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Can AI Help With Age Discrimination in Hiring? Skip to content

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Can Artificial Intelligence Outsmart Age Bias?

Companies are starting to use technology to address discrimination in hiring

A robot hand looking over images of job applicants

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En español | While computer software can help recruiters sift through piles of applications faster, companies are under pressure to make sure they don’t discriminate against older workers. Looking for a solution, employers are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) as one way to give everyone a fair chance at jobs.

The average length of time a recruiter spends on each résumé for a job opening is six seconds, according to several studies of human resource officers. Because it’s difficult to make an informed decision so quickly, many companies use software to initially screen candidates based on keywords in their résumés or applications. But advocates for older workers have raised concerns about how these tools might digitally discriminate against older workers. 


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Some of the basic uses of recruiting technology already have ended up in court, facing complaints of age bias. For example, one lawsuit alleges that PricewaterhouseCoopers denied older workers job opportunities in part by discarding applications if the candidates did not have email accounts ending in “.edu,” which are university accounts commonly used by students and recent college grads but are less common among older alumni. Another technology-based lawsuit claims that employers were using Facebook to advertise job postings only to younger people.

“This would mean the methods of discrimination have changed and its tools now include algorithms, dropdown boxes and pattern recognition — but those are tools that can help older Americans rather than deny opportunity,” AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond says of the social media lawsuit.

As these cases work their way through the courts, tech companies and human resources managers are starting to consider ways software can be used to reduce the unintended biases that cause employers to overlook talented candidates. One approach involves using AI, which basically is software that is programmed to think rather than simply react.

Last month, IBM added new features to its Watson technology — the computer of Jeopardy! fame — specifically designed to help employers recognize potential biases in their hiring patterns that they might otherwise miss. The company uses AI to analyze the backgrounds of diverse current employees who are great at their jobs. The artificial intelligence then uses that information to identify applicants with similar qualities. By looking for matches in abilities rather than keywords in a résumé, the program aims to go beyond typical recruiting technology.  

“The result is a stronger workplace that is more diverse, fosters fresh perspectives, and promotes an inclusive atmosphere free of bias,” says Bob Schultz, general manager of IBM’s Watson Talent Solutions.

It’s worth noting that IBM has been criticized for potential age bias in its layoff process. But companies that have used versions of the Watson technology for recruiting, including BuzzFeed Media and H&R Block, say the use of artificial intelligence has helped them find good candidates faster.

“We want our recruiters to focus on the most value-add activities, and we believe AI can make the recruiting and hiring process incredibly efficient and fair,” says Katie Waldo, talent acquisition operations manager for H&R Block.

And while Watson won on the Jeopardy! TV show, other technologies are bringing games into the hiring process. The specially designed video games are supposed to give employers a better indication of how well candidates think on their feet than a résumé or other list of accomplishments would. 

For example, Unilever asks some of its candidates to spend roughly a half-hour playing games on a computer or mobile device. The 13 games are designed to reveal the candidates’ personalities, problem-solving skills and communication style. Applicants who do well advance to the next step in the hiring process. 

According to a report from the consulting firm Deloitte Insights, games are one of the approaches recruiters are using to attract young candidates. But many of today’s older workers grew up playing Pong, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong decades ago. While technology has become more sophisticated, many of the skills it takes to play today’s games are essentially the same. And the ability to apply skills to new challenges is one of the most highly sought-after qualities in job candidates, regardless of age.

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