As COVID-19 continues to spread — as of the time of writing (March 12), there were over 139,600 confirmed cases and over 5,100 deaths — companies are increasingly adopting alternatives to in-person job interviews and talent recruitment. Recruiters PageGroup and Robert Walters have announced plans to move some job interviews and interactions online, following on the heels of tech giants Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Intel.

At least a few have begun piloting AI recruitment and candidate screening tools that promise to help recruiters become more efficient in identifying job candidates, cut down on recruitment costs, and boost overall candidate satisfaction. That’s in spite of fears that these tools might exhibit biases against certain groups of candidates.

CEO Sam Zheng, the CEO of Curious Thing, which uses a voice-based AI to invite applicants to interviews and deliver analytics and shortlisting suggestions, says he’s seen a measurable uptick in business since early February. He attributes it to realizations on the part of organizations that AI tools have unique advantages to offer.

“Moving toward a remote-friendly workforce is one key trend of the future of work,” Zheng told VentureBeat via email. “Being able to interview [and] screen candidates at scale remotely is an important component of it. I think the current [COVID-19] situation may have accelerated this trend by 2-3 years — the trend of ‘hiring remotely and working remotely’ … will become the new norm, especially for high volume roles.”

Sanjoe Jose, the CEO of Talview, agrees with that sentiment. His startup provides an AI-powered recruitment platform that supports video interviews, online assessments, and insight-capturing chatbots.

“[We] are seeing a significant increase in inquiries … and a significant increase in usage from existing customers as people who were [conducting] 30-40% of hiring virtually are now moving almost everything online,” Jose said. “While moving remote was the immediate response, customers are also keen to explore how to be more efficient, as many are running short of people or struggling to cope up with the change … In the past, specific events within companies that made them use Talview has resulted in those customers continuing that way even after the specific need was met because they realized the benefits.”

What are the benefits of such tools, tangibly speaking? According to a 2018 survey conducted by Knockri, an AI video-based skills assessment startup, companies using its screening suite see up to a 62% reduction in costs and a 68% drop in time when filling positions. Job-matching platform Eightfold claims that across the millions of applications its AI has processed, recruiters have observed a 200% increase in quality candidates. And AllyO, whose tools tap conversational AI to quickly identify qualified job seekers, says its customers have registered 91% increases in candidate satisfaction on average.

Julia Pollak, ZipRecruiter’s in-house labor economist, anticipates the adoption of AI recruitment and candidate screening tools will have a lasting impact on the labor market post-pandemic. After experiencing the benefits of these tools, she says, some employers will be loath to return to manual, costlier physical processes.

In a ZipRecruiter survey of 516 recruiters conducted in April 2019, 50% of respondents said AI had helped them streamline communication with candidates; 44% said it had helped them source a larger pool of candidates; and 41% said AI tools have made their jobs more interesting.

“People are rethinking whether in-person events and meetings are really necessary,” said Pollak. “For employers, with remote AI tools, they don’t have to spend money holding recruitment events and flying people out for what might be 30-minute interviews. On the job seeker side, studies have shown that people are less stressed when they can interview from home.”

In some sense, the spread of the coronavirus is merely accelerating the adoption of AI recruitment and candidate screening tools. Some 55% of U.S. human resources managers said AI would be a regular part of their work within the next five years, according to a 2017 survey by talent software firm CareerBuilder. And according to a Korn Ferry survey, 63% of talent acquisition professionals say AI has already changed the way recruiting is done at their company.

But while AI holds appeal for hiring managers tackling the challenges of remote recruiting, a body of research suggests that it’s an imperfect solution.

Amazon reportedly tried to build an algorithmic system to analyze and suggest the best hires, but it became biased against female applicants after training on 10 years of internal hiring data. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the FTC pushing the agency to investigate HireVue, which offers an AI tool that analyzes the language and tone of a candidate’s voice and their expressions as they answer questions, for potential bias and inaccuracy. And nonprofit tech research group Upturn’s recent report on equity and hiring algorithms noted that “[de-biasing] best practices have yet to crystallize [and] [m]any techniques maintain a narrow focus on individual protected characteristics like gender or race, and rarely address intersectional concerns, where multiple protected traits produce compounding disparate effects.”

On the other hand, AI recruitment and candidate screening tools could actively reduce bias in hiring. Startup Blendoor is using algorithms to match over 100,000 candidates to jobs while making an effort to recruit people who are otherwise underrepresented. Pymetrics validates its candidate-matching AI with a test set to identify where genders, races, and other groups might be discriminated against. There’s also platforms like Plum and Headstart, which leverage data science to help companies reduce unconscious bias in the hiring process.

“The reality of automating candidate recruiting is that there will be need of human supervision for the next years to come — one of the main reasons for this is that companies frequently will contradict themselves on what’s important to them,” Fetcher cofounder and CEO Andres Blank told VentureBeat in an earlier interview. “[That said,] we believe we can leverage [AI] to address several forms of hiring bias to help companies build more diverse and inclusive organizations.”

Assuming that’s proven out, it’s another incentive for the recruiters piloting AI tools to stick with those tools long after the threat of the coronavirus has passed.

For AI coverage, send news tips to Khari Johnson and Kyle Wiggers and AI editor Seth Colaner — and be sure to subscribe to the AI Weekly newsletter and bookmark our AI Channel.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle Wiggers

AI Staff Writer