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The AI Mirage in Hiring: Are Vendors Innovative Solutions or Industry Snake Oil?

March 6, 2024
5 min read
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      5 min read
      Max Armbruster
      Max Armbruster
      CEO Talkpush

      No more resumes: Better alternatives for finding the right candidates

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      Episode 87_End Cover

      In this podcast episode, Max and Robert Cohen of Philip Morris International discuss the limitations resumes and traditional hiring practices pose, especially while hiring early career talents. They also explore how a mix and match of various recruitment technology can expedite hiring and deliver exceptional candidate experience.


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      Max Armbruster interviews Robert Cohen, Talent Acquisition Ecosystem Manager at Philip Morris International. The conversation focused on the need for companies to rethink early talent acquisition by looking beyond traditional qualifications and focusing more on motivation and potential. Their conversation also highlights the need for technological solutions that can help recruiters screen candidates for potential and eliminate human bias. Such solutions can also help recruiters manage the recruitment process more efficiently, particularly for global organizations.

      Balancing Automation and Personalisation


      When automating parts of the hiring process, recruiters should be mindful of balancing automation with personalisation. While systems can streamline the process, candidates still value personal interaction and want to talk to a human at some point during the process. Large corporations that receive a high volume of applications may need to implement obstacles in their hiring process to whittle down the pool of candidates. However, it's important to fast-track qualified candidates and offer a personalized service.


      Here are four key takeaways for recruiters from the conversation:


      1. Resumes are not effective for screening early career talent: When it comes to screening recent graduates, resumes tend to be less useful in determining their potential, as they often have similar experiences and limited work experience. Recruiters may need to explore alternative metrics to evaluate early career talent.

      2. Scaling local solutions can be cost-prohibitive: Bringing niche, bespoke solutions that only solve problems in specific markets can be difficult for recruiters who need to support candidates globally. Data privacy and regulatory compliance in different countries can make the process challenging and costly.

      3. Diversity is important: Robert is passionate about diversity and believes that diverse teams achieve great things. Using technical solutions can help eliminate human bias in the recruitment process and promote diversity.

      4. Technical solutions are needed: Technical solutions are needed: Video interviewing can streamline the hiring process and provide a more personalized service to candidates, even if it's being facilitated by systems. Such solutions can also help recruiters manage the recruitment process more efficiently, particularly for global organizations.



      Episode Transcript


      Max: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Recruitment Hackers podcast. I'm your host, Max Armbruster. And today, I'm delighted to welcome Robert Cohen, who is the - he's going to tell us what this job title is - the Talent Acquisition Ecosystem Manager for PMI, Philip Morris International.



      And we were connected recently with Rob about the state of the industry. And we decided that we would dive into the screening for early career talent, and how talent acquisition for young people, people in their 20s, is due for a total revamp - and reboot - and why it's happening right now, through skill-based hiring, and also through other tools that we can find to determine motivation, which is the X Factor for any talents. It's like, you know, is this person going to have the drive required? So thanks a lot for joining Rob. Welcome to the Recruitment Hackers podcast.


      Robert: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

      Max: Great. Well, I gave a bit of an introduction to our audience on where you came from. I mean, what you're doing at Philip Morris. I guess, I mean, I'm looking at your profile now, and you've got a long history of working with TA systems, with vendors and with RPO companies and with employers. But I've gotta say; I've never heard of this job title TA Ecosystem Manager. It used to be we had an HRIS manager; what happened to that?

      Robert: So it probably stemmed from that HRIS manager. I've been in this industry for 12-13 years, I've never come across my job title elsewhere.

      Max: Kudos, kudos to PMI.

      Robert: Quite possibly, it's essentially an HRIS manager, but specifically for our talent acquisition landscape. When I joined - so, I joined permanently in 2019, but I've done some consultancy work previously. There were a lot of different systems within the TA sphere that encompassed ATS, CRMs, and all the add-ons to most of those. And this title was inherited from my predecessor, but it's something that stuck with me. I'm quite a technical person. So I have a computer science background, but I sit within the business side of things. 


      I haven't worked in an IT organization for over ten years. And yeah, I'm very much within the business. And my role is about translating business requirements into technical solutions and being able to develop and find those technical solutions to satisfy my business stakeholders, which is anyone from a candidate, a hiring manager, to a recruiter, to an HR, senior HR manager, who wants facts and figures, and equally our IT counterparts. So our InfoSec teams, our IT development teams and delivery organizations.

