We’re Asking The Wrong Questions: What ChatGPT And Evolving AI Tools Mean For People Leaders
The release of ChatGPT this fall has kicked off another wave of interest and discussion around artificial intelligence, or AI, across industries – and HR is no exception. And as organizations, leaders and employees begin to experiment with more tools powered with or augmented by AI, many leaders in the CPO seat are being asked what we think about AI and its role in the new world of work.
While the latest craze around ChatGPT certainly feels like a milestone, the reality is AI has been around for a very long time – and my view on it hasn’t changed. AI is an important (and evolving) tool in our toolbox, but it’s incumbent upon us as people leaders to anchor ourselves around our principles as leaders first, and select and deploy tools to execute on those principals from there. AI is no exception and while it can – and likely will – be an increasingly prevalent component of any given HR program in the years ahead, that doesn’t change the fundamentals of what good looks like in HR technology tools.
However, understanding where to position AI within your own frame of reference as an HR professional can present significant challenges when the conversation gets so loud. To help break down AI in HR and how we should be thinking about it within the context of our roles, I spoke with Mark Simpson, founder and CEO of Pillar.hr, an interview intelligence platform that coaches teams to hire faster, better and more equitably.
In our conversation, we discuss how technology is radically transforming HR processes for the better, whether surfacing biases or anomalies, benchmarking how interviewers are performing, or creating training programs that leverage candidate experience and feedback. AI is already augmenting people teams and pushing the industry forward into new objective excellence – and we’re both excited to see where AI takes us next.
To start, you’ve founded companies in a number of spaces and have held a number of leadership roles over the course of your career. What initially drew you to the HR space and led you to found Pillar?
Mark: I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have the opportunity to build multiple businesses and lead a number of great teams. Across my experience, one thing stood out clearly, and continues to be – in my opinion – at the heart of things: People are the most important part of any business. But unfortunately, there are still a lot of areas where we don’t center people in the employee experience. I was initially drawn to the HR space because I realized there is a huge opportunity to build teams in a more fair, equitable and effective way – and build more diverse, innovative businesses in the process. Pillar is founded on the idea that employees are essential ‘pillars’ of a business – and that there are fundamentally better ways to hire great talent and build great teams. By focusing energy on that challenge, Pillar allows organizations to build stronger foundations and employees to reach new heights of growth and engagement.
The technology we know as AI has been around for a while, but it feels like we’re just beginning to understand how it will ultimately transform industries across the spectrum. From your perspective, how should HR leaders and teams be thinking about AI today? What are some of the tangible ways AI is operating within HR processes versus the projected ‘hype’ about AI’s future?
Mark: It’s all too easy to get caught up in splashy headlines – but with AI in particular, it’s so important not to get sucked into the hype cycle. Just a few years ago, people decided machine learning was going to be the silver bullet that solved all of our problems – now, that conversation is focused on generative AI with the release of ChatGPT. I have nearly two decades of experience working with machine learning and AI technologies, and from my perspective, the focus for HR leaders looking into these kinds of tools should be on developing the necessary understanding of them on a practical level, and thinking through how they can be used to solve problems.
At the end of the day, AI can’t replace humans (or human judgment!), but it can give you the information and visibility to drive better decisions. AI technologies offer the ability to quickly and accurately make sense of massive data sets, allowing you to both target improvements in existing challenges and identify new ones. In order to harness and apply the power of AI, it’s critical to have a vision of where exactly you want to make progress in your role or business, and then find the right tools to help you do just that.
For an HR example: If you want to improve your interview and hiring process, you likely want to develop a better understanding of how candidates are responding to and moving through those processes. Tools like Pillar can help you do that, gathering and analyzing data from interviews to help you identify areas of strength and areas for improvement. Once you have that level of visibility, it’s easy to improve interviews, which in turn, can fuel improvements to your overall recruiting processes and help you build better teams – which will build better businesses.
It really resonates with me when you say leaders should think about the challenges they’re trying to solve, and how to apply tools to meet those challenges: As a people leader, I’ve always believed you have to anchor to your principles and values first, then select the right tool for the challenges you’re trying to address. To me that becomes even more important when you’re dealing with technology as powerful and with as much potential as AI.
Mark: You have to keep your focus on the capabilities your business has and the core problems you’re trying to solve. The reality is that AI is neither a silver bullet solution, nor the end of the human workforce. The best, most impactful AI on the market today enhances workflows and disappears into the background day-to-day. What is most important is to keep asking yourself how you apply AI to current, on-the-ground workplace challenges, instead of getting distracted by the big, existential questions – which we’re still a long way off from answering.
Pillar focuses specifically on the recruiting process. You touched on this a bit, but how should we be thinking about AI in recruiting? What big challenges can it solve?
