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The research of recruitment concerns almost everyone at some point

Published on 4.4.2023
Tampere University
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Photo: Jonne Renvall / Tampereen University
Studying recruitment is important because it has a significant impact on careers and earning a living. Human capital and a thriving staff are extremely important for organisations in terms of productivity, well-being, and financial success. Right now, companies are struggling to find the right employees using efficient processes. In addition, the significance of ethics and values has increased in recruitment. Tampere University’s researchers have published a research article on the digitalisation of recruitment and IT ethics issues in recruitment. At the beginning of March 2023, the research article was published in Interacting with Computers, a major journal in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI).

Researchers Sami Koivunen, Otto Sahlgren, Saara Ala-Luopa and Thomas Olsson from Tampere University have published an extensive article called Pitfalls and Tensions in Digitalizing Talent Acquisition: An Analysis of HRM Professionals’ Considerations Related to Digital Ethics, which presents years of research from the new digital ethics perspective on people involved in recruitment. The study was based on 47 interviews with recruiters, managers and people developing digital services.

The results identified 14 tensions and pitfalls related to the digitalisation of recruitment from the digital ethics perspective. They include, for example, the tension between privacy and the collection of comprehensive applicant data and the pitfall of equal treatment of applicants who come via different recruitment channels. In the results, the researchers also identified values associated with each tension and pitfall, such as fairness, autonomy, and the balance of power.

“Our research focused on the digitalisation of recruitment. Digital tools have become an integral part of the recruiter’s toolkit and they are constantly evolving with opportunities to automate and support recruitment-related tasks. The people responsible for recruiting employees to different positions must weigh between different goals or practical possibilities, for example, whether to strive for a quick application process or to collect much data. With the help of our results and the related reflection, we can support the design of ethically sustainable systems for recruitment,” Sami Koivunen says.

Limited research-based knowledge on recruiters’ experiences of using digital tools

Since digital tools are used in recruitment, issues related to IT ethics also arise. These may include, for example, the fairness of the process, the privacy of the applicants or the autonomy of the recruiters.

Of the three most common findings in the study, it was noticed that when discussing the possibilities and risks of digital tools, the interviewees tended to maintain a clear division between automated and human decision-making. Furthermore, it was found that digital tools tend to offer standard solutions even though recruitment situations can be diverse and complex. Thirdly, it was noticed that service providers have incentives to offer digital solutions that may not meet the practical needs of organisations.

Recruitment is a hard-to-reach phenomenon for researchers, and the publication of research data is slow. Thus, organisations often use digital tools in recruitment without much research-based knowledge on their use.

“In order to be able to design an ethically sustainable recruitment process and the tools to support it, we need to identify the risks associated with the digitalisation of this type of work. It is also necessary to consider which value choices affect the applicants and which, in turn, affect the recruiters. As recruitment-related technology is developing rapidly, there is very little research-based knowledge on practical assessment situations or recruiters’ experiences of using digital tools in general, which clearly lag behind the practical work they are doing,” Koivunen explains.

In the big picture, the study helps to make recruitment processes more efficient and ethical, which contributes to people finding the right jobs for them.

“The relevance of this topic is highlighted by the fact that many companies have difficulty finding suitable employees with efficient processes. As a research and working life trend, the importance of ethics and values has increased in recruitment. Our research shows how ethics could be better considered,” Koivunen sums up.

Identifying tensions and pitfalls essential for recruitment

The development of ethically sustainable digital tools and their use requires an understanding of the specifics of their socio-technical context. Identifying tensions and pitfalls helps service planners and people using the services to assess the choices made during the recruitment process.

Examples of tensions and pitfalls:

  • Tension: the collection of detailed data versus respecting privacy. Detailed data on the applicants are needed to make more accurate choices but it may lead to discrimination and the violation of privacy.
  • Pitfall: the unequal treatment of applicants who come via different application channels. New recruitment channels may increase the number of applicants, but if, for example, they produce different kinds of applications or are sent to the recruiter in different ways, they may lead to the unfair treatment of applicants.
  • Pitfall: the use of video interviews can lead to surprising situations. Recorded video interviews can be practical and enable careful answers, but they can be analysed in many ways, creating the risk of bias and privacy violations. For example, the analysis can be influenced by technical quality, or a digital tool can make an interpretation of suitability based on a video file.

Digital ethics is a cutting-edge topic as new AI applications are rapidly becoming available. In recent months, the much-talked-about generative AI, such as ChatGPT, will also be used in recruitments. For example, LinkedIn has introduced an AI tool that generates job postings, and BrightHire’s new AI tool summarises job interviews.

“It is likely that the importance of digital tools in recruitment will increase, and the tools will become even more sophisticated. The rapid development poses a challenge for research to keep up with the times. With the quick introduction of technologically advanced and little-researched implementations, one is tempted to ask whether the relevant pitfalls have been considered. As technology is developing fast, so is the need for up-to-date research,” Koivunen points out.