      Max: Yeah, it's great that they have you, but it's also a symptom of that you need somebody just to manage the TA ecosystem, that the amount of work that this has created for practitioners that's outside of their calling, you know; I think that very few recruiters got into recruitment thinking, I'm going to be rolling out systems and doing process automation, and system integration. And so, they're looking for help; they found - you know, the PMI is big enough where they can afford to hire you and give them that help. 

      But, you know, it kind of begs the question, how far have we gotten? And is it gonna get worse? Like, do you see that the number of software and tech platforms that talent acquisition professionals have to work with is continuously rising? Or is the, you know, are you seeing some consolidation?

      Robert: It's really interesting. I think, certainly, it's a luxury to have this role. And I know I do have counterparts in other large organizations; there's not many of us around, I'd say. But the way that the TA landscape is evolving and has done and even the growth in the last two to three years in this space has been enormous. That actually bringing in best-of-breed solutions to fix problems in an integrated way really needs someone that has that entire picture. 

      And I think without this sort of role, you're left with IT owning parts of your process, TA owning other parts, and HR owning even more. Actually, my role brings together that entire picture from the business point of view.

      Max: Yeah, it'd be a great luxury for other organizations to have it. I mean, I guess there's a size factor here. What's the right size? And certainly, when companies with more than 5-10000 employees are rolling out a new ATS, there's usually somebody in charge internally. But, I keep coming across the buyers who say, are you an ATS, are you a CRM or a little bit of both? You know, and I sometimes don't even know how to answer this question. Because there's so much of -

      Robert: Agreed, and providers are horizontally growing in such different directions; we're seeing providers offering video interview tools that may have been a CRM, and the growth in those to try and establish really good global process needs a role like mine.


      Max: Agreed. And I'd say, the video interview is a good example. Because, like HireVue, was the leader in that space, and now they do a little bit of everything really, in high volume. And it seems that ‘Ecosystem’ is a good word to describe this mess, because it's like a jungle, there's - everybody's trying to eat everybody's lunch, and there's going to be some damage, there's going to be some carcasses of dead bodies, there's gonna be some hyenas eating the dead bodies, etc. 

      And so, I guess, you know, in startup culture, there's this celebration of 'accept failure' and accept that some things are not going to work and keep trying new things. Would that be a philosophy that you wish that is present at PMI, where you're allowed to take a few shots at a goal? And if some of them missed, that's okay.

      Robert: To an extent, yes, I've got to always maintain the focus on whatever I deliver has to be applicable globally. And that's really important for a company of our size. I'd love to introduce niche bespoke systems that solve something, but it may only be applicable to a Spanish market, for example. And it's also a frustration, right? Because I have recruiters that come to me and say, we've seen this great solution we'd love to use. 


      And when you look at how we could possibly scale it up, it becomes prohibitive. Whereas - So I don't get to play around, possibly to the extent I'd quite like to, but equally, we're not shy of bringing in solutions that solve problems. I think that's the best way of framing it.

      Max: And when you say local solutions being prohibitive is because, you know, it works perfectly well for one market. But then if you take that cost and multiply it by 20 or 30 or 50, then it's just - it becomes - 

      Robert: It's either cost prohibitive or it's functional requirement prohibitive. We need to support our candidates in 21 languages, we need to stay data privacy driven and on the right side of that regulation in every country we operate; that, actually something that we could do in, say, North America, we can't replicate globally. And then you end up with process variations that become even more difficult to manage in the long term.

      Max: Yeah. Interesting. Well, let's move on to the main topic. We could talk about the internal politics of global versus local for another episode. But, we said we would talk about early career talent, and you had shared with me some initiatives where you were able to do away with a resume. So maybe starting with that, what was the challenge with using resumes as your main method of pre-screening for talent?

      Robert: Absolutely. So even in my first role in technology; I started my career with Procter and Gamble, and we had a responsibility for attracting graduates and bringing graduates into the organization. And actually, it became abundantly clear that, controversially, as an early talent or early career individual, you've got very little experience. And so, the controversial statement is that a resume is pointless for early careers. And it is controversial because recruiters like to see past history, evidence of various things when they're screening a candidate. 


      But we know that these graduates that we're attracting all come from pretty similar backgrounds; they've all attended great schools, they all have great grades, they all have fairly similar experiences. Yes, there's variations, you may be a captain of a sports society, or have been a sabbatical officer or various other kinds of strings to your bow. But in the main, they don't have years and years of experience that need to be displayed on a CV that actually doesn't really separate what a recruiter is looking for.


