HRTech Interview with Jess Elmquist, Chief Human Resources Officer & Chief Evangelist at Phenom

Unlock the world of HR technology in an enlightening interview with Jess Elmquist, Chief Human Resources Officer & Chief Evangelist at Phenom

Jess Elmquist

How do you think AI can help improve the hiring process and what benefits does it offer compared to traditional methods?
Love the question because it comes up often in my discussions with HR executives. AI offers three distinct advantages in the hiring, retention, and growth process: automation, personalization, and an intelligent experience. Although desired in past recruiting strategies, you’d be hard-pressed to find any of those benefits under the old “post and pray” method.

AI automation has rewritten the internal talent roles in organizations. Recruiters now have more time to do what they do best – engage one-on-one with talent – instead of spending hours scheduling interviews and other repetitive tasks. This is key: AI functions best when it is asked to do the same thing over and over, keeping humans in the loop for the relational work that makes the largest difference with talent and the brand of the business.

It reminds me of a star recruiter on one of my earlier teams. Working with people was her passion, and she was really good at making connections, but she was flustered by the time-consuming sameness of scheduling interview after interview.

We introduced an AI platform and it took her breath away. I mean, it changed everything. Not only did she become happier at her job, but she became better at it too. Meaningful connections with talent became even deeper because time now was being dedicated to impactful conversations setting candidates up for success.

Talent can benefit too. Instead of dealing with a stale, unengaging career site with hundreds of job listings, candidates are wowed by the personalized experience. They receive curated job recommendations based on their skills and interests. They can watch day-in-the-life testimonial videos from actual employees. They can work with an AI chatbot to get answers to their questions — even at two in the morning — plus save jobs they’re interested in, have jobs presented they didn’t know they were a fit for and sign up for convenient job alerts. And for high-volume roles, automated hiring workflows make it possible for job seekers to apply, get screened and scheduled for an interview in less than three minutes.

Quick story: a top HR executive at a big tech company told me her career site got an astounding number of casual visitors after a top-to-bottom AI makeover. After monitoring for some time, they found that twenty-six percent of those casual job seekers became actual hires via chatbot. Think about that. Those are conversions that likely would have been missed.

Countless other organizations are seeing similar results with talent already in the company.

A global health insurance provider with a workforce in the tens of thousands now has visibility into employee skills it didn’t have before. That makes it easier to see who’s ready to step up or step sideways into a new role. Before our Intelligent Talent Experience platform was launched, it was actually easier for external talent to see job listings than it was for existing employees. Today, that’s no longer the case. With the help of an internal Talent Marketplace, new roles — plus opportunities to upskill and reskill — are both transparent and actionable. And on the back-end, there’s now one source of truth allowing sourcers, recruiters, and hiring managers to read off the same page of music for external and internal positions.

To me the question around AI is no longer “what are the benefits?” but rather “Why haven’t you gotten on board yet?”

How does Phenom utilize AI in its HR technology solutions, and how do you ensure that it is being used ethically and responsibly?
Ethical AI is a business and moral imperative at Phenom. That is why we established our Governance Policy for AI Technologies. This policy establishes guardrails through human-in-the-loop feedback, adverse impact analysis, validity, and auditor support.

Adverse impact analysis is a kind of bottom-line measurement that allows us to identify if a tool (such as AI) provides equivalent experiences to different demographic groups. Although this analysis requires experts to manually work through data, basic monitoring for signs of adverse impact can be automated — which can point the experts in the right direction.

The foundation of our AI architecture firmly rests on the belief that AI doesn’t make decisions, only people do. Which is why keeping humans-in-the-loop will continue to be a critical part of Phenom’s technology.

I actually presented on this topic at South by Southwest (SXSW) earlier this year. I asked the audience how many were there as HR practitioners like me, and a few hands went up. Then I asked how many were attending the session because they were freaked out about AI, and a bunch of hands shot up.

That’s as powerful a sign as any of the misgivings and, I must admit, misinformation that’s floating around about AI and it infers the diligence that is expected by talent and employees from the companies using AI to take.

