Jess ElmquistApril 13, 2023
Topics: AI

AI Doesn’t Make Hiring Decisions, People Do

I checked off a huge box on my bucket list recently — I had the honor of presenting at South by Southwest (SXSW). I’ve been delivering speeches around the world for forever, so I’m used to being up in front of a crowd, but nothing quite compares to the sheer size, scope, and gravitas of SXSW.

If you’re not familiar, SXSW is the techy, edgy place you go to launch new innovations, watch movies, hear new music, and sit in on lectures and panels to learn and be challenged to think in a different way.

I spoke on the same day as Nick Jonas, Keanu Reeves, and Kara Swisher, but on a topic that’s near and dear to me: “AI Doesn’t Make Hiring Decisions, People Do.” Someone once told me they didn’t want AI making hiring decisions. That wasn’t just anyone who said that; it was a CHRO who ought to know better!

As coincidences go, I was invited to speak on AI and hiring at SXSW long before everyone started freaking out over ChatGPT. Still, the timing couldn’t have been better and the moment was ripe to set the record straight on what AI does and doesn’t do with talent.

(I’ve hit on a couple of the high points of my presentation in this blog. My entire presentation is available for viewing).

Fear of the Unknown

To set the stage, I shared that I’m an HR practitioner at heart who was thrust into the world of technology. Yet unlike some, I chose not to fight it and embraced the benefits it gave my team, company, and the people I served. Now, in the last few years, I’ve become a passionate people leader compelled to learn and use AI because it’s the nature of the business that I'm in and I saw the benefits it created with automation and personalization.

Part of my compulsion to integrate technology and AI is knowing, as people, we've tried to hire and support our people the best way possible. But you and I know that as practitioners in the world of human resources, we don’t always get it right — especially when we have to hire a lot of people quickly.

We know that fatigue, mismanaged interviews, and poor data follow up have been areas of struggle in the talent process in the past. This leads to poor hiring decisions that end up costing employers time and money, because we have to start the search and replace the skills all over again.

This is AI

Wouldn’t it be nice if technology could help us be more productive, more efficient, and more accurate? Wouldn’t it be nice to have digital tools that took care of repetitive, mundane tasks like capturing all those passive leads, sourcing only relevant candidates, screening resumes, scheduling interviews, sending follow up emails (the list goes on and on) …and allowed us instead to be more human?

That’s AI. It’s intelligence. It’s automation. And it’s the experience we all want. It’s not some ghost in a machine.

The folks in the audience at SXSW needed to hear this, because while some worked in HR, most did not, and were attending my session out of concern for how AI will impact jobs.

What’s interesting is that AI is already changing the way we do our jobs today in positive ways. Yet people don’t seem to have the same worry when AI helps a doctor perform life-saving surgery 4,000 miles away from the patient, or when it propels a new drug discovery.

So using AI in the talent and hiring process is not that large of a leap, yet it impacts one of our most personal and sacred areas — our job and its ability to support our lives.

A Leap of Faith

Like most fears we face, the leap can feel large until it can be overcome.

I told a story of my son learning to jump off the diving board. He was a good swimmer, but didn’t want to go under water. He would stand at the end of the diving board wanting to jump into the pool but unable to get over the fear.

One day he finally summoned the wherewithal to take the plunge, because he realized that he could hold his breath. He had floaties on his arms and I was there in the pool ready to help. He jumped! And he emerged from under the water with a big smile, professing: “I want to do it again.” Realizing he had control and the support of others, my son leapt and learned how to put his head underwater.

My remarks at SXSW were focused around moving past our fear and concern about AI in HR. I wanted to motivate talent leaders to start thinking and planning about how to meet the needs of the business while protecting the rights and opportunities of the people we serve.

Related: AI and Amazing People: An Inseparable Duo

At Phenom, we talk a lot about AI and people working together, and understandably so. It’s important to us and our customers that we’re on guard against hiring biases. We call it “Humans in the Loop.”

AI can actually surface bias where teams don’t realize it exists, but a person needs to be part of that feedback loop. It’s people, not machines, who call balls and strikes in the world of talent. That really resonated with the audience.

The fact is, AI is already deeply ingrained in our everyday lives. Done ethically and the right way, it can be a game-changer for your talent strategy.

Even Henry Kissinger Is Talking AI

I came across an opinion piece in the Journal that stopped me in my tracks. It’s titled “ChatGPT Heralds an Intellectual Revolution.” It was written by Henry Kissinger, Google’s Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher from MIT.

What I loved about it is their belief that we are looking at a technology so mind-blowing, so — I can’t even find an adjective fitting enough to match its power — it stands as a glory to the human mind.

I want to challenge all of you — CHROs and talent professionals alike — to stay active in technology and AI. Don’t delegate it to others. Not to the IT department, not to Engineering. You have to be the expert.

To be a purposeful people leader who understands and uses AI responsibly, I implore each and every one of you to do the following:

  • Develop the confidence and ability to challenge the outputs of AI

  • Approach AI with skepticism and the ability to interrogate the system

  • Decide what decisions and inputs can be given to AI, and which ones can’t

Be Quick But Don't Hurry


When I think about the future of AI, I’m reminded of John Wooden’s “be quick, but don’t hurry” philosophy. This is all extremely fast-moving, but AI touches a lot of people's lives in many different ways. So this is not a place to move too fast and break things. This is a place to move intentionally and responsibly.

To use AI responsibly, you have to understand it. To understand it, you have to embrace it. And to embrace it, you have to partner with other groups that understand it.

Finding a great tech partner is part of this work — and I encourage you to seek full transparency to ensure you’re on the right track and equipped to defend your point of view.

I’m planning on being at SXSW next year too. I want to present the most current ideas around talent. I’ll look for you there — to step off the edge of the diving board with me.

Can’t find a tech partner to take you there? Connect with me on LinkedIn and I’ll gladly match you with one that’s helping organizations just like yours see the light.

Can't find a tech partner to take you there? Connect with me on LinkedIn and I’ll gladly match you with one that’s helping organizations just like yours see the light.

*The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. All information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only.

Jess Elmquist

Jess Elmquist is the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Evangelist at Phenom. In a previous career as the Chief Learning Officer at Life Time, the healthy way of life company, Jess hired more than 200,000 people and spoke to hundreds of his executive peers about talent trends.

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