      Max: Yeah, the exception to that rule, perhaps would be if you went to an outstanding top engineering school or a top business school, because it shows you have the resilience to take in the kind of abuse you'd get in management consulting, or, you know, working in NASA, if you come out of MIT. I mean, these seem like they're holding on to that - 

      Robert: And we need to know the school and some of your background, but I don't need to know that you've necessarily done bar work and worked at a festival over a summer holiday and maybe interned for two weeks at a local law firm. It's not telling me enough about your potential to reach great things.

      Max: Did you read my resume? How did you know I interned for a law firm in the summer of 99?

      Robert: Like I say, most people leaving university have some level of work experience. They are a similar pool of people, and then you end up comparing people almost for the sake of it. And we needed to look at other metrics we could use to be able to assess potential because you don't have the experience to come in and start leading a team and managing people and managing programs based on a few weeks of work experience or some grades you've obtained in a university setting.

      Max: Yeah, I started Talkpush because I wanted to give a voice to the candidate because I thought, if somebody can speak to me, recorded, I can derive a lot from that, like motivation, intelligence to a certain degree, you know, fluency obviously in the language. And that, you know, short snippets would help me make a lot of decisions. Of course, that's also ripe with dangers and human bias, because you're gonna hire somebody that sounds like you. But perhaps, I'm sure, you've thought about smarter ways to - 

      Robert: So this is exactly where we need to find a digital solution to bridge this gap, to remove those biases. We all have the goal, and I'm not a drum beater, I'm absolutely passionate about diversity; I think diverse teams achieve great things. And we don't have the same critical mass of thinking as we would have if we didn't have that diversity. So we have to look at technical solutions to support that. And interesting, you've just spoken about the video piece. For us, that's absolutely essential. And it's a big part of your assessment process in terms of measuring your potential. 


      And we have video interview tools that - and you've mentioned HireVue, and it's one of the tools in our arsenal that we use. They have an incredible solution; that is: it records your video, it's asynchronous, you do it as a candidate in your own time, in an environment that you feel comfortable. But none of our recruiters see those videos. So you still get that ability to have the discussion, we ask you some very structured questions, we've put a huge number of high-performing individuals through the same so we have benchmarking. And HireVue actually translates what you're saying and parses it into text. 


      So we have no visual on you. We have no idea of your ethnicity; there were various checks and things to make sure that it is a human that's sitting in front of a computer. And you're not just talking to an Amazon - a woman I don't want to say her name;


      Max: Alexa. 

      Robert: because I have one in my office. So there is a human element - you are being recorded and you're answering structured questions. And we are then doing the analysis based on the text. So it's speech-to-text. And we are analyzing what you are saying in order to measure where we, as an organization, feel your potential is. And we have an extremely strict framework and I've been told by our assessment teams that I need to talk about it. We don't reject anyone based on any automation. That's absolutely clear. 

      And I want to be upfront about that. Straight away. People don't get rejected based on these sorts of tools. But what we do is fast-track good eager candidates.

      Max: Right, right. It's - you're walking on eggshells here. It's like you're shortlisting people, but you're not rejecting people. Okay. That's fine. I'll let it slide.


      Robert: We have to establish that framework when we talk about digital solutions and automation. So we're assessing abilities and any question we ask has gone through various validations from a legal discriminatory point of view. We actually and it's one of our recruiters' big bugbears is we don't let them create their own questions or have to be validated and vetted before it gets anywhere near a candidate.


      Max: It's scary and wonderful at the same time, right? So scary that we have to centralize a lot of this decision on what interview questions to ask and how to hire. But wonderful, because it means that the recruiters can just hire, hire, hire, hire, you know, anybody who gets through the funnel is going to be like, top-notch.


      Robert: The throughput and the quality of the processes; it provides great candidates. And actually, at PMI, the first time an early-career applicant interacts with a PMI employee is when they walk in for their interview. Prior to that, they've gone through assessments that have validated them, they've gone through deductive and various questionnaires to assess a fit school. They may have also gone through another piece that we've added to our kind of process, which is about measuring that person's expectation, so where they expected to land in life, versus where they are actually and we get a great potential measure there.

      Max: Oh, that's interesting. Can you expand on that? What's the interview question if you had to paraphrase it? 

