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EEOC worries about 'snake oil' products in AI recruiting

The chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says users, not vendors, are responsible for AI recruiting bias. It has launched an effort to investigate AI use.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission warned employers that they have a responsibility to challenge the "fairness" of AI recruiting systems used to hire and manage employees. 

For its part, the EEOC said last week that it is creating an initiative to examine whether workplace use of AI complies with civil rights laws. The goal is to identify "promising practices" in recruiting AI use and "technical assistance to provide guidance on algorithmic fairness and the use of AI in employment decisions."

Some AI systems are sold "with the promise that if you remove the human decision-making, you will remove the bias," said Charlotte Burrows, EEOC chair, but that "is not necessarily the case." 

Burrows advised employers "to challenge and audit and ask questions so that they can validate the technology that they want to purchase." She was speaking at a recent Genius Machines conference sponsored by Nextgov and Defense One, both government technology publications.

There are "a lot of what is essentially snake oil salespeople in this area," Burrows said, but "I think there are a lot of good products out there, too, and I want to be clear about that." 

Can't take vendor's word

Under federal law, "employers can't take a vendor's word that its [AI recruiting system is] safe and that it complies with the law," Burrows said. They have to exercise a "kick-the-tires attitude" when buying these systems, she said. 

[Employers have] to challenge and audit and ask questions so that they can validate the technology that they want to purchase.
Charlotte BurrowsChair, EEOC

Lawmakers have urged the EEOC to investigate AI use in the workplace. 

"While hiring technologies can sometimes reduce the role of individual hiring managers' biases, they can also reproduce and deepen systemic patterns of discrimination reflected in today's workforce data," 10 U.S. senators wrote to the EEOC late last year. "Today, far too little is known about the design, use, and effects of hiring technologies." The senators who wrote the letter were all Democrats. They included Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Cory Booker, D-NJ, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

The EEOC's initiative will include "listening" sessions to hear from researchers, vendors and users of these systems.

Ben Eubanks, chief research officer at Lighthouse Research & Advisory, said recruiting teams are strained because of staffing challenges, and that AI tools used to speed up and streamline the hiring process could help, he said. 

Eubanks believes the EEOC's initiative could provide a path to regulation that "makes it clear how employers can support their candidates and employees in a fair and equitable way."

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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