Are virtual reality interviews the future of online hiring?
Check your clothes. Check your shoes. Check your breath. Check your hair. Go over your notes. Go to the bathroom, possibly twice. Some people will still remember the old interview room. Running the gauntlet of handshakes. Sitting, isolated in the center of the room. The limelight nobody craves. Of course, things are different now, although you probably still check your hair.
Meeting Safwaan Rahman for the first time is a familiar experience, conversing via video call. The London Head of Recruitment for Credera, a global management consultancy, is framed in close-up against the nondescript white walls of his WFH workspace.
Remote recruitment is now the norm and has also opened up new opportunities for onboarding colleagues from much further afield. This expansion of the talent pool coincides with a global drive towards more diverse, equitable and inclusive business practices. Of course, this shift is not solely ideological - corporations identified as more diverse and inclusive are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors.1
Safwaan’s team has been using an Applicant Tracking System, or ATS, to anonymize names and other parts of a CV, which helps to balance the need for demonstrating their commitment to DEI with the practicalities of remote recruitment.
But while anonymization might look good on the page, how are recruiters ensuring equality at the interview stage? “Something that helps is unconscious bias training,” says Safwaan. But he also acknowledges that current interview practices still require additional oversight to ensure impartiality. “The best practice should be for HR to assess the evaluation itself.” For Safwaan, the interview stage is about getting a true sense of the candidate. “For one of our graduate cohort hirings I got rid of CVs,” he explains. “We should only be assessing candidates on how they perform in the interview.”
Safwaan Rahman, Head of Recruitment, Credera
In a hyper-connected world of remote working, is there a way that VR could help recruiters take anti-bias from the CV to the interview room? Could a generic avatar create an equitable playing field for interviewees and recruiters alike? Safwaan has his reservations. “It’s going to be difficult to get interviewers to make that cultural transition to move towards VR. Why can’t you just have filters on video calls, right?” He smiles. “You can turn anyone into a potato these days.”
He laughs gently, his shoulders bouncing into the bottom edge of the video frame. On the other hand, “If it can save us time and improve our ratios... We need to hire by meeting as few people as possible, for as short a time as possible.”
A VR recruitment trial: Hiring through augmented reality
The next meeting with Safwaan is quite different. The airy conference suite is equipped with all the screens, microphones and gizmos needed to accommodate modern hybrid work. The Head of Recruitment is warm and relaxed as he introduces his colleagues, Leia and Sophie. They have all agreed to take part in an anonymization experiment, turning the recruitment lens back on the recruiters, where Safwaan will conduct interviews within a VR space for a hypothetical recruiting position. His two colleagues will each be represented by the same generic, anonymised avatar.
The room is full of energy and curiosity as everyone examines their Quest Pro headsets. Neither Leia, previously based in California and now living in London, nor Sophie, who joined the company remotely during lockdown, have experienced VR before. “I’ve only really thought of it in terms of gaming,” Sophie admits. The gathering is short-lived as Leia and Sophie are invited to a separate meeting room so that they can take their first steps into VR recruitment anonymously.
Headsets on. There is a quick process of adaptation as the recruiters tentatively pinch at the air, clicking to access the interview room. Safwaan, with a beaming smile, waves as he asks the first anonymous interviewee, “Can you see my hands?” Leia laughs as she continues to take in the environment and the waterfall ‘outside’. Having acclimatized, the interview begins.
Safwaan’s posture changes, projecting a friendly, but controlled presence, reflected in his avatar. He begins by outlining the hypothetical role to the anonymous candidate. No potatoes here... Safwaan is still and focused as the interviewee gives their response to the first of three standard recruitment questions. In the other room, Leia is composed, with measured responses, all the while subconsciously reaching up and running her fingers through her hair.
As the interview continues, Leia’s hand comes to rest as her answers become more fluid. And what is it that attracted Leia to this hypothetical role in the recruitment sector? “I enjoy engaging with people. I think I'm a people person, but it also brings out that analytical side of me as well, having that ownership to make decisions based on how I analyze the person.”
The session ends and Safwaan raises his headset with a curious smile. “The avatar seemed very uncertain a lot of the time... It’s eyes moving right to left, but I don't know if that's psychological because I felt that towards the end of the interview I didn't notice that as much.” Safwaan replaces his headset for the next interview.
Like her colleagues before her, Sophie examines her anonymized hands. “They’re the wrong colour,” she laughs, but that is, after all, the point. Safwaan’s avatar greets the generic interviewee with the same warm tone. Sophie’s hands come to rest on the table, focussed and still, but relaxed. The generic presence smiles as it answers Safwaan’s questions, all the while its hands becoming ever more confident, gesticulating during the responses. So what attracted this avatar to the role? “I got a real feeling that you are a people-first company. And reading your Glassdoor reviews as well, they speak for themselves.”
Can VR recruitment help to tackle prejudice?
Headsets down. Sophie reflects, “I didn't know what to expect. I looked down and was, like, ‘Oh, these aren't my hands’. I could see myself in a mirror. ‘Oh, that's me’. It's fairly surreal, but I didn't dislike it in any way. I know it wasn’t a real interview, but I think it put me more at ease. I quite like the whole setting as well. I know that may change, depending on the interviewer and the company. I didn't find much difference in being able to put myself across in the way I wanted to.”
Leia contemplates her performance. “If I’m nervous I play with my hair and touch my face. Sometimes when you say something that you think is wrong you become very conscious of how they [the interviewers] react to it. But VR doesn’t emphasise that, which helps. I can focus on what I can deliver."
The candidates may have found the experience reassuring, but how did the anonymized avatar affect the assessor? Safwaan’s hands, no longer consciously suppressed, now dance above the table. “It reads your hands very well and I could see the gesticulations and that really helped because, even though there are probably minor things in the face that you lose, the overall picture is broadly the same.”
Safwaan Rahman, Head of Recruitment, Credera
So, who got the job? That data has been anonymized too. But no potatoes? Safwaan breaks into a smile. “Even though the avatar is neutral, you still get a good sense of how the person interacts. You could see, when you compared Sophie with Leia, Sophie was a lot more expressive, but because it was VR, she's not able to get a massive advantage - I was still assessing based on the content of their answers. It’s an equaliser.”
If the recruitment process is about assessing a candidate’s presence, matching résumé with reality and ensuring they are fit for the role, then can it really be fully anonymized? “You still get most of the benefits of doing the interview in person, but when the stakes are a lot higher, maybe it wouldn't be a final stage interview,” says Safwaan. “Maybe, at that point, you might see [the candidate] in person. I'd say it's really good for the early screening stages of interviewing.”
And as avatars become more and more ‘real’ in their representation of human expressions, anonymization no longer has to come at the expense of personality. By giving recruiters the ability to create equitable landscapes in which to compete, VR could become an invaluable tool to circumvent the challenge of bias and focus purely on an interviewee’s performance.
Moving forward, beyond the recruitment process, could this liberation of the digital self provide a similarly equitable platform once the successful candidate joins the workforce?