Mark: Recruiting is one of the most critical pieces of HR because who you bring into your business is arguably going to have the biggest impact on that business. And yet, for a long time, it felt like there was very little understanding on the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ in hiring. Existing employees are often in the dark if they aren’t directly involved in the hiring decision, but even hiring managers and candidates themselves are left with little clarity on the full picture behind a given hiring choice. That’s because historically, visibility into one of the most crucial components of recruiting – interviewing – has been lacking.
We’ve pulled back the curtain on this, working to understand what happens in interviews, how candidates are responding to different questions and why hiring managers and others are making the decisions they are making. And we’ve solved all kinds of problems for our customers in this way. For example, high attrition rates can be indicative that your company is either bringing in the wrong people, or not engaging its people at a high enough level. To change that, we uncovered previously unidentified biases in interview questions, then brought more transparency into those conversations that ultimately led to higher quality hires. We were also able to leverage learnings from that process to create guides that can help advise our customers and others in the HR ecosystem to design more equitable hiring processes.
You have already hinted at this, but obviously interviews can be incredibly subjective. How do you think about what makes up a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ interview? How is this reflected in the way that Pillar is built?
Mark: The removal of bias and addressing subjectivity from interviews is key to bringing in the right person for a role in a fair and equitable way. The best interviews bring objectivity to a process that has been very subjective for years, standardizing questions, focusing on skills and specifics over perceptions and minimizing opportunities for interviewees to make snap judgements.
One thing we don’t consider as much as we should is the time actually spent within an interview process. So often, the way interview processes are designed, a company ends up spending very little time with a potential candidate before hiring them – cutting interviews short, and asking the same question 5 different ways, ensuring the company isn’t getting the details it really needs to assess the candidate and giving the candidate a poor experience. In interviews, it’s important to actually maximize the time an interviewer is spending with a potential candidate, and make sure that time is being used wisely.
Another area to look at is the removal of basic biases like recency bias. For a specific example, I had to hire a new Head of Growth at Pillar and I loved the first candidate I spoke with in the process – she did an amazing job in her interview, and had all the relevant skills and experience for the role. But I almost didn’t hire her. The last candidate I interviewed a few weeks later did a great job as well, and I was almost ready to send an offer out to him until I reviewed the highlight videos from that first interview and realized that first candidate had given much stronger answers to my questions – I’d just forgotten the details in favor of the more recent discussion. Being able to assess a candidate’s skills in a fair and transparent way is so important, yet so hard to do when we all lead busy work lives.
Gender bias is another significant area where tools like Pillar can help organizations identify and counteract issues in their interview approach. For example, our platform found that, in general, women are asked 20% more questions in an interview than men, but given 25% less time to answer those questions. AI can help not just identify that this is happening but provide proactive training and prompts to ensure interviewees are aware of the discrepancy and have the opportunity to counteract it.
How are you thinking about generative AI specifically? What role does it play in how Pillar operates?
Mark: Generative AI is definitely the latest in industry buzzwords but truth be told, it’s been around a while now. It’s just gaining new popularity through intuitive interfaces like ChatGPT that allow more people to easily interact and leverage it.
What HR and people teams need to understand is that generative AI is a tool that can fundamentally help them in their work. It creates an excellent opportunity to reflect on issues in existing processes and generate new approaches to improve them.
For one example: A tool like ChatGPT can help teams write clearer, more informative job descriptions, automate emails, and manage other basic processes that will then free up HR professionals to dedicate their time and attention to more critical and high-level tasks.
Looking to the future of generative AI, I see this technology helping to sell roles more effectively to candidates, bringing more exciting talent through the door and suggesting stronger interview questions to improve hiring processes. At the end of the day, AI isn’t going to replace people, it’s going to elevate their work.
On the candidate side, interviewees stand to benefit from AI as well. They can use it to supercharge their research into companies they are interviewing for, pull quick stats on an industry or even generate potential interview questions to help with prep.
ChatGPT has also sparked a new round of fear and uncertainty around exactly what AI can and can’t do, and I’d love to get your perspective on that. What should we be worried about here?
Mark: It’s still very early on, and there’s a lot we don’t know about AI and where it will go as a technology. Currently, responses from ChatGPT are pulled from an incredibly broad data set, and some of that data can be manipulated. This means that some generated responses won’t be factually correct, and just like any other source of information, details need to be double checked for accuracy.
More critically, ChatGPT isn’t human – and doesn’t have human morals! It can produce biased, (even sexist and racist) content. When using AI, it is imperative to apply common sense and human decency to anything that it produces.
To end on a more positive note, what should we be most excited about moving forward?
Mark: AI is going to make a lot of dull, boring and monotonous tasks a lot easier and much faster to complete. For example, generative AI can create good content as a base that humans can then iterate on and adapt – like writing emails or job descriptions – to make each individual more efficient and effective in their role. There’s huge and exciting potential here.
With any big change, there’s going to be massive opportunities for those who dive in, identify advantages and find ways to differentiate. And this certainly applies to HR in understanding how to attract, retain and grow employees and beyond.
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