Onboarding program on mobile device

Using AI to Onboard New Recruits May Be a Bad Idea

May 12, 2022 Employee Experience
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak

Many organizations continue to exercise caution about the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace, but there is increasing evidence that HR leaders are adopting it for a variety of functions, including recruiting and onboarding.

A February 2022 survey of 1,688 HR professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows that nearly one in four organizations use automation or AI to support HR-related activities — and over two in three say the time it takes to fill open positions is somewhat (53%) or much better (16%) because of their use of automation or AI. Likewise, one in four organizations plan to start using or increase their use of automation or AI in recruitment and hiring in the next five years.

The business case is clear. AI can help recruiters sift through a flood of candidates to find those most qualified for the job. According to the survey, 64% of HR professionals say their organization's automation or AI tools automatically filter out unqualified candidates.

But there is an underlying problem with that approach: algorithmic bias. Only two in five companies that use AI tools say their vendor is very transparent about the steps taken to protect against bias. Nearly half (46%) say they would like to see more information or resources to help them identify any potential bias when using these tools.

That is beginning to look like a wise course of action. Employers who use AI to make employment decisions just might find themselves in legal hot water. On May 12, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a warning to employers about potential unlawful discrimination when using AI tools, and the US Department of Justice provided an overview of employers' responsibilities and how AI can potentially violate the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

The problem looms large, with even AI giant Amazon recognizing its own recruiting engine discriminates against women. Knowing all this, should organizations be letting AI run the show, especially in this era-defining moment in the labor market? Onboarding offers an interesting case study.

Related Article: Is Your Recruiting Algorithm Biased?

The Case for AI in Onboarding

Evelyn McMullen, a research manager with Boston-based Nucleus Research, said the use of AI and chatbots in the onboarding process should not be controversial because the process of bringing new employees into the organization is essentially task-based and objective, as opposed to the subjective decision-making processes that feature in hiring, such as scoring and ranking job candidates.

In fact, incorporating elements of AI into the onboarding process can be highly beneficial especially in a remote workplace, said Wendy Makinson, HR manager at UK-based Joloda. While it cannot replace the human element, it can serve a useful function in introducing new employees to the company, getting them set up on systems and providing them with initial training and information.

Some new hires complain they do not receive much information in advance of starting, and the first week can be a bit disorganized as they are passed between departments to complete different parts of the onboarding process.

“Managing all of this with AI can create a far more streamlined process and a much better experience for the new employee,” Makinson said.

AI can also be especially useful in reducing the number of repetitive or mundane tasks for HR professionals, such as checking that employees have successfully completed mandatory training. Using technology for these purposes frees up staff time to focus on more complex queries and support.

Related Article: Why Virtual Onboarding Beats Traditional Onboarding

Retaining the Human Touch

The HR department by definition should be focused on people. For that reason, the onboarding process should always include a human element, Makinson said.

"AI should be used for its advantages, but it should never replace a genuine welcome to the company from another human being,” she said.

While AI can be helpful for basic tasks such as document signing and choosing an insurance plan, AI-powered chatbots cannot personalize the onboarding experience, said Amy Spurling, founder and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Compt.

“If there is one thing we learned from the Great Resignation or Great Migration, people are looking for a personalized employee experience," she said. "They do not want to be treated like another number on the team roster.”

Outsourcing major parts of the onboarding process to AI could potentially strip away important opportunities to build the kind of strong relationships that produce long-term value. "This is a major part of the employee experience and sets the tone for their future at the company," Spurling said.

“Onboarding is such an important step in a new hire's journey that I think it would be a huge, missed opportunity to try to automate it away,” said Joe Alim, Compt's head of product and customer experience. “I think AI, at least in the lens of HR, should be used for monotonous, repetitive tasks.”

Related Article: We Can’t Keep Blaming Technology for a Lack of Leadership Empathy

Limit the Use of Bots

Erik Hansen, a management consultant at UK-based IT consultancy Right People Group, is in favor of using AI and bots but in limited circumstances. Letting AI take care of things like scheduling meetings, following up on paperwork and gathering early feedback can be useful, but using AI to replace even a single part of the interview or review process is a mistake.

"Those are two areas where the human touch is essential,” he said.

AI at work is still in its infancy and there are many kinks that need to be worked out. Organizations that trust AI to do something as important as onboarding are taking a risk — and only time will tell if it will play out in their favor. For now, research indicates organizations are proceeding cautiously, picking and choosing the ways they implement AI in their people processes.

"I think it can be a helpful tool, but it should not be the only thing you rely on," Hansen said. "You risk having AI create an overly impersonal experience that starts new employees off on the wrong foot and gives them the wrong impression of your company."

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