      Robert: So we are using, and we've trialed, and with some level of success, a tool called Rare. And this asked very personal questions about a candidate. So it's things like, are you the first of your generation to go to university or the first of your family to attend a university? Did you grow up having free school meals? Were you on a scholarship when you were at school for academics? And actually, the point we can deduce from that is, your expectations were at a particular level, but you far surpassed those by attending a top university, despite it not being kind of in the life plan to do so. 

      And we've measured your potential based on that, to say you've exceeded your - kind of, the expectations that society had on you. And therefore, the fact that you've jumped through that hoop proves you've got potential to do great and good things.

      Max: Yeah, that's interesting. You've actually made me self-reflect by that question, because I was wondering, what's the education level of my parents? Maybe I didn't do so bad because in my head, I totally underperform but in fact, I might have done okay. You know, it's all relative.


      Robert: And it’s the comparison versus society. Right? It's you in that bigger picture.

      Max: Yeah. Is that going to work as a detriment to somebody who has PhD parents?

      Robert: So essentially, not. We're not using it to drive hiring decisions. But what we are using it for is to show another metric on a candidate to say, well, this person has really done a lot greater than society expected.

      Max: It’s one of many metrics.

      Robert: Correct.


      Max: Yeah, like, overachiever and ambitious. And that's one of the reasons why people in the sales domain love to hire former athletes, because they, you know, shoot for the stars, but not everybody's an athlete. So you've got to find - I mean, you know, you can't automatically dismiss anybody who's like, you know, a little bit out of shape as not being competitive. There's so many other areas where you can express your - 

      Robert: It's exactly that type of sentiment, that it's - we want these rock stars because we know that people like them are good, but the population of rock stars isn't big enough to start cherry-picking.

      Max: Yeah. Don't be picky with your rock stars. You can't exclusively hire former Olympic team swimmers. There're rock stars in different domains. Yeah. And so, the video interviewing is the bit where you say you're not even looking at the videos; you're just getting the recommendations from it. It sounds like it could work for PMI because you have such a wide network and you're able to hire from the best universities, you got a big brand, but I don't think it applies for every environment. There's some environments where, you know, it'd be putting too much of a hurdle for candidates.

      Robert: Absolutely. And, it's a really interesting dilemma that we face as an organization, in terms of the fact - if you speak to our global head of TA will tell you that we receive too many applications. And actually, sometimes we have to put those obstacles in place intentionally. I don't necessarily want the easiest one-click application for all our jobs. There are certain jobs that we absolutely do need that and we recognize that as the fact. But for some of our jobs, we put these things in; and actually we predicted that we'd have an NPS dropout by putting in these extra hurdles and making people go through these asynchronous interviews. 

      I read a lot, I see it as my duty to keep myself relevant. I read stuff on Reddit about how these video interviews are the worst things in the world, and companies who use them should be boycotted. But actually, our candidate numbers or our application numbers haven't dropped, our NPS has increased. We're providing a much more personal service despite it not being personalized by humans. It's personalized by systems.


      Max: And the NPS staying high in spite of these "hurdles", friendly hurdles. What do you attribute that to?


      Robert: The fact that we're offering this high level of personalization, if you are an eager, good candidate that has high potential, you can get through our hiring process extremely quickly. And that goes back to the framework piece that we don't reject. So rejections need to be validated and verified by human beings, but actually we’ll fast track you right through the process; you can apply, do a video interview, if you pass that, do an SHL assessment, if you pass that, schedule on to the next available interview slot, within like a 24 hour period.

      Max: Nice. Yeah, that's not something you see in large corporations that have a lot of, say, white-collar work, that kind of speed is usually reserved for people in retail. I mean - even the 24 hour contact time is very competitive. So that, yeah, that makes sense.


      Robert: Because I'm not waiting for a recruiter to watch the video interview, to do the telephone screen, to interpret results and various things; we're providing that on a plate to be assessed.

      Max: There's a bit of contradiction in the sense of, you're saying we're going to remove the human in the loop and automate that whole first part until they physically come to the office. And so, you're talking up a purely digital experience. And at the same time, you recognize that the measure of candidates' happiness is how soon they can actually talk to a human. So there's -


      Robert: Agreed. We don't have names for our different systems. And as cool as it is, I know that Apple are synonymous for naming their various tools and platforms, after movie computers and things. We haven't come up with that sort of degree of personalization; what we have done is, is tried to keep our messaging extremely clear and on point. So at every stage of the process, you're shown where you are, there's a lot of transparency in how we communicate. We do communicate with "do not reply" email addresses, so we're not giving out personal email addresses and things until those calendar invites kind of get sent to you. 