In this newly burgeoning field of AI, we must be careful, transparent and aware of its impact. Using AI does not need to steal jobs; it’s all of our responsibility to have AI make jobs better and the job process easier, faster, more efficient, and more equitable.

The combination of human control with AI support is a good counterpunch against bias in two ways. First, one cause of bias in human decision-making is that people often look for shortcuts to solving problems, like hiring candidates from Ivy League schools rather than investing time and effort to source and evaluate candidates with other educational backgrounds.

AI cannot prevent a recruiter or hiring manager from taking shortcuts, but it can make shortcuts less necessary by surfacing contextually relevant candidates (for example, based on their skills, experience, location and how well-aligned they are with the job description) that might otherwise have been lost in the stack and assigning them with a fit score to ensure they get prioritized.

Second, having technology make predictions also means that we can have data to verify these predictions, and to check the predictions for bias.

Lastly, developing and implementing AI that is defensible, auditable, configurable and most of all explainable, is the very definition of a responsible technology.

When it comes to AI, it’s not an either/or battle between humans and robots; it’s a partnership that we all have to be active participants in.

Can you share some specific examples of how Phenom’s AI technology has helped companies improve their hiring and retention strategies?
I’ll start with the financial services industry, which has seen a dramatic increase in turnover at the non-executive level since 2019 despite the average salary for those positions increasing by 5% in 2022, a study found.

We helped one of the largest providers of consumer and commercial banking and other services rebrand and reconstruct its career site. The bank had all the great things you’d come to expect in a stellar employee value proposition – financially strong, impeccable culture and solid values. What it lacked was the vehicle to communicate those traits to prospective employees and keep in touch with them in a personalized way even if they were mere browsers on the site.

With the support of a dynamic, hyper-personalized career site, the bank was recently recognized by the American Bankers Association as having one of the top four employer brands in the entire financial services industry.

In the healthcare industry, where hiring and retention are also facing constant headwinds, Phenom helped one of the country’s largest Medicare providers accomplish what few could – grow during the pandemic.

Unlike many healthcare providers, the company didn’t hit the brakes on its growth strategy during the national health emergency. Instead, it partnered with Phenom to address the industry-wide supply and demand challenges and created a multipronged strategy to hire, develop and retain their workers.

With a new Career Site, Talent CRM, and internal Talent Marketplace, they fully staffed two new hospitals without expensive contingency or agency help during the pandemic.

Not only that, but the company also met its 50% target for internal growth and promotion while giving their employees a clear line of sight of their future. It doesn’t get much better than that.

These are real, ongoing and complex challenges that AI and technology are bringing solutions to across multiple industries. These tools position companies to win in the short and long run.

What are some of the biggest challenges you see HR professionals facing in today’s job market, and how can HR tech solutions help address them?
As an HR practitioner, one of the biggest issues confronting professionals in the function is the belief that single point solutions are going to save them. Take it from me, they only make things worse.

In my previous role at Life Time, I had what many other HR teams do – a talent CRM, a career site, and an ATS all stacked one on top of the other. Problem is my team and I had no single source of truth; just a tech stack made up of individual components. Try using that when you’ve got thousands of seasonal hires to make in a short time and the quest to find a better solution becomes all the more urgent.

It wasn’t until we made the switch to an Intelligent Talent Experience platform did things really begin to take off. Instead of sifting through literally thousands of resumes, the technology surfaced candidates with exactly the skills, experience, qualifications and certifications we needed to staff our athletic clubs, allowing our teams to make critical hiring decisions faster.

Now that I’ve switched roles and am advising Chief Human Resources Officers with their talent strategies, I still see that and a few other mistakes playing out, like HR teams not working in tandem with their IT colleagues. That’s a big swing and a miss.

Something else that can substantially improve HR: executives need to champion their people strategies to the rest of the C-suite by talking the language of the business. That’s often data and money.

