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‘How did you relax on Sunday?’ ‘What was your last holiday like?’ 

Simple though these questions sound, your next job might depend on how you answer them. And it won’t be a human you’re talking to, but a computer.

Instead of laborious online questionnaires or psychometric tests, some recruiters are asking job candidates to call a phone number, key in a personal pin code and respond to a string of questions posed by a computer. Mind gone blank? Press the hash key to skip to the next question. As long as you don’t sing, rap or simply read aloud, what you say doesn’t matter. It’s how you say it. 

What you say doesn’t matter - it’s how you say it

Human resources departments have long used computer algorithms to scan curriculum vitae to pick out the best candidates for a job. Now, the use of technology is moving to another level.

Speech tests are being used by some companies not just for recruiting, but also to assess and train communications skills, judge suitability for promotion, and to gauge employee stress levels. In all cases, nobody — at least, no human — is listening to what you say. But is it truly objective? And what are the risks?

Speech analysis can even be used to gauge employee stress levels (Credit: Getty Images)

It works like this. Your 15-minute voice recording is analysed digitally — tone of voice, choice of words, sentence structure — to determine personality traits such as openness to change, enthusiasm, empathy. In a fraction of a second, a software program sums up your character. Charts and diagrams reveal how friendly, status-driven or well organised you are — compared to the recruiter’s ideal profile.

No person in the world can analyse so many aspects of personality, skills and speech in just 15 minutes

“There is no person in the world who would be able to analyse so many aspects of personality, skills and speech in just 15 minutes,” says Mario Reis, co-founder of Precire Technologies in Aachen, Germany. Their speech analysis tools are used by human resources giant Randstad, transport firm Fraport and vehicle insurance service provider Control€xpert, Reis says.

Your voice reveals volumes about you

The computer decodes your voice file, breaking it down into 500,000 aspects of speech. Your file is then deleted. When used for health applications, it is designed to be anonymous, without an identifying pin number, says Reis.

A voice file is broken down into 500,000 aspects of speech (Credit: Getty Images)

The information collected is benchmarked against results previously obtained from a sample group. In a study commissioned by Precire, 6,000 people had their speech recorded but also took traditional personality tests. This allowed researchers to identify speech patterns linked to specific personality traits.

Humans always have a subjective impression

While the software is ideal for shortlisting job candidates, it is not intended to replace final face-to-face interviews, says Reis. But when it comes to measuring communication skills, he believes speech analysis has the edge.

“Precire compares [a voice recording] to the best sales people we have ever measured, to the best leadership guys we have ever measured.  It’s able to benchmark it objectively. That is something that you cannot do in your head. Humans always have a subjective impression,” he says.

Ifp Management Diagnostics has been using software tools developed with Precire to assess and train staff for sales and leadership roles and to measure stress levels.

Computer-based analysis is not influenced by aspects like gender, age or appearance and is thus highly objective

“Feedback from our participants shows that they are amazed by the accuracy of their speech and personality analysis,” says Rainer Baecker, partner and director of the long established executive search and development company, based in Cologne, Germany. “Our results do not only show strengths and weaknesses but enable us to draw immediate conclusions for behavioural recommendations: how can the participant improve his communicative repertoire?” he says.

“Another advantage is that a computer-based analysis is not influenced by aspects like gender, age or appearance and is thus highly objective.”

Speech analysis can make job hunting quicker for applicants (Credit: Alamy)

As well as saving time and money for employers, speech analysis makes job hunting quicker and more convenient for applicants, says Reis. “We see that around 75% of Precire users do their interview within the first 24 hours of receiving their phone number and pin code, specifically in their lunch break or just before dinner or on their way home.”

The risks

But career coach and outplacement consultant Matthias Martens of Martens & Friends in Hamburg, Germany, warns, “From the employee’s point of view I see more disadvantages than advantages.”

There’s a risk of non-native speakers missing out, he says, and of people altering their speech to try to manipulate results. He also fears that job seekers who refuse to give a speech sample might be excluded.

“Nobody in a company would admit that. They would always say that it’s voluntary,” says Martens. “But a company that uses that kind of technology is one that is looking for people who are innovative and curious and have a positive attitude towards technological change.”

“If during the recruitment process someone refuses to take part [in a speech test] because of fear or scepticism, then the company will think it’s not worth spending any more time on them and will find one reason or another to turn them down.”

These technologies are not supposed to replace people

For people who take the test, he says, “I think it’s important that the results of the analysis are evaluated and interpreted by trained HR specialists or psychologists and that the applicant is given honest feedback about what the test says about you.

“My concern is that poorly trained HR staff will make life easy for themselves by letting the technology do the work and not trust their own analytical skills so that the machine does more and more of the decision-making.”

Dr Alessandro Vinciarelli, expert on computing science, neuroscience and psychology at the University of Glasgow in the UK, says that it’s only in the last five years or so that speech analysis has come into use.

In terms of accuracy, he says, “half of the cases you can deal with automatically and be confident. With the other 50%, it is better if you have an expert to go through [the findings]. Overall it is always better to have an expert.

“These technologies are not supposed to replace people. They are supposed to help and support professionals.”

The method is suited to hiring for jobs involving a lot of communication (Credit: Alamy)

The method is well suited to hiring for jobs involving a lot of interpersonal contact, he says. “You can detect how empathetic people are, you can measure if they are fluent and at ease when interacting with others . . . and for simple jobs like working in call centres, the ability to communicate can be tested very easily with these types of technologies.”

And, he adds, “until now, recruitment was typically based on CV reading [which] was always inevitably biased towards going to good universities and the right places.”

Speech analysis, he says, can go “a little bit beyond that and maybe increase the chances of people who for one reason or another didn’t manage to do the best step at a certain point in their career.”

The risk, says Vinciarelli, is that recruiters might start trusting the judgement of the tech tools in exclusion to other methods.  “It’s a matter of finding some good trade-off between the use of these technologies and total reliance on them. You have to use them with sensitivity and sensibility.”

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