Q&A: Indeed’s global HR head on retaining the human element amid digital transformation

As Indeed.com’s global senior vice president of human resources, Paul Wolfe oversees the job search giant’s worldwide talent acquisition, employee retention, compensation, benefits, and employee development operations.

Based in New York City, Wolfe arrived at Indeed four years ago with nearly 15 years of experience as a human resources executive: his other high-profile employers have included Match.com, Conde Nast, and Ticketmaster.

Paul Wolfe

Wolfe reached out to ITBusiness.ca recently while visiting Canada for Toronto’s Pride Parade, where he marched with a group of Indeed employees carrying the balloon-sculpture version of the company’s logo shown above.

More so than many practitioners, Wolfe has witnessed firsthand the expanding role of artificial intelligence in HR, with increasingly sophisticated software helping managers automate basic tasks, schedule events, and even hire new employees – though he acknowledges the sector’s digital transformation has its downsides, such as biased AI or candidates demoralized by only speaking to chatbots.

Read on for Wolfe’s thoughts on why enterprises shouldn’t forget the human element as companies like Indeed digitally transform their HR practices.

ITBusiness.ca: Let’s start with the positive – where does technology fit into the HR process?

Paul Wolfe: Whether you’re talking about AI or software, a lot of HR technology streamlines processes that are not the best uses of a human being’s time. So on the recruiting side: scheduling interviews. Gathering feedback about candidates from hiring managers. By trusting those to technology, we can allow recruiters to focus on building relationships with their candidates.

ITB: And where is it most important to retain the human element?

PW: If you’re a recruiter and a candidate isn’t looking for a job but their CV and background looks interesting to you, no chatbot can replicate the impact of having a conversation with them, telling them why you think they’re the right fit for your client.

As an HR manager, being able to understand what employees are looking for in their job and making sure their needs are being met in a way that fits both sides along the way. There are pieces of technology that can help with that, but they add up to a series of canned responses that doesn’t really give you any good actionable information.

ITB: Why do you think it’s important to retain that human element?

PW: I think recruiting especially is and for the foreseeable future is likely to remain very much about relationship building.

For example, you may apply for an engineering job today and the HR software might decide you’re not worth considering.

But as the recruiter I could meet you and really like you. I might just think you need a couple more years of experience – a deeper dive in certain areas. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think from a cultural perspective that you would be great for this company, or tech companies in general. So I keep in touch with you, and then maybe when I have a job in six months, or a year, I may ping you back. I can call you because I’ve kept up that relationship, and even if you’re not looking it’s more than likely you’re going to have a conversation with me versus a cold call.

That importance of building a rapport is a major reason I think the human side of human resources is really important today.

ITB: So how do you advise companies that are trying to cut down on useless processes?

PW: I think they should take a look at their workflows and figure out what needs a human and what can be automated. We should have workloads for most of our processes anyway – what requires a human and what doesn’t? If it’s something that doesn’t, is there a technology that could help?

Now I’m lucky – we have a large group of engineers and because we’re a recruiting company, a lot of them can start working on new solutions if there aren’t any. Not everybody has that benefit.

But even if you need to hire a contractor for two or three or even 10 or 15 weeks for a project, it’s going to free up your human staff to create a really strong, positive candidate experience and build relationships that will ultimately fill jobs faster.

ITB: When do you specifically want to avoid the technological route?

PW: I think salary negotiation is a big one. We’ve had this debate internally. There are data points, but I believe in general compensation is an art, not a science.

Especially at Indeed, we have salary information and salary ranges on the site, but at the end of the day settling on the best arrangement for both sides requires having a relationship with the candidate. What’s the most effective lever you can pull? Is it base salary? Is it bonus? Is it vacation time? Is it benefits? Some people may purely be driven by base salary, others may have a six-week vacation coming up. Or maybe they’re getting married and having a 401K match or pension scheme is more important. The only way you’re going to know is through conversations and getting to know the candidate a bit and understand what’s important to them.

I don’t know that technology has the capability today to discern that level of detail.

ITB: How does Indeed choose whether to take the technological route or the human route?

PW: We focus on the candidate experience, because in today’s world of technology and social media, all candidates talk, and you want them to be talking positively about your company, even if they’re just applying and don’t get the job. And that can be hard sometimes – it’s a blow to the ego if you’re told we reviewed your resume but we’re going with another candidate. So the answer to your question is: whatever creates the best experience.

One thing that is really important to us, for instance, is making sure that candidates have access to somebody during the process whom they’re comfortable asking questions of. Especially if they’re from an underrepresented group. And so paring them up with somebody from one of our inclusion resource groups who can answer questions but isn’t involved in the decision making process is important to us – that way the candidate feels comfortable asking questions they might not pose to a recruiter, whether it’s about culture or inclusion or whatever the case may be.

ITB: One last question – you’re based in New York City. Is there anything you’ve noticed that Canadian companies do differently from Americans, or vice versa?

PW: I don’t know that I’ve noticed anything that different between Canadian companies and U.S. companies, and I would go so far as to say European companies and U.S. companies. I think no matter where you go, HR professionals and recruiting professionals are focused on the candidate experience. Retaining that human touch in the face of technology.

Sometimes recruits get scared about the idea of AI replacing us, but I really don’t think that’s the inevitable outcome.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of ITBusiness.ca turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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