Rebecca Schoepfer, the CHRO at TruGreen, for example, counts applicants the same way marketing executives count ad dollars. To her, a talent acquisition funnel is no different than a customer acquisition funnel.

While they’re at it, HR executives would do well to staff their teams with people who are open to technology and aren’t afraid of change. That’s perhaps one of the biggest obstacles facing the function. A leader will invest in new technology but fail to train their people properly on getting the most out of it. Sometimes there’s reluctance to try something new. That’s where choosing a vendor who is a true partner is critical to facilitate coordinated change management and adoption.

You believe in the importance of nurturing an employee’s career from the moment they are hired. How can HR tech solutions support employee development and advancement within a company?
It’s indisputable that the strongest companies invest in employee growth and ingrain that mission into their culture. Every employee right now is more approachable and poachable than ever before. In fact, I just read a stat that up to a little over 50% of the most engaged employees will take calls from other employers. So empowering self-directed career planning and increasing the speed at which you upskill and reskill employees are critical retention and profitability strategies.

Technology is the enabler that makes personalized learning and training happen.

We have come so far from 50 years ago when companies drew up job descriptions with a set of competencies that were chosen from a book. That was the way HR worked for many years. Along comes digital transformation, and with it new roles, jobs and industries.

Employers can’t write down competencies by job the way they used to, because there are hundreds of skills people have to be effective at work. Let’s say a company is looking for data scientists. There may be someone in marketing, IT or customer service with a math degree. How do we find those people?

So this anachronistic idea that a company isn’t going to hire anybody into a role unless they’ve done it before doesn’t apply anymore. There’s now a whole new way of thinking about HR, recruiting and professional development thanks to technology, and the opportunities are massive.

What role does employee feedback and engagement play in Phenom’s HR tech solutions, and how does it help companies improve their overall talent management?
It’s a critical part of what we’re doing, and speed and accuracy are an important component. When employees record their own skills and plan their professional development in one central location — accessible for talent teams and hiring managers all to see — only then can they understand how they’re progressing against their career plans and where they want to go in the organization.

This becomes such a value add in the employee experience, this opportunity to engage, where we’re bringing together all of the elements of data, people and interactions. So now talent acquisition leaders, HR leaders and employees are all clearly aligned.

The benefits of this alignment are many. We now have managers who are actively involved in evolving their talent, recruiters who can efficiently source from within their own company, and employees who are more engaged. These are huge steps forward.

HR is no longer disparate or tactical. In the new talent economy, there’s a demand for this type of proactive business partner, and creating talent experiences for each employee, each role and each department. This makes the company a better place to work. People are more excited about working for a company where they can build a more interesting career.

With the rise of remote work, what HR tech solutions do you see becoming more important for companies to implement in order to effectively manage and engage their remote workforce?
Professional development is key to getting ahead in any organization. And as AI reshapes the talent landscape, employers will have better opportunities to gain clarity into their people’s skills and interests to support career growth with relevant gig, L&D and mentorship opportunities. So talented workforces – whether they’re in an office full-time, hybrid or remote – will have higher-level, more meaningful roles available to them that machines just can’t do.

In fact, Phenom is helping our customers foster their employees’ progress in an interesting way.

Because our platform identifies skills and preferences at the individual employee level and at the enterprise level, customers can see what skills gaps exist within their organization, what gaps are being filled and where their talent needs the most support.

Smart companies will listen to what empowered candidates’ and employees’ expectations are, and respond accordingly. It’s part of the “psychological contract” as I like to put it. Job seekers and existing talent are looking for more than just a paycheck and health benefits; they want an employer whose values and purpose align with their own. And one that recognizes where they currently are in their professional journey and is committed to supporting them with their development. Not by what they say, but what they do to put opportunities within reach. By what resources they put in place and effort they extend to make growth part of every day.

As an advocate for using AI to understand employee skills, how can HR tech solutions help companies identify and develop the skills of their employees, and what impact can this have on employee satisfaction and retention?
The best way to answer this question is by looking at a true success story. A top HR executive at one of the biggest health insurers in the US found that it was easier to find a job in the company on LinkedIn than it was using an internal job board.