      But it's a really clear and articulate process. And it doesn't matter where in the world you are; if you are applying to an early career stream in the Philippines versus Germany versus North America, the experience you face should be identical. And that's the way we can treat our candidates with absolute fairness.

      Max: And fast; identical and fast. I love that - and transparent. I don't know if in your hometown, they started putting that on the bus stations where they put a clock to tell you how soon the next bus is coming. But they set these up about 20 years ago in Paris and it changed my life or the train stations. Because before that you were just - you just didn't know and it created this anxiety. If you know how soon things - how fast the next step is happening, you can breathe, you don't have to, you know, develop, you know, ill feel feelings towards the organization.

      Robert: And, we've kind of tempered that from a human being point of view. So we've also done things like, we don't send rejection emails on weekends, because I don't want to screw someone's weekend over by receiving bad news. So even if you're rejected in the system, it's waiting until that time on a Monday or a Tuesday to send that rejection. And we've tried to really bring a human element into our automation as much as possible.

      Max: Nice. Well, thanks for sharing a little bit of the machine at PMI and how you identify hungry, motivated talent. And I'm sure some people will take some of these lessons and apply them. I ask all my guests on the show to travel back in time to a mistake they made, a hiring decision that went wrong. And as a - not as a Mea Culpa, but as a - you have to accept the fact that we're all going to make mistakes in hiring. And we can learn from them. So is there an incident that comes to mind that you can share?

      Robert: So I'm not actually a recruiter, I have never been. So I've not been part of that hiring process. You put me on the spot in terms of big mistakes. Certainly at a previous organization, we had an announcement that we knew that an acquisition was going to take place. And it was a partial acquisition. And our HRD decided that they wanted to actually attract everyone that wasn't part of the acquisition into our space. And it was a big retail transaction that was taking place in the UK. We were very clear with our supplier and went under wraps and said, we need a placeholder here for a logo; but we need to create a landing page that gets people through it as soon as possible. 

      And on Tuesday morning, the acquisition was announced. I spoke to all the vendors involved and said, right, this is the logo that you can put on there, this is the text we can now put - And it became abundantly clear what we were doing. No one had actually discussed it with the terms of the part of the business we were buying that actually had a clause that said we weren't allowed to attract the remaining of these people. And we ended up with something like 4000 applications in the first six hours that went live and had to very quickly turn everything off, reboot, recalculate - 

      So on my master checklist of things that I always go through before any sort of go-live, no matter how big or small it is, is just ratify that everything's been checked with legal before you hit the button to turn it on.

      Max: Okay. Yeah, so you didn't hire them. But it was still a huge time waste. So sometimes -

      Robert: It was a great exercise because we went back to our senior management and said, this is what we did, despite not supposed to have done, and it looked great, but unfortunately, we couldn't act on any of the information that had been supplied.

      Max: I hope you're able to survive whatever rebellion revolution you started with that. Pitchforks - 


      Robert: We got it off quick enough that it appeased any regulations and anything involved. But yeah, it was an interesting few hours.

      Max: Okay, great. Thanks for sharing. Rob. Thanks for coming on the show.

      Robert: It's been a pleasure; appreciate the platform and great to speak to you.




      Max: Hello, everybody, hope you enjoyed that interview with Rob Cohen. I liked the fact that Philip Morris felt the need for a TA Ecosystem Manager because it's pretty brutal out there; every vendor, kind of trying to eat each other. And, I could imagine the TA Ecosystem Manager, a bit like a zookeeper, trying to keep as many of those things alive, and not killing each other, maybe separating them with fences. But, the main message here for this interview for me is, hey, let's get rid of that resume. 


      Nobody, needs to look at the resume of a 22-year-old who did a couple of internships two summers ago, and has really good grades and had a great, you know, extracurricular activity at the age of 16 that is not going to indicate anything significant on this person's future in your company. So, revamp that, get rid of the resume as a screening tool, replace it with good, pointed questions. And Rob had a great example; at PMI, they're asking about the background, the socio-economic background of the candidate to see how far they've progressed, you know, based on their historical family history, and I think that's just one data point. 

      But it's a very interesting one, which probably reveals a lot more than what you would find at the top of a resume when somebody writes their objective down - to seek a career that will help me to enhance my skills and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, that's pretty shallow. There's a lot better ways to do this, and so hope you enjoyed it. And that will be back for more content at the Recruitment Hackers podcast. And please share with friends. See you later.


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