An AI-powered Talent Marketplace created an ecosystem that didn’t just help people to find their next jobs but to actually grow within the company and build networks and mentorships.

Those relationships proved valuable, because the insurer retained employees that would have left for something different because they got frustrated with using archaic tools to find their next opportunity. People are staying not only because they’re developing professionally and finding new jobs, they’re creating a network of people that will help them feel like they belong to a community.

I love telling that story because it’s as powerful a testimonial about retention as you’ll find anywhere.
What advice do you have for other CHROs who are looking to implement HR tech solutions in their organizations, and what should they consider before making a decision?

I get this question quite often during strategy discussions with CHROs, and my advice can be summed up in three ways:

● Wave goodbye to the status quo. I can’t tell you how many HR leaders I’ve met who are wedded to the same processes and procedures that have failed them time and time again, but they’re too afraid to try something new. Continual transformation is critical for success. Today’s organizations need disruptors who advance change and know how to bring people along with them. Who better to lead these efforts than HR?
● Be of the technology; don’t hand it off to someone else. I mentioned this in an earlier response, and it bears repeating. An HR tech platform isn’t something you can put under the purview of IT; CHROs have to buy it, own it and be masters of the technology, along with their talent teams.
● Get buy-in early from the C-suite. Make the case for a major platform investment by bringing hardcore data to the executive conference room. The dollar signs lost to chronic understaffing will grab peoples’ attention and make the case for you.

Finally, could you share with us some of Phenom’s future plans and how you see HR technology evolving in the next few years?
There’s quite a bit of buzz around our newest platform-wide generative AI capability. It increases greater efficiencies by automating content creation, surfacing actionable intelligence, and eliminating time-consuming tasks for candidates, employees, recruiters, managers, HR and HRIS teams.

We call it Phenom X+ and we’re really excited about the positive reactions it’s getting.

Here’s a practical example of how it works for recruiters and hiring managers. Phenom X+ disrupts the traditional interview process with Interview Intelligence, which brings transparency to hiring teams through recordings, transcriptions, and key takeaways that move the decision-making process along faster. Hiring teams get insights about the interview, including talk speed, talk-to-listen-ratio and voice energy, which opens up incredible opportunities for coaching, training, and improving interviews overall.

At the end of the day, candidates also benefit when the process is faster, the experience is smoother, and they feel more connected with the company they’re interviewing with.

Another way generative AI is transforming the game for job seekers is by empowering them to feel more prepared and confident throughout the hiring process. By bringing transparency into where they are in the hiring process, surfacing company information, and connecting them with a digital interview coach and preparation checklist, candidates are no longer left in the dark after submitting an application.

Candidates will not stick around for long on a career site if it’s difficult to find information about a company, its FAQs, or know what to expect in an interview.

An organization can have the best employer branding in the world, but if job seekers are leaving a site to find information, recruitment marketers lose control of the narrative. That’s why it’s so important to keep candidates in the loop on next steps, which is the problem we’re solving with Candidate Hub.

Broadly speaking, AI is only going to take on more prominence for all involved in the talent process in the years ahead. The technology is going to get smarter, faster, and more efficient, leading to even more phenomenal talent experiences.

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Jess Elmquist
Jess Elmquist Chief Human Resources Officer & Chief Evangelist at Phenom

Jess Elmquist is a widely sought-after speaker, writer, culture-builder, and strategic business partner. Using his unique perspective, and insight, Jess works with leaders to inspire them to design and deliver breakthrough solutions combining great people and tech. As an organizational psychologist, Elmquist strategizes with other C-suite leaders to understand a company's mission and values, then tailors a talent plan to fit the business’s most critical needs. Over a 30-year executive HR career, Elmquist has interviewed and placed more than 250,000 people in a variety of roles. And he’s just getting started. Journalists routinely interview Elmquist for his insights into the dynamic labor market and he writes a weekly blog based on strategic conversations with